Three Ideas for Emotional Resilience

I hope your day is as you wish it to be and/or you are taking steps to care for yourself in loving and kind ways. I wanted to take this opportunity to share some compilation of thoughts that I may have shared before. I hope it is helpful.

It is becoming apparent to me as I continue to help people with the issues that bring them to counseling that there are at least three areas to concentrate upon when developing more resilience to symptoms of depression, anger and anxiety.

The first area is related to cognition. Cognition has to do with our thoughts and beliefs and manifests in the words we say to ourselves. So many times, we aren’t even aware of our self-talk. Yet, self-talk has a powerful influence on our emotions and behaviors. In the book I recommend, SOS for Emotions by Dr. Lynn Clark we learn about the ABC’s of emotions. Think of this as a math equation. A + B = C. When we start defining these variables we think of A as Activating Event. Life is a series of activating events really. Things happen. Life is happening, and we are reacting to events constantly. We respond to what goes on around us. Everything that goes on in our natural environment any place we are at any given moment. Coping with the emotions and behaviors that get triggered by our thoughts and beliefs is what we are doing. This variable “A” reminds me of the “Serenity Poem” written by Reinhold Niebuhr. It goes like this:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

There are several more stanzas in the poem. You can find it on the internet if you google it. I figure that in relation to variable “A” in the ABC’s of emotions, that if we have “things” that happen to us, i.e. “activating events”, if we have the ability to change the event from one thing to another we can do that and often do so without giving it much thought. It is the things we cannot control, therefore, cannot change that give us trouble.

The trouble we have can be illustrated in this ABC’s of emotion equation as we define the variable “C” as consequences. The outcome or consequence in this model is both behavioral and emotional. Behavior and emotion are related, and one cannot be present without the other. Think about sadness for example as an emotion. There is sometimes predictable behavior that is matched with sadness. If someone is sad we can often tell from their behavior. They may move slowly, lower their head or cry. If someone is angry we can usually tell this too from behavior. Behaviors don’t have to be expressed congruently however because some people will smile when they are angry. The behavior of smiling doesn’t logically fit the emotion of anger, yet the two are connected. The behavior and the emotion are connected and that is the point of this illustration.

So, if we agree that events trigger emotions and behaviors, in other words “A” leads to “C”, then we may consider this question. If “C”, or the outcome or consequence of behaviors and emotions are not helpful to us or are causing us life problems or issues because of the intensity and we can’t do much about “A”, events, because life just happens and if we can change things, we will (Serenity Poem), then the only variable we have left to change to get a different outcome in “C”, will be the variable “B”.

“B” in the ABC’s of emotions equations stands for “beliefs” and, also involves thoughts and self-talk. In the SOS book we learn about words that make up our self-talk that the author refers to as “Hot Links”. They are word such as: should, must, have-to, always, never and are connecting thoughts such as “he/she must”, “they must or have to”, “I always or never”, “the world must…”, etc. and often end with statements like “I can’t stand it”, “I have to change it”, etc. What we can do to soften these self-statements is change these hot link words to preferences and wishes and back that up with the statement that we can stand it. The SOS book suggests an adjustment in our cognition from absolute and black and white thinking to something softer such as “I wish/prefer that things were not the way they are, but they are the way they are (acceptance from the Serenity Prayer) and I can stand it. This reframe can soften our emotions and our behavior can become milder and even more manageable. Cognition, or thinking, is taken for granted and happens fast but if we can slow things down we can learn to manage our thinking. This is referred to as meta-cognition: or “thinking about thinking”. It really can be considered a higher level of thinking and its practice can help us manage our minds before our minds manage us. Thus, the rest of the title of the SOS book “Managing Anger, Anxiety and Depression”.

As I said early in this post, there are at least three areas we can concentrate on making improvements to so we can respond with more resilience, or, gain the ability to cope with, depression, anxiety and anger more effectively.

The second area has to do with a mindfulness approach while learning how to increase the space between stimulus and response. -Victor Frankl, holocaust survivor said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” In the book Forward Facing Trauma Therapy by J. Eric Gentry PhD, the author discusses the concept of “poly-vagal theory”. It sounds complicated, but I will try to explain it as the idea that we can learn to calm ourselves and dial back our emotional and behavioral responses when it is beneficial to ourselves and our environment to do so. We need some time and extra space to actually change our variable “B” in the ABCs of emotions model. Things happen so fast between A and C that we just have to slow things down to address B. In that space between stimulus or A and response or C, we have the opportunity to create the change that promotes our emotional growth and behavioral freedom.

The poly vagal theory was introduced in 1994 by Dr. Stephen Porges, director of the Brain-Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of FFTT utilizes it to describe how we can understand our autonomic nervous system. Our ANS governs two nervous system responses. One is call sympathetic nervous system and the other is called para-sympathetic nervous system. Very simply, the sympathetic nervous system is what is triggered when we respond instinctively to some sort of threat to our physical or emotional well being or safety. We get into fight, flight, freeze or fawn (people pleasing) as an automatic response in order for survival. We can learn, according to Gentry and others, to manage our relaxation response which is governed by our para sympathetic nervous system. We intelligent human beings have the capacity to self-regulate on a conscious level according to the poly vagal theory.

Deliberate activities such as deep breathing and relaxation are what we can do in that space between stimulus and response in order to be able to consciously address our faulty cognitions or belief and self talk so we can change the outcome in behaviors and emotions and grow and experience freedom from the effects of anger, anxiety and depression.

The third area of concentration for resilience has to do with self-acceptance. As I often say these days, the mind is where the misery is. I think that is because the mind has been created for us to be able to discern and judge in order to protect us yet it can be so in control that it tends to judge “us” in black or white, right and wrong ways which end up combining with ways we may have been judged by others and even society and expectations from outside of us within our families and environments. In the Sounds True series called The Self-Acceptance Project over 20 presenters take on the challenge of accepting ourselves. Self-acceptance is at the core of self-esteem. One main theme that stood out for me from listening to this series is that our mind is only trying to help us and its mission is strong and unwavering and is something we can depend on to continue working exactly as it has been designed to work from our creation. As we take the time in the space between stimulus and response to address our mind we ought to also love it as it was created, yet, gently use our higher level of consciousness or metacognitive abilities to assure our discerning and necessarily judgmental minds that our adult and assertive selves have things under control.

In closing, I offer these three resources to you again. SOS for Emotions by Dr. Lynn Clark, Forward Facing Trauma Therapy by J. Eric Gentry Phd and The Self Acceptance Project series by as resources to utilize to gain and master more resilience in the areas of cognition (thinking), mindfulness or relaxation and slowing things down, and finally recognizing the importance of self-acceptance. I believe concentrating on incorporating these ideas into your lives will result in developing more resilience to symptoms of depression, anger and anxiety.

I look forward to hearing from you.