Sometimes, bad things really happen.
We face divorce. Our loved ones get sick and die. Our friends betray us. We get jobless and more.
As humans, we respond to these circumstances in anger, fear, denial, sadness, or despair. Some people get stuck in these painful responses but some managed to move through pain to regain their joy.
It is important to learn healthy ways to manage life’s adversities. This is called emotional resilience and it can help us cope better, recover more quickly, or at least start us heading in that direction.
The science of emotional resilience
According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, it is important to reduce the effects of significant adversity on children. It is because a child’s healthy development is essential to the progress of every society.
Science defines resilience as the ability to overcome serious hardships. The problem is that some children develop resilience while others do not. Understanding why this happens is important in order to inform more effective policies and programs that help more children reach their full potential.
‘Orchid’ and ‘Dandelion’ Children
According to this article, genes can predispose a child to be hypersensitive or resilient. In fact, there are two kinds of children – a “dandelion child” and an “orchid child”. The former can survive in most environments while the latter needs more protection and shelter to allow it to thrive and flower.
The same source states that the single most common factor for resilience in children is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or another adult. These relationships will protect children from developmental disruption.
These relationships also build key capacities like the ability to regulate behavior. In turn, this enables children to respond adaptively to adversity and thrive. The combination of supportive relationships, adaptability, and positive experiences is the foundation of a child’s resilience.
Resilience results from the combination of individual characteristics and interaction between biology and environment. This way, a child’s ability to cope with adversity is developed.
Love and kindness fosters emotional resilience
Studies at Duke University shows that sensitive ‘orchid’ children can become more resilient through nurturing, loving-kindness, empathy and social connection.
Moreover, simply witnessing an act of loving-kindness can also be good for you. It lowers the levels of the stress hormone, increases pro-social behaviors, and promotes the unconditional acceptance of self and others.
Here are 3 emotional resilience practice that we can use every time we face adversity:
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” –Friedrich Nietzsche
Here are five ways science says to handle difficult times:
1. Write about your experience
When something bad happens, we often brood and relive the event over and over again. This is called rumination and it doesn’t heal us nor let us grow.
In order to move forward with a bad experience, expressive writing can help us gain new insights on the challenges in our lives. Expressive writing means you write continuously for 20 minutes about a particular issue wherein you explore your deepest thoughts and feelings around it. But, your goal is to plainly write your experience, not to create a memoir-like masterpiece.
A 1988 study showed that participants who did expressive writing for four days were healthier after six weeks. When they were checked again three months later, they were found to be happier compared to people who wrote about superficial topics.
In expressive writing, there are rules. One is to confront your ideas one by one and give them structure. That way, you gain a sense of control.
Second, when you’re done exploring the dark side of an experience, choose to contemplate some of its upsides. This is called finding the silver lining where you try to list three positive things about it.
For example, a fight with a friend can leave you sad and depressed but its positive impact is that it has brought some important issues out into the open, which allowed you to learn something about their point of view.
2. Face your fears
What if you are faced with knee-shaking fears?
When difficult times for you mean everyday fears like fear of public speaking, you can’t talk yourself out of such fears. What you can do is to tackle the emotions directly.
First, you have to slowly and repeatedly expose yourself to the thing that scares you but in small doses. For example, if your fear is public speaking, you can try talking more in meetings. Over time, incrementally increase the “dose” until you’re ready to speak in front of a big crowd.
A 2010 study shows that you can alter the way you react to your fears. For this research, the scientists gave participants a little electrical shock every time they saw a blue square. Over time, seeing the object made the participants scared.
The next phase involved showing the blue square to the same participants but without shocking them. What happened was that their fear decreased due to ‘exposure therapy’. Exposure therapy helps us change the associations we have with a particular object or stimulus.
The best way to describe this is flying. If we’ve flown 100 times and the plane has never crashed, our brain tells us that it’s safe. Our fears become more manageable and we’ll start to have more courage to confront it.
3. Learn to practice mindfulness
Most of the time, we ruminate on things that went wrong and get anxious about things that we think will. Meditation tells us to pause and focus on our present to see that things are okay and will be okay.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is one of the most recommended mindfulness programs. It teaches participants to cope with challenges using a variety of meditation practices. When we practice mindfulness, we will not get carried away in fear, anger, or despair in times of adversity.
According to this study, as you practice more mindfulness, your stress decreases. Mindfulness meditation leads to symptom reduction and improved well-being.
When the challenges are great, we can either let the situations define us, destroy us, or strengthen us.
The choice is ours to make.