Building Resiliency through Emotional Awareness

Resiliency. The ability to spring back from and successfully adapt to adversity. A return to balance. Emotional Buoyancy. Flexibility.
Are we what we feel?

While that may be a rhetorical question, there is truth behind it.  Because advancing emotional understanding is a central theme in my work, these pages have often explored many facets of expanding emotional awareness.  First and foremost, this understanding is predicated on the belief that emotions are intelligent sources of information about our experience.  That’s a stretch for many people because emotions have had a bad rap in this culture. 
When we think about emotions we tend to concentrate on the most difficult emotions.

I’ve written about the potential value of emotions like anger, sadness, even grief and despair and how those emotions, when understood, can have a healing effect. When we’re caught in the grip of challenging emotions such as envy, jealousy and resentment, it’s hard to imagine what positive value they can hold for us. It takes skilled cognitive control to manage these types of emotions and come away deriving a benefit that enriches our lives. Developing emotional discernment by expanding emotional literacy is an important tool in making this possible.  Most of us are dragging around emotional baggage from unresolved past issues and early trauma. These hidden fuses trigger endless emotional upsets, often outside of our conscious awareness.  They may recede with time, but they won’t miraculously disappear unless we activate our cognition and find ways that allow for the expression of the buried emotions.

Many “solution oriented” people, especially dealing with workplace issues don’t like to acknowledge that past hurts play a role in current scenarios. As a senior organizational leader told me, “I want the emotional intelligence without the psychology.”  This reflects the common view that understanding our psychology – especially at work – is indulgent and a form of “therapy,” which is still mostly taboo-talk in the workplace. All of this points to the continued reticence we all experience, especially in our institutional settings, about the role and place of emotions. The converse is true about resiliency.  It’s a popular topic. People want resiliency and say they don’t have enough of it. Workplace well-being programs emphasize resiliency as a goal – a desired state.  Perhaps it’s assumed that if stress is the culprit – resiliency is the elixir.

The Stress/Resilience Relationship

Stress is not a thing. It is a physiological state activated internally in response to external stimuli.  Often people talk about stressors as if they were outside forces attacking them unwittingly. While most people today have many real pressures and obligations,  the way we think about them has everything to do with the way we will manage them. Feelings of being overwhelmed are so common, that we don’t lift an eyebrow when people routinely report that they are “just keeping their head above water,” or “hanging in there.” Talking about our stress as a habit contributes to creating more of it. We understand from neuroscience that the amygdala operates outside of our conscious awareness. It triggers emotions like fear, anger and hurt faster than our conscious awareness can intervene.

The brilliant but primitive action of the amygdala protects us from harm by interpreting subconscious hints of “danger” and triggers a reaction in fractions of a second. When it perceives a threat, the amygdala sends out a signal to release cortisol – which is the body-mind’s response to stress. This powerful stimulant mobilizes our physiology and prepares us to fight or flee.
Without the conscious engagement of the pre-frontal cortex (our so-called “rational/reasoning” brain) to regulate these arousals, we can constantly re-trigger our amygdala. Even if not fully activated, it can set moods of hostility and self-protection in place.  Unless we engage our conscious thought process to manage our emotional triggers, we can activate old neural coping patterns of denial, subversion and withdrawal which can shut down and freeze the system in an attempt to be safe.

Many people are chronically stuck in these  pre and post triggered states. Often called coping, these mechanisms never address real needs and result in habitual stress patterns. So many of us have lived life in an “emergency” state for so long that reestablishing equilibrium seems daunting.  However challenging, the choices are limited. In their classic book, “A Conscious Life,” psychologists Fran and Louis Cox, write, If you live in ignorance of your interior world, you’ll never get past the automatic or compulsive responses you learned in childhood and adolescence.”

Compelling studies, like the one done at the Child-Emotion Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, showed the power of “priming” to quell the fear/stress response in advance of the stressors being experienced.  Working with a sample of 7-12 year old girls, whose fear levels were activated by  researcher’s serious warnings about pending math tests, the study showed that the reassurance of mother’s voices (whether in person or by telephone) released oxytocin (the so-called love hormone) deterred the stressful response – and stayed activated well after the event.
While we don’t yet know if any other voice but “Mom’s” will be as effective,  we can imagine that the soothing words of our ideal,  internalized parent could impel us to find our own inner support system. The concept of “priming” suggests that our own continuous self-talk is a critical factor in the frequency of our “emotional-hijackings.”

If we ruminate about our problems and rehearse negative scenarios, we are “priming” one possible set of outcomes vs. others.  Consequently, becoming less reactive to real stress events (which is the foundation of resilience) can be a learned skill that eventually develops new neural habits.

Emotions as a Resource – The “Positivity” Factor

While much has been written and studied about emotions like fear and anger and their role in self-protection and species preservation, relatively little research has been done to understand the role of emotions like joy, gratitude and serenity. Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and author of “Positivity,” developed the Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions to explain the mechanics of how positive emotions are important to survival.
Dr. Fredrickson believes that “positive” emotions expand cognition and behavioral tendencies. Certainly recent studies have demonstrated the salubrious effects of emotions like gratitude, compassion and empathy. Dr. Frederickson’s theory posits that although these positive emotional states are brief, their residual benefits of acquired traits, social bonds and abilities endure.

According to Dr. Fredrickson, When we experience a positive emotion, our vision literally expands, allowing us to make creative connections, see our oneness with others and face our problems with clear eyes. Second, we make a habit of seeking out these pleasing states, we change and grow, becoming better versions of ourselves, developing the tools we need to make the most of life (the build effect).”    Dr. Fredrickson’s Positivity Ratio offers the compelling theory that experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio with negative ones leads people to a tipping point beyond which they naturally become more resilient to adversity and achieve what they once could only imagine. According to the theory, the average person’s ratio is 2 -1, but below the 3 -1 ration the benefits don’t accrue.

Cultivating the “Positive” Emotions

I’d like to restate that I don’t believe that there are good and bad emotions. It  depends on what you believe about the purpose of emotions.  It is our thinking about emotions that determines the experience – and the value.  In her book, “Healing through the Dark Emotions,” psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan writes, “The so-called negative emotions have tremendous power. Emotional alchemy is not about taming or transcending this power but about befriending it and using it for the good of ourselves, others and the planet. Tapping into the powerful energies of the dark emotions takes skill, patience and faith.”
Learning to “cultivate” (yes like a garden, seeding, watering, feeding and nurturing your emotional landscape) takes an effort. So it’s helpful to select cultivation of an important all-purpose emotion like patience to support you in doing the work. \Patience requires the careful application of mindfulness to become habituated. Because patience produces physiological calmness and mental clarity, it can be a friendly emotional enabler to help you with other emotions.
Other emotions that may support you in tipping your resilience point are:

  • Gratitude – There’s abundant science on the positive effects (on self and others) from being grateful.
  • Confidence – Allowing yourself to experience the areas of your strengths can be an esteem (resilience) builder. It’s not hubris to recall the things in your life that you’ve done well and celebrate them.
  • Optimism – Another emotion that has shown its beneficial effects in many studies.  We’re not talking about rose-colored glasses or blinders here but a genuine belief in the possibilities of positive outcomes.  As with all emotions, your beliefs play a major role in what you will see and experience.
  • Inspiration – Begin working up your playlist for what inspires you. Anything can do it:  music, nature, hope in the face of adversity, excellence in any endeavor, faith – whatever gets you in the zone of inspiration is a place you should visit often.
  • Empathy – Hardwired for empathy, our brains like empathy because we like attunement with others. Empathy can move and motivate us at a very deep level.  It reinforces our humanness and truth that we are all vulnerable to life’s challenging events.
  • Compassion – In the wisdom of the Dalai Lama, Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”  Compassion is the great “joining” emotion.  We don’t have to know someone to feel compassion towards their circumstances.  According to author Kristin Neff, a major obstacle to allowing ourselves to feel self compassion is a belief that it is self-indulgent. This is the voice of the harsh inner-critic – no ally to our resiliency.
  • Enthusiasm – If you find yourself caught up in the feeling of enthusiasm and eagerness, grab hold and ride them for as long as you can. These feelings are potent energizers and they send out waves of positive energy.  Conversely, when you hit those patches when you can’t summon a spark to motivate you, don’t be hard on yourself.  Acceptance is the emotional choice you could make when this happens. Your willingness to let go and accept depends a great deal on your trust in yourself. 

All of the emotions that make you feel expansive will help you in building your capacity for resiliency.  This is a work in progress. If you accept that we will all be challenged by life’s twists and turns, then investing in your resiliency portfolio will serve you well.  To become more resilient, we must make a commitment to the continuous nourishment, rejuvenation and replenishment of our emotional energies. It is about heart set and mindset, working together to bring us back to our internal balance. Resiliency is not just about learning to navigate life’s turbulence but finding ways to become more of ourselves.

As the Japanese proverb goes, “The bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists.”

Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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