Kinetic tension filled the office. Quarterly reports were coming out, and no one knew what to expect, no one knew what the big boss would do. The uncertainty of not knowing and wondering about job security, kept everyone on tenterhooks, irritable and touchy.
As the three boys bounced around the train car punching one another and taunting, he was becoming agitated with their father, who sat sullenly in the seat by the door. After taking a deep breath he finally asked, ‘hey, your kids are running all around. Isn’t there something you can do about them—it’s effecting everyone on the train?” “Oh yea, they’re wound up. We’re just coming from the hospital. They lost their mother today. Sorry.” With that he gulped hard, embarrassed at his impatience, and offered to sit with the boys.
Sitting on the expressway locked in traffic she wondered what was going on to cause this backup. “I left early to allow enough time to get to the doctor’s office, and now it looks like I’ll be late. I hate being late!” Honking horns and yelling, irate drivers added to the din of the cityscape. Listening, she could feel her grip tightening on the steering wheel, her eyes squinting at the ridiculous driver in the next lane yelling profanities as if he could command traffic to open up. She had a headache.
Resilience is about bouncing back once we’ve been hit by one or more of life’s stress bombs. Resilience itself includes a number of skills, two of which include attending to our need for self-renewal and keeping things in perspective, topics addressed here previously.
Another factor in cultivating resilience, and one that’s tied into an overall increase in well-being or what we might call happiness, is the ability to work with our own intense emotions: being with uncertainty and fear, allowing space for irritation and anger, dipping into grief, and coping with all the low grade stresses of daily life. All, of course, are particularly difficult if you have a family, a partner, or children and nearly equally challenging if you go to work every day.
So just how to work with our intense emotions?
First, stop when one catches you and notice your reactions to it—your body sensations and your first thoughts.
Then the old adage, ‘you name it, you tame it’ applies: identify what the emotional ‘it’ actually is e.g. the anxiety of uncertainty, the overwhelm of grief, the grip of fear, the push of impatience. Notice how it shows up in your body too i.e. uprush of energies, heaviness, shallow breathing.
By naming our emotions, especially intense ones, we gain a bit of distance from them, even if just a bit, and in doing so we can begin to work with the experience of feeling into them, something we often resist, and expanding our capacity to be with life’s challenges. Only then can we choose the next right course of action. For example, letting ourselves experience strong emotions may also involve consciously putting strong experiences on hold while regaining our footing.
Finally, choosing a response vs. being caught up in a story of the moment—I’ll lose my job, he’s an irresponsible father, I’m an impatient moron, I’ll never get another appointment—puts us squarely in the realm of directing our emotions vs. letting them control us.
This sure sign of resilience acknowledges that change is an inevitable part of living a life. Acknowledging this fact then creates an openness to shift what we can actually change—which is usually ourselves, as we move from reaction to responsiveness.
A study highlighting this link between mindfulness and resilience in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences found that “mindful people … can better cope with difficult thoughts and emotions without becoming overwhelmed or shutting down emotionally.”
Pausing with mindful attention once that stress bomb hits (challenging to catch in the moment, to be sure) and observing our mind—both thoughts and emotions–helps us resist getting stuck in our stories, empowers us to move forward instead while increasing our resilience.
Action Steps: To increase your ability to work with your own intense emotions, ask yourself these questions and reflect on your answers.
1) What kinds of events are most stressful for me? Ex: Traffic, my boss, dealing with strangers?
2) What about them did I actually experience as stressful? Ex: Being stuck, other’s bad moods, human circumstances?
3) What emotions did I experience at those times? Ex: Irritation, anger & disgust, inconvenience?
Then commit to practicing catching your stress bombs each day, stretching into the challenge of feeling into them, stretching into greater self-capacity, and choosing your next right action given the circumstances.And, connect here to share your experiences and learning!