If I had only one wish in life it wouldn’t be unlimited funds or a bottomless pot of coffee, not a condo in Maui or free college degrees for my kids. I wouldn’t even want to add years to my life. My wish would be this: to become more emotionally resilient — to be able to better handle the stresses of life, and to maneuver a little more gracefully in the wind.
After years of chasing various “cures” for depression — from green smoothies and hot yoga to gluten-free diets and mindfulness meditation — I finally arrived at the hard truth that I would most likely always have to deal with some residual symptoms. Therefore I turned my efforts to learning how to live around them, as best as possible — at becoming more emotionally resilient. I’m more successful at this some days than others, and I have to work hard at it. Here are a few things that have helped me.
Paying attention to my breath
Remaining calm in symptom flare-ups requires integrating my brain with my body. My natural instinct is to live in my head, a fascinating place where I make up juicy stories about what people think and why. While exercising my intellect helps me to craft cogent sentences, it worsens my panic. Like a helium balloon untethered to a string, my thoughts and emotions soar aimlessly through the air until they get stuck in a tree. My brain needs the grounding force of my body (the string) to keep it where it should be: in the here and now, in reality.
Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn asserts that your breath is the best portal to your body. In his book Full Catastrophe Living, he writes, “Probably the best place to start [going into your body] is with your breathing. If you can manage to bring your attention to your breathing for even the briefest of moments, it will set the stage for facing that moment and the next one with greater clarity.”
I use a very simple method where I count to four as I inhale, count to four as I hold my breath, count to four as I exhale, and count to four as I rest.
Analyzing the negative sound bytes
Dr. Robert J. Wicks is a psychologist and a friend of mine who, in his own words, “does a special form of darkness for a living.” His specialty is the prevention of secondary stress (the pressures experienced in reaching out to others). He has written books on resilience for physicians, nurses, and psychotherapists on this topic, as well as three books for the general public (Bounce, Perspective, and Riding the Dragon) on self-care, resilience, and maintaining a healthy perspective.
When I asked him if he had a couple of key points about resilience that most people don’t think about, he said, “The challenges of life, especially for those experiencing clinical depression, are chronic. Most people in this world view the difficulties of life as acute negative sound bytes. And so, they are impatient with themselves or others who are having a hard time. Their voice might be saying the right words but the tone of it demonstrates impatience and the unspoken words: ‘Get over it! Be more grateful for what you have and stop being a baby.’”
Soliciting the right friends
Emotional resilience entails becoming aware of those negative sound bytes and replacing them with more helpful commentary. To achieve this, Wicks encourages us to gather into our interpersonal network different kinds of friends. Explains Wicks:
First, we need the prophet who asks us, “What voices are guiding us in life?” There are messages we received pre-verbally before we could speak and non-verbally that are false and need to be questioned later in life. The second friend is the cheerleader, who is sympathetic and supportive no matter what. The third friend is the harasser or teaser who helps us recognize that in taking important things seriously, sometimes we take a detour and take ourselves too seriously instead. And, the fourth friend or voice we need for balance, encouragement, and challenge, is the inspirational friend who is able to call us to be all that we are without embarrassing us that we are where we are at this point.
With such a balance of friends we can then persevere during the tough times that are part of the chronicity of life. As contemplative and spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, once said to a friend who was feeling discouraged, “Brother, courage comes and goes. Hold on for the next supply.” Good friends, the right combination of friends, can help us to hold on for the next supply.
Accepting what I cannot change
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” It’s the first part of the Serenity Prayer and I suspect the least favorite for anyone with a chronic illness. Like most people with recurring symptoms, for the first half of my life I concentrated on the second part of the prayer, “the courage to change the things I can,” interpreting it as a directive to find a cure. However, after two green smoothies a day and almost passing out in hot yoga, I finally arrived at acceptance, the key word of the first line.
In his book Resilience, Navy SEAL Eric Greitens writes, “When we accept what we cannot change – that some pain cannot be avoided, that some adversities cannot be overcome, that tragedy comes to every one of us – we are liberated to direct our energy toward work that we can actually do.”
Attaching self-compassion to emotions
Finally, emotional resilience requires being kind to yourself. This comes naturally to some. However, I have always measured my self-worth by achievements and equated love with performance. So chilling out a tad and believing that I am enough as I am feels uncomfortable. It chips away at the protective wall of perfectionism that I have built over 40 years and leaves me feeling exposed and vulnerable.
In her book Self-Compassion, Kristin Neff writes, “Self-compassion gives us the calm courage to face our unwanted emotions head-on. Because escape from painful feelings is not actually possible, our best option is to clearly but compassionately experience our difficult emotions just as they are in the present moment. Given that all experiences eventually come to an end, if we can go through its natural bell-curve cycle – arising, peaking, and fading away.”
Keeping a sense of humor
To be able to maneuver gracefully in the storms of life is the gift the follows a series of humiliations and disillusionments. It’s the gold discovered after being humbled. In dealing with chronic depression and anxiety, I’ve found that by tolerating the moisture and wind with a sense of humor instead of cursing it, I smile more when my feel get wet. I’m closer to my one wish of emotional resilience.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full Catastrophe Living. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
Wicks, R.J. (2009). Bounce: Living the Resilient Life. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Wicks, R.J. (2014). Perspective: The Calm Within the Storm. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Wicks, R.J. (2012).Riding the Dragon: 10 Lessons for Inner Strength in Challenging Times(10th anniversary edition). Notre Dame, Indiana: Sorin Books.
Greitens, E. (2016). Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life (reprint edition). Boston, MA: Mariner Books.
Neff, K. (2015) Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself (reprint edition). New York, NY: William Morrow Paperbacks.
A version of this article was published on Psych Central.