How to build emotional resilience in difficult times

By Geoff Harris

These are tough times, arguably some of the most challenging since the second world war, so if you are struggling, don’t be too hard on yourself.

According to the latest statistics from the mental health charity MIND, 25% of people in England struggle with a mental health problem at least once per year, with one in six experiencing a mental health issue every single week.

One concept that can help us through the current challenges is the idea of building emotional resilience. Just as you can strengthen your body by going to the gym, you can take practical steps to fortify your emotional muscle. Here are some practical suggestions.

Develop good boundaries

If somebody is really bugging you and demanding your attention, it’s fine to not reply for a while. There is a great Japanese saying – “kill it with silence.” In other words, if a significant other, family member or annoying colleague is pestering you and you don’t want to handle it immediately, it’s fine to take some time out until you are able to deal with the issue. Acting on an emotional impulse can end up causing even more problems.

Notice how you are feeling and step back from it

Bookshops have been filled with works on mindfulness but it’s not hugely complicated at heart. How are you feeling right now? Angry? Stressed? On the verge of screaming at your boss? Try to develop an ‘inner watcher’ that enables you accept your emotions in a non-judgemental way while stepping back from them.

Practice acceptance

We mentioned in an earlier blog how some of the concepts in 12 step recovery programmes can really help in difficult times. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” We can’t change the remorseless spread of the virus and the damage it is doing to the world; all we can do is to fully embrace and accept our present reality, while taking what practical steps we can to stay safe and help others. From acceptance can develop serenity. Remember, this too shall pass…

Stay connected via shared interests

It’s very easy to become isolated at the moment – indeed, you might have to isolate yourself for health reasons. But there are lots of way to connect with family and friends via online chat, and there are plenty of special interest groups you can join. If you are interested in photography, for example, most camera clubs are still holding regular meetings on Zoom, and it will be the same with many hobbies. Therapists and mental health support groups are available to connect with online, too.

Be a warrior, not a worrier

We’re not suggesting you start learning Karate online, but it can be helpful to be aware of the ‘fight or flight’ response when we have to face what feels like an unsurmountable problem.

To learn to think more like a warrior, remember that courage is not an absence of fear, but a willingness to go on regardless. Strengthen your emotional resilience by trying to tackle your problems head on, rather than procrastinating or running away. “Embrace the suck!” as the US Marines say.

Body and mind are one

We’re still able to exercise during lockdown so do as much as you can – it will help to clear your mind and release lots of feel-good chemicals. Brisk walking, running, online yoga classes, there are lots of options.

Centre yourself in the present

This is also a core concept of mindfulness. If you find yourself getting upset by regret about the past or fears of the future, try to bring yourself back to the present.

The concept of the ‘centre’ is key to a lot of physical disciplines, including dancing and martial arts; relax your shoulders and think about pushing your exhaled breath down to a spot an inch or so below your navel, gently, slowly but firmly.

Do this for five minutes and you will be surprised how much better you to start to feel. Notice the tension in other parts of your body too, and let it drain away.

Be kind to yourself

It’s OK not to be perfect and to make mistakes – we all do it. Accept what happened and learn from it, then an error becomes a valuable educational lesson. You won’t get all the answers to your problems immediately and that’s OK.

Be of service to others

If your emotions feel unmanageable, try to get out of your ‘washing machine head’ by doing something positive for somebody else. You could ask a vulnerable neighbour if they need a hand with their shopping for example, or their car washed.

Or sign up for some voluntary work which is still possible in lockdown – Age UK for example has a programme where volunteers call lonely older people in these difficult times.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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