• Bettina Traxler

Emotional Resilience

written by Bettina Traxler, NCHP London/Leicester,

1. November 2014.

What is emotional resilience and how does this develop? What might the consequences be for someone for who this process is disturbed?

In an average person’s life today challenges and stressful situations occur frequently on a day to day basis. Being confronted with important decisions in the workplace while managing one’s social life and at the same time caring for children can be very stressful. When additional, unforeseeable, negative events like death or illness occur, one can experience feelings of frustration, anger or helplessness. These feelings are totally justifiable and have a right to occur. But it is also important to overcome them once the stressful event has passed. While no one can escape stress, everyone can learn to handle stress. According to Mills and Dombeck (2005) these skills of being flexible and being able to open up to life’s surprises is called emotional resilience. Being resilient means to experience stress and overcome it.

In other words, Mayr and Ulich (2009) describe emotional resilience as being able to cope with difficult situations. It is the ability to positively process negative experiences.

Keyes (2004) states that resilience is a pattern of behaviour and functioning. It includes a certain degree of constancy as well as change. The positive adaptation of constancy and change, especially in periods of hardship or risk, is key to successfully handle difficult situations. Resilience leads to a positive human development even in difficult circumstances.

While overcoming stressful situations leads to the development of stronger and more resilient individuals, the absence of difficulties does not indicate positive development and behaviour. Thus, having no history of psychopathology like substance abuse or crime or the absence of psychiatric disorders does not mean that a person is automatically resilient. This person might be free from symptoms. But in order to develop resilience, the competencies needed for a fulfilled, happy life and to perceive oneself as valuable one needs to face the challenges of life. When being able to adapt to ones roles and responsibilities a successful, fulfilling life with wanted outcomes can be the result (Gralinski-Bakker et al, 2004).

When a person lacks emotional resilience he/she tends to become overwhelmed easily by challenges, be it minor or disastrous. Stressful situations like loosing ones job, being in financial troubles, natural disasters, medical emergencies or sudden illness, facing divorce or death can occur in everybody’s life. While no-one is immune against stressful events, resilient people are able to cope and recover from such events due to their skills and strength. On the contrary, the absence of resilience gives people a harder time with slower recovery and more psychological distress (Cherry, 2014a).

As already stated above, people who lack resilience do not have the flexibility to handle stress and become frustrated, helpless and angry more easily (Mills and Dombeck, 2005). Moreover, they can not process negative experiences (Mayr and Ulich, 2009) and do not gain positive personal development (Keyes, 2009). A lack of emotional resilience can also lead to the development of unhealthy coping mechanisms including substance abuse or crime as briefly mentioned (Gralinski-Bakker et al, 2004). Emotional resilience has a very important influence on ones happiness, flexibility and personality. As a consequence, it also influences ones success in the workplace (Goleman, 1995). More on the importance of soft skills for a successful career can be found below.

Luckily, emotional resilience develops more and more as a result of more openness towards emotions as well as greater awareness and emotional intelligence in society. According to Wilding (2007), people nowadays express emotions much more than it was the case in previous generations. People are more aware of emotions today. Furthermore, understanding towards negative emotions in others, like depression, has grown. Thus, emotional intelligence, which is closely linked to emotional resilience, is developing vastly.

According to Warelow and Edward (2007) emotional intelligence enables a person to identify, express and recognize emotions. An emotionally intelligent person can incorporate emotions into thoughts. He or she is able to regulate positive and negative emotions. Furthermore, emotional intelligence (EI) contributes to an easier emotional and motivational self-evaluation. This helps to be in control of one’s behaviour and development, which in turn leads to a greater psychological well-being.

Understanding emotions of oneself and of others contributes hugely to happiness and success (Wilding, 2007). For a happy, enjoyable and fulfilled life it is much more important to be emotionally intelligent than to be academically or materialistically successful. Wilding (2007) claims that people who possess little seem happy and fulfilled and are surrounded by friends and lots of laughter. On the contrary, wealthier people tend to complain about unfairness instead of enjoying their lives. Happiness is not up to the brain but down to feelings.

According to Goleman (1995), well developed attributes of EI, which are totally different from a person’s IQ, can have a hugely positive effect not only on one’s happiness but also on one’s career. Employers nowadays ask for hard skills (IQ) and soft skills (EI), as they want team players who are self-aware, in control of their emotions, motivated, empathic and have excellent social skills. All of these attributes are the characteristics of emotional intelligence, says Goleman (1995). Moreover, he explains that EI measures success including positive emotions, enjoyment of life, fulfillment and satisfaction. The IQ, on the other side, only tells us about one’s academical skills and it can estimate one’s career success. But it does not say anything about one’s ability to enjoy life.

A high degree of emotional intelligence means to know and appreciate oneself very well. According to Rogers (1967) this is one of the most important skills to develop emotional resilience.

Astonishingly, already in the 1950s, the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers created a basis of how to develop emotional resilience. He recognized that each individual’s wish is to become oneself (Rogers, 1967). Rogers believed in the positive and healthy person, as opposed to the psychoanalysts’ focus on mental disturbance and abnormality (Cherry, 2014b).

Carl Rogers’ theory of the Actualizing Tendency (Thorne, 2003) shows the human being’s drive to perfection. Each individual is constantly moving towards accomplishing his or her full potential. Everyone wants to be the best he or she can be. According to Thorne (2003) different works of biologists including Maslow found the drive to perfectionism not only in human beings but in all living creatures.

Growth, fulfillment and the development towards autonomy are most important to the human being. Rogers stated that the specifics of growth vary from person to person. Limitations only arise from the environment and can be changed by the individual’s willingness and strength to extend or eliminate these limitations. Furthermore, he considers the complexity of the Actualizing Tendency which involves the whole organism, different organs and functions. It also includes motivation, the seeking of creative challenges and a general desire to learn. These are all important attributes for developing resilience as also mentioned by Chaskalson (2011) and Warelow and Edward (2007).

Furthermore, Warelow and Edward (2007) state that emotional resilience includes intrapersonal and environmental factors as well as cognitive features. Personal attitudes play an important role in developing resilience. Also, resilient behaviour can be learned through role models. Having a supportive environment helps to integrate the learned behaviour into one’s life and thus develop resilience more easily and rapidly.

Similarly, Gralinski-Bakker et al (2004) found, that resilience or the “successful adaptation of individuals who faced challenging or threatening circumstances” can be achieved through external and internal criteria. External criteria includes having positive peer relationships as well as being free from symptoms of substance abuse. Internal criteria means a low level of distress and an overall psychological well-being. Researchers agree that external and internal criteria are both significant for building resilience. However, there is disagreement to what extent which criteria is important.

Going back to Carl Rogers’ Actualizing Tendency, he also made aware of people’s longing for positive regard or the approval of parents and important others. When this need is fulfilled, the person can also consider his or her more complex organismic needs. However, a positive self-regard is crucial for a human being to feel good about oneself and to function well (Thorne, 2003). These theories of positive regard and self-regard can be compared to Brookhouse’s (2014) theory of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. A person needs to have both. But it is important to have more intrinsic than extrinsic motivation. An internal drive can not be as easily taken away as factors from the external world. Also, being intrinsically driven helps to feel in control of oneself, which is one more important key element of emotional resilience.

Being in control is also outlined by Mayr and Ulich (2009) as one of the personality factors of resilient children who develop well despite growing up under difficult conditions. Mayr and Ulich not only introduce PERIK (Positive Entwicklung und Resilienz im Kindergartenalltag), an instrument for observing and assessing children’s well-being. They also show through longitudinal studies that children who are at high risk of not developing positively due to problematic circumstances at some point in their childhood do still have a good chance of developing well. Being healthy and happy are the best ingredients for learning and developing. Thus, mental health and emotional resilience help people to overcome difficulties at any time in their life. When a child is in control of himself or herself, he/she is also more likely to express feelings and demands appropriately, which furthermore helps to lead positive social relationships. Being in positive relationships could help to develop empathy and very likely elicit positive attention from the surrounding. This in turn can boost self-esteem, autonomy and independence in an individual. A positive, pro-active attitude towards solving problems is another important factor of resilience, as are friendliness, optimism, calmness and relaxation. All these abilities are key to be able to recover from distressful experiences.

Austrian psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, with no question faced an extremely distressful experience. Paradoxically, he wrote a book of happiness after suffering under unimaginable conditions at the Holocaust. “Man’s Search for Meaning” reflects Frankl’s experience at Auschwitz (Gregoire, 2014). He argues that neither success nor man’s pursuit of happiness are what keeps us going. Instead it is the meaning that we find in every situation and under any conditions. We need to stop chasing happiness in order to live happily in each moment and under any circumstances. According to Gregoire (2014), Frankl’s theory of logotherapy is based exactly on this belief, that only the lack of meaning and purpose makes life unbearable, not the circumstances. Gregoire also states that this idea of being able to overcome any circumstances goes back to ancient philosophers and continues until today. In fact, this optimism is an important attitude to develop resilience.

In Frankl’s view life is suffering. But the human being has a will to find meaning in life. As soon as one finds meaning in his/her suffering most people are willing to keep going for that higher purpose (Gregoire, 2014).

According to Frankl, love, religion, humour or the healing power of nature can help to find meaning in one’s life (Gregoire, 2014). Love is the strongest power for people to find happiness, as amongst other testimonies also a Harvard Grant Study proves. According to the study the two pillars of happiness are love on the one side and finding a way to cope with life without pushing love away on the other side (Gregoire, 2014).

In addition to a positive and pro-active attitude, Mills and Dombeck (2005) discuss the essential needs of food, clothes and shelter in order to be happy. They also argue that there is no need to have more possessions than the basics to be happy. They go even further by saying that the more things a person has, the less happy he or she is. This is explained by the ever returning desire of having more and more new things once the old desire is satisfied. There is also a higher risk of being jealous of others, when one starts to compare houses, cars, furniture or other belongings to measure success and happiness. It is crucial to fulfill basic needs. But the next step is to learn to be happy with what one has instead of accumulating ever more, bigger and better things to fulfill a momentary desire. Again, this theory ties in with the extrinsic and intrinsic drives of the human being as discussed earlier.

Another examination about risk and resilience in children’s development has been made by Keyes (2004). Keyes considers poor social skills, exposure to violence, low education and persistent poverty as risk factors for undesirable development. Like Mayr and Ulich (2009) also Keyes states that some children are vulnerable to hardship while others are resilient. As expressed by Keyes (2004), the factors for emotional resilience include a high IQ, a warm personality, the ability to solve problems and autonomy. Apart from the individual’s abilities and personality, Keyes recognizes two more influences: the family and the community. A stable family, social support as well as a high socioeconomic standing can promote resilience. The community can be helpful when it offers counselling, support programmes or good schools to the developing child.

There are risk factors for undesirable emotional development not only for children but also for adults in especially demanding professions. Warelow and Edward (2007) look specifically into the profession of mental health carers. Apart from challenges in ones personal life some professions are more demanding than others and therefore need highly resilient professionals. As Warelow and Edward (2007) state, mental health clinicians are at a high risk for burnout. Their work environment itself can be very challenging. Moreover, mental health clinicians often find themselves in very stressful situations. So, for them, emotional resilience is a valuable coping strategy, which they can use for themselves and their clients turning self-defeating behaviour into coping strategies. In today’s mental health nursing it is not enough to master the skills of caring. A good carer also is highly emotionally intelligent and resilient. This enables him/her to transform negative experiences into positive, self-enhancing experiences and improve the client’s wellbeing. The skilled carer combines internal qualities with his/her nursing skills and appreciates the client’s uniqueness. As a result, clients can get individual physical and emotional support. Due to a high resilience of the staff a sense of self, faith and hope in oneself and the client’s recovery can be achieved. Similarly, the patient’s health can improve considerably when the clients themselves develop resilience as they get stronger, pursue their own goals and develop a sense of self.

Comparing Warelow and Edward’s study to Keyes’ (2004) findings about the influence of the family and community on children’s development, there can be seen a common sense of how resilience develops in children as well as in adults. Warelow and Edward (2007) mention in their study that the resilience in mental health clinicians also developed through a caring environment of the team.

Moreover, it is proven that emotional resilience promotes better physical health. Davis’ research shows that positive emotions can sustain cardiovascular health (Davis, 2009). For his study 180 nuns wrote an autobiographical essay. Davis found that the nuns, who expressed themselves most positive had a 2,5 times lower mortality rate after 60 years. On average, their positive emotions helped them to 7 more years of life compared to those with negative emotions. Davis suggests that enthusiasm, energy and vitality lead to a positive, restorative emotional state and therefore to a lower risk of cardiac health disease and depression.

The three specific mechanisms that link emotions with cardiovascular health are firstly, improved health behaviour due to positive thinking. Positive people are less likely to smoke and are more physically active. Secondly, positive emotions have direct benefits on the physiology. Benefits have been visible in the neuroendocrine, inflammatory, immunological and cardiovascular systems. There are also lower cortisol output and less common illnesses in people with positive emotions. Thirdly, a positive attitude helps to be resistant to stress and to recover quickly from stress.

In order to increase ones positive mood Davis (2009) states that one best makes modest changes in everyday activities. It is crucial to make use of positive emotions in the daily life in order to grow more and more resilient. More specifically he mentions that it can be helpful to adopt the behaviour of happy people to start with. Acting confident, talkative, more energetic and happier raises the level of positive emotions. Also, it is recommended to engage in enjoyable activities and share the experiences with others. Sharing strengthens relationship bonds and boosts ones memory of the positive experience, it is assumed. Another way to enhance ones mood is to help others without expecting any reward. As Ralph Waldo Emerson says (Davis 2009): “...happiness is a perfume which you cannot pour on someone without getting a few drops on yourself.” Natural environments are also proven to have restorative effects, as nature automatically decreases negative emotions and increases concentration and health-related behaviours. Being physically active rewards one with an instant, short-term boost of positive mood. Last but not least, Davis (2009) mentions the importance of increasing ones mindful awareness in order to improve ones well-being. Being attentive and the practice of mindfulness meditation are great ways to feel happy and positive about oneself. Mindfulness meditation increases the left-sided brain activity which is considered to increase positive emotions.

Chaskalson describes the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programm by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn as being beneficial for the practicioner’s health and quality of life as well as ones work-performance (Chaskalson, 2011). Mindfulness increases productivity, reduces stress and influences interpersonal relationships.

According to Kabat-Zinn and Chaskalson (Chaskalson, 2011) everybody can learn to be mindful. Training in mindfulness means to focus body, mind, heart and spirit on oneself in the present moment. Self-awareness is the key to a mindful life which amongst other things leads to a clear picture of oneself, being able to respond to ones inner and outer world authentically, empathically and non-judgementally.

A very effective training for mindful awareness is breathing. Through breathing body, mind and emotions can connect. In the training of mindfulness it is very important to be gentle with oneself and bring ones mind back to the breath or the focused object over and over again, whenever it drifts off. This is how the neural network for paying attention can grow (Chaskalson, 2011).

The body plays an important role not only in the Actualizing Tendency in Rogers’ times but also in today’s training for mindful awareness. Focusing on physical consciousness helps the mind to focus on the presence. So, MBSR includes the practice of Mindful-Movement like yoga or qi gong in addition to meditation. The four different meditation postures sitting, standing, lying and walking indicate that movement is meditation. Sitting still is not the only way to meditate. A further, natural help to focus is high interest. So, whenever possible, creating interest and curiosity is a great way to achieve more mindfulness. Chaskalson (2011) also suggests to be mindful about simple everyday activities like brushing teeth. Trying to stay focused and remembering to bring the mind back to the activity builds better memory and self-awareness.

To come to a conclusion, personally, I think that being one mindful self is the best strategy to a happy, fulfilled life with high emotional resilience. I completely agree with Rogers that every individual wants to be the best he/she can be. As Lao tzu states (Rogers, 1967): “The way to do is to be.”


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