Five steps to cultivating emotional resilience

I watched the bird swoop in and land on the precarious-looking branch: thin, dry, and fragile, it seemed as though it could snap at any minute. Contentedly, the bird cleaned under its wings, offering a little chatter and whistle as it basked in the sunshine.

“Bird,” I asked. “How do you look so calm and confident when that branch is so brittle?”

“My dear,” replied the bird, smiling, “It’s not the branch I trust. My trust is in my own wings.”

Focus on your wings

Life is an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of people, things, and situations we can’t control. When we put our focus on trying, we waste energy that could be spent instead on things we can control. When life sends us storms, it makes far more sense to fortify our ships and ready our sails than to stand on the deck shaking our fist at the sky.

Whether we thrive or barely survive in periods of adversity depends on many things. Some, like genetic inheritance and childhood experiences, are outside of our control. Others are learnable skills, akin to exercising our wings and patching up our ships.

Let’s focus on those.

1. Emotional awareness and regulation

Emotions are messengers that prepare us for action. While they can sometimes get out of proportion and become destructive (as depression, anxiety, and phobias), at their core, they are helpful friends with protective or preparatory intentions. When you can recognise them, name them, and get curious about them, you reclaim your power and return them to their rightful place as tools that work for you.

You can improve your ability to acknowledge and regulate your emotions with a number of practices, including mindfulness, meditation, and yoga. Talking them over and practicing awareness and regulation practices with a therapist is of course very helpful.

2.  Active coping skills

Active coping means taking responsibility for your situation and using your internal resources to create solutions. It includes seeking information, requesting support, changing your situation, and reframing. It means focusing less on changing the unpleasant feeling, and more on addressing the situation causing those feelings.

Active coping skills can be learned, and you can train yourself up on minor situations so that they come more naturally when you find yourself in a major one.

Some questions that will help you adopt an active coping approach include:

What is the outcome I’m seeking here?

Am I taking the best steps to achieve that?

What can I do to improve this situation?

What other information or assistance would help me?

If I can’t change it, is there a way I can look at this that would make it less stressful?

3. Flexible thinking

Flexible thinking allows us to see things from multiple perspectives, adjust to change, and see potential positive sides and outcomes in negative situations. If I hold a rigid belief that I need a promotion at work to be happy, not getting one might devastate me, and I may even miss other opportunities that appear. Flexible thinking allows me to see and be open to the many paths to happiness.

It involves an easier acceptance of things we can’t change, working with those things, and the possibility of growth from adversity.  

Consider stressful life events in your past, particularly those that felt insurmountable at the time, and ask yourself what positives have come from those situations. Are there elements of them that perhaps you are now grateful for?

4. Physical wellbeing

Sometimes, no matter what you know, you’re just gonna lie in bed eating Tim Tams. I am not here to shame you for that. Occasionally, bed and chocolate biscuits are just the thing.

But it’s no secret that your mind, body, and emotions are intertwined in complex ways and need to be cared for as a holistic system. Nutrition, physical activity, sleep, and alcohol consumption all have well-researched links to resilience and good mental health.

Nutritional deficits can cause or exacerbate mental illness and may be easily treated with supplements or dietary changes, so if you have ongoing concerns with unexplained moods, it might be worth getting blood tests for things like iron, b-vitamins, zinc, and methionine.

5. Social support

Good social support has a plethora of benefits. It has been shown to ease or prevent PTSD, depression, suicide, anxiety, and even dementia. However, having a lot of people around isn’t the key here. Think quality, not quantity. One person who validates and lifts you up is worth a whole lot more than a dozen who criticise and minimise you, or are intermittent and unreliable in their care.

It’s important to actively nurture our relationships with people who encourage us, support us, and make us feel good about ourselves, and of course, ensure we are doing the same for them.

Can you identify these people in your life? You may like to write them down as a reminder. When we’re feeling fragile and need a boost, it can sometimes feel like there’s nobody we can turn to. And if you’re feeling pretty good today, you may like to do something supportive for them. A kind message, a small gift, or an expression of gratitude could mean more than you know.

Believe me when I say that I understand what it’s like to read a paragraph about social support and wonder whether you have anyone at all like that in your life. And if you do feel that way, a good therapist can be like a surrogate here, providing this support while helping you create the space and conditions to call in the kinds of people you want in your life.

And as a final reminder: You don’t need to ‘fix’ all these things today. Take an incremental approach and celebrate each small change. Before you know it, you’ll be soaring away from all the broken branches, singing your own joyful resilient tunes.


Click here to get in touch if you’re looking for the right supporter for your own journey of resilience.