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Emotional Resilience: Navigating Stress, Anxiety and Adversity

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How have you navigated the losses in your life — layoffs, divorce, a cancer diagnosis? Anxiety and depression are normal responses to adversity. But how long did it take to reset your course?

Emotional resilience is the ability to adapt well to adversity, trauma or tragedy. Emotionally resilient people don’t suffer disappointment and loss unscathed. They experience the same anxiety and depression after a traumatic event, but bounce back more quickly.(3)

Not to be confused with emotional repression, which psychiatrist Neel Burton describes as “‘motivated forgetting’: the active albeit unconscious ‘forgetting' of unacceptable drives, emotions, ideas, or memories.”(2)

Cool as a cucumber? Proud of your ability to restrain emotion? Recent studies have shown a link between repression and a higher risk for asthma, high blood pressure, overall ill health and decreased immunity.(1)

Resilience is adapting to, not suppressing, difficult emotions and experiences.

Martin Seligman, author of “Learned Optimism” and considered the father of positive psychology, conducted an experiment in 1975 that became the basis for emotional resilience theory.

Seligman divided participants into three groups. The first group was subjected to a loud noise they could stop by pressing a button. The second group heard the same noise but could not turn it off, no matter how hard they tried. The third group, the control group, heard nothing.(3)

The following day, all three groups again listened to noise in varying situations. Pressing a button 12 inches away would turn off the noise.

The first and third groups readily employed this means of attaining relief from the noise. The second group didn’t even try to turn off the sound by pressing the button.

They had learned helplessness.(3)

In phase 1, the second group became passive. In phase 2, having grown accustomed to failure — the button had provided no relief the day before— they gave up.

Seligman found that one-third of people and animals subjected to inescapable noise or shock never develop helplessness.

The difference? Optimism.

People who best navigate setbacks are able to see those setbacks as “temporary, local, and changeable.”(3) They are optimistic.

Seligman suggests that we can immunize people against depression and anxiety by teaching them positive thinking. This approach has been implemented by the United States Armed Forces in a $145 million initiative called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF).

CSF includes a test for psychological fitness, self-improvement courses available following the test, and Master Resilience Training (MRT) for drill sergeants. (3)

Metrics include:(4)

- Social: developing and maintaining meaningful relationships

- Emotional: facing life’s challenges with self-control, stamina, and good character

- Family: being part of a safe, supportive, loving environment and providing resources that ensure security

- Spiritual: one’s purpose, meaning, values and identity that provide perseverance in adversity

- Physical: aerobic fitness, endurance, strength, healthy body composition, and flexibility derived from exercise, nutrition, and training

A 2013 study evaluating MRT found that soldiers who received the training had lower incidents of anxiety, depression, and PTSD. The reduced rates of mental illness were attributed to higher levels of self-reported resilience and psychological health.(5)

Soldiers who received MRT training also had lower levels of substance abuse.(5)

For a guide to building resilience in yourself and in your children, read the American Psychological Association’s Resilience Guide.

Reviewed August 11, 2016
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

1) Goleman, Daniel. Health; New Studies Report Health Dangers Of Repressing Emotional Turmoil. NYTimes.com. Retrieved August 9, 2016.

2) Burton, Neel M.D., Self-Deception Series: Repression and Denial. PsychologyToday.com. Retrieved August 9, 2016.

3) Seligman, Martin E.P. Building Resilience. HBR.org. Retrieved August 9, 2016.

4) Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness. HPRC-online.org.  Retrieved August 9, 2016.  

5) Harms, Peter D. et al The Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness Program Evaluation. Report #4: Evaluation of Resilience Training and Mental and Behavioral Health Outcomes. digitalcommons.unl.edu. Retrieved August 9, 2016.

6) Resilience Guide. APA.org. Retrieved August 8, 2016.

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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