Stay Calm: How to Become More Emotionally Resilient

Kathleen McAuliffe
Kathleen McAuliffe / September 21, 2017

Business isn’t personal, right? In a perfect world, we’d be able to separate our emotions from our work. But we can’t compartmentalize our feelings for after-hours like a computer. And no productivity app can prevent stress, anxiety, and depression from seeping into your work tasks.

So when your manager blasts your big project, how do you recover quickly enough to adopt the necessary changes for your next project? How can you prevent unbearable grief from breaking your concentration at your desk?

For big matters and small, it centers on resilience, the ability to adapt quickly in the face of adversity. If you don’t react well to stress, you may compare yourself to your “tougher” coworkers (or the ex-drill sergeant who taught your high school gym classes) and believe your mental weakness is a fixed part of your personality. But anyone can practice and improve their coping skills. So don’t treat resilience like an innate character flaw, but a learned skill like coding or data analysis.

Below are some simple instantly accessible ways to strengthen your resilience—put in the work and you’ll reap the rewards in and out of the office.

Why Resilience Matters at Work

Instead of simply weathering setbacks, resilient people use them as opportunities to grow stronger and happier.

Emotional resilience doesn’t just protect you from anxiety and depression, but it strengthens your work product. Mentally tough people can adapt instantly to constantly changing demands and priorities. They can manage heavy workloads without losing their enthusiasm—or their minds. They can overcome interpersonal conflicts and stinging criticism, even when it tears apart their ego. It’s not that they never experience negativity, or that they’re endlessly optimistic harpies. But instead of simply weathering setbacks, resilient people use them as opportunities to grow stronger and happier.

And although you can’t put a price on happiness, companies can now put a price on a mentally strong workplace. In a study published by PwC in 2014, programs that fostered a resilient and mentally healthy workplace returned $2.30 for every dollar—with the payoff coming in the form of higher productivity and lower health care costs, absenteeism, and employee turnover.

Translation: Improve your response to stress and you’ll improve your chances of success.


But how do you do that? Here are 6 ways to build your resilience:

1. Learn From Your Past Experiences

man learning from experience

Maybe you respond to negative feedback by avoiding any risks—even ones that can result in promotions or raises. Maybe you erupt in rage every time you encounter a challenge. Or you binge on ice cream after bad days at work, only to gain weight, health complications without solving your underlying work issues.

As automatic as these poor coping strategies may feel to us, our they don’t come automatically—we develop them through a lifetime of experience. Because decades-long patterns don’t die overnight, increasing your resilience means replacing those self-destructive thoughts and behaviors with more adaptive ones. Unless you investigate the specific situations that spark your stress—and what factors worsened it—you’re doomed to react similarly to future situations. Once you identify the common themes between those negative experiences, you’ll be able to anticipate and prepare a response against them.

Kickstart your self-reflection with these questions recommended by the American Psychological Association:

  • Have I found it helpful to think of important people in my life when I am distressed?
  • To whom have I reached out for support in working through a traumatic or stressful experience?
  • What have I learned about myself and my interactions with others during difficult times?
  • Has it been helpful for me to assist someone else going through a similar experience?
  • What has helped make me feel more hopeful about the future?

These questions encourage you to reframe your trials as learning experiences, which will prime you to find the potential positives in your problems. Your next busy period will become a testing ground for your project management skills—and transform the situation from threat to opportunity.

Presumably, you’ve overcome—or least survived—previous obstacles. Give yourself credit for that and think about the footholds that helped you rise from rock bottom—whether it’s charity work or a certain cognitive shift—and use them in future situations.

2. Be Cognitively Flexible

The morning of your biggest presentation of the year, you’re stuck in stop-and-go traffic on the freeway. You wouldn’t turn around and go home, right? Instead, you’d take the side streets, back roads, any way necessary to make that meeting.

The same should apply for your mental strategies. Rely on only one mode of problem-solving or coping mechanism and you risk melting down when that one solution becomes inaccessible. In their book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, authors Steven M. Southwick and Dennis S. Charney explain:

“People who are resilient tend to be flexible—flexible in the way they think about challenges and flexible in the way they react emotionally to stress. They are not wedded to a specific style of coping. Instead, they shift from one coping strategy to another depending on the circumstances.”

So arm yourself with an arsenal of stress busters—and get creative. If you relieve stress by running, recognize that you could injure yourself and develop other physically based alternatives, like yoga or hiking. Big meditator? Download a meditation app to use when you can’t leave your desk. Regardless of your resilience, exploring other activities will just make you a more well-rounded and interesting person.

3. Create Social Connections

"It can be helpful to recognize the universality of our human emotions"- psychologist Karen Horneffer-Ginter

Stressful situations isolate us, especially when we have to pull 12-hour days for a demanding work project or feel ashamed of our emotional problems. But steaming during your sad desk lunch doesn’t just bum you out. It actually undermines your health, as feelings of loneliness, disconnection and isolation can shorten our lifespans, according to research by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist at Brigham Young University.

Health risks aside, talking about our stress just makes us feel better—and biology backs this up. Numerous studies show that social support helps us become more resilient during times of stress, mostly by affecting the expression of hormones in the HPA axis and the oxytocin pathway, which relieves stress and promotes feelings of well-being. Even a 10-minute phone call with a friend and coworker can protect you from the physical effects of stress. They may not able to solve your problems, but they can help you explore solutions—or just act as a sounding board during your darkest moments.

You can even bond over shared stress, says psychologist and author Karen Horneffer-Ginter. Among her many strategies for strengthening resilience, she suggests creating a support group among friends. Besides giving you actionable advice for your problem, they also provide valuable perspective. Talking others through their problems will remind you that stress isn’t a sign of weakness or moral failure, but an inevitable and natural response to everyday life.

"It can be helpful to recognize the universality of our human emotions, remembering that others also feel vulnerable and overwhelmed from time-to-time," says Horneffer-Ginter. "As we aspire for greater levels of resiliency, we can wish the same for all others."

Seek Professional Help if Necessary

Should informal support fall short, seek expert help. It may feel like a mark of weakness instead of a strength. But as strong as they are, truly resilient people are not fully self-sufficient robots. Instead, they realize and accept the reality that they cannot cope with everything on their own. On Psychology Today, career coach and certified social worker Brad Waters agrees:

"The most resilient among us know how to reach out for help. They know who will serve as a listening ear and, let’s be honest, who won’t! Our team of supporters helps us reflect back what they see when we’re too immersed in overwhelm to witness our own coping."

So if you’re coping with a problem outside your capabilities, seeking outside counsel will save you from wasting time and energy on a doomed effort. This could mean asking your manager for extra training, consulting HR about a political personnel issue, or talking to a therapist during a stressful period at work. No matter what you do, treat yourself with compassion and recognize that by

4. Help Others

pull your weight

Any positive bonding experience can cultivate resilience, but helping others seems to bring the most benefits. Squeezing in a soup kitchen session is difficult enough under peaceful circumstances, though. When you’re already overburdened by work obligations or family responsibilities? The extra afternoon may completely out of reach.

Fortunately, a study by Emily Ansell of Yale University suggests that even everyday random acts of kindness can help people withstand the negative effect of stress on their well-being.

Participants in the study completed a daily assessment of stressful life events that they experienced across several domains—”interpersonal, work, education, home, finance, and health/accident”—and the total number of stressful events that they experienced. After reporting whether they had engaged in any helpful behaviors that day, like holding a door for someone, they rated their mental health for that day from 0 (poor) to 100 (excellent).

Those who reported less helping behavior reported lower positive emotion and higher negative emotion in response to their daily stress than those who had been more helpful , on the other hand, showed no dampening of positive emotion or mental health, and a lower increase in negative emotion, in response to high daily stress.

Even—or especially—when you’re consumed by your internal struggles, take a second to look outward. By holding the elevator or giving up your seat on the train, you’ll improve someone else’s day—and your own.

5. Take Back Control

You need to believe that you possess the ability to act upon your negative circumstances.

Between the manager blasting your every move, the colleagues offloading their responsibilities to you, and the emails that just won’t stopping coming in, you may perceive your problems as seemingly random events that handicap you and yourself as powerless to stop them. Key word here is perceive.

To overcome obstacles, you need to believe that you possess the ability to act upon your negative circumstances—to address your concerns with your manager, to hold your slacking colleagues accountable, to turn on your “out of office” for an hour to clear your inbox. Let those slights pile up and you’ll internalize a sense of learned helplessness, which will prevents you from making the steps necessary to improve you situation.

Sure, you can’t change how your manager feels about you, or how quickly your client responds to messages. But even if you exercise control in a completely unrelated area of your life, you’ll gain a global sense of autonomy that you can then apply to your work problems, as demonstrated in a landmark study by Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer.

In the experiment, elderly residents in a nursing home were each given a houseplant and divided into two groups-the high-control group and the low-control group. The high-control group was told that the plant’s care was in their hands while the plants in the low-control group were taken care of by a staff member. In the end, 30% of the members of the low control group had died, compared to only 15% of the members of the high control group.

Caregiving did not directly affect the participants’ physical health, but their newfound sense of control literally saved their lives. By assuming autonomy in any area of your life, you’ll prepare yourself to respond proactively to challenges instead of reacting negatively to the seemingly random events that afflict you.

Self-care is a great starting point, as it puts you in the best physical position to implement major changes and balance your emotions, especially when you’re angry over a perceived slight. Consider running or weightlifting to improve your physical fitness or cleaning up your diet for health gains. Or start a side hustle for creative fulfillment.

If you’re too overwhelmed to adopt any major life changes, try some of the broadly applicable mental shift tips from Chicken Soup for the Soul book series author Amy Neumark:

- Be disciplined about your 'me' time.

Reserve a non-negotiable slot of time every night for resetting emotionally and physically. Treat it like any other meeting and schedule calendar reminders for yourself if necessary. This time can take whatever form you want—doing yoga, journaling, going for a long bike ride, or just ignoring email for an hour—as long as it consists of healthy behaviors that prepare you for the next day.

- Learn how to say 'no.'

Most of us don’t set out trying to overbook ourselves. We just say “yes” to that exciting new opportunity, this request for help, until our Google Calendar is stacked from 9 to 9. To reassert control of your schedule and stress level, say “no” to the low-priority, low-value items that come your way. With the additional time and energy to regenerate each night, you’ll bring even more brainpower to your remaining tasks.

6. Become A Better Problem Solver

crossword puzzle

Resilience isn’t only about reframing your problems—you also need to identify and implement the solutions.

Researchers at the University of Kent have broken the problem-solving process into the five stage IDEAL model: Identifying the problem, Defining it, Examining options, Acting on a plan, and Looking at the consequences. Seems simple enough, but when you’re too anxious to narrow down the key issues, adequately weigh your options, or prematurely rule out every available solution, you’ll give up in the earliest stages. Thankfully, science has revealed several low-stakes ways to boost your problem-solving abilities, including:

- Solve Logic Puzzles

Whether you swear by Soduku or the New York Times crossword, your time-killing brainteasers can help you solve real-life problems, especially as you age. After completing 10 hour-long cognitive training sessions of working memory, processing speed, and reasoning, participants in study by Penn State University researchers demonstrated higher cognitive function and a better ability to complete daily tasks than did members of a control group.

So during your commute, download some logic puzzles to get your brain working. Even making it to level 200 of Candy Crush can boost your persistence and translate to on-the-job tasks. Stuck for ideas? Sharp Brain, a market research firm that studies the health applications of brain science, even recommends certain puzzles to improve individual cognitive skills involved in problem-solving, like attention, sequencing, and even emotional self-regulation.

- Keep an Idea Journal by Your Bed

Why waste hours staring at a blank screen when you can solve problems in your sleep?

Dreaming—also known as rapid-eye-movement sleep—enhances creative thinking more than any other state of consciousness, according to a study by the University of California-San Diego.

But REM sleep only promotes problem-solving when we actually remember it—and we forget 95% of our dreams immediately after waking up. Inevitably, you’ll lose some of your ideas. But by putting a pad of paper by your bed, you’ll better the odds that something will stick. Whenever a riveting dream wakes you up, write down everything you remember before falling back to sleep.

- Dance

Bust a move—research suggests that freeform dancing creates new neural pathways in the brain, which lends itself to more creative forms of thinking and helps us find out-of-the-box solutions to problems. In an experiment published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, elementary school children who participated in 10 minutes of either improvised freestyle dancing performed better on a creative toy design task—which had multiple solutions—than the students who had learned a simple routine.

- Do Yoga

Don’t worry, you can get the problem-solving benefits without doing crazy hot yoga. After performing just 20 minutes of low-intensity hatha yoga—including seated and standing postures, contracting and relaxing muscles, and meditation-based breathing exercises—women in a study by the University of Illinois performed better on tests of working memory and attention span. Next time you’re stalled on a project, just start stretching until you stumble on a solution.


Wrapping Up

Just like building your coding abilities or quads, building resilience requires time, energy, and patience. These steps are your resilience exercise routine—things that should improve your mental strength and enhance both your work performance and personal life.

And hopefully they'll decrease your stress at the same time.

Have a tip that helps you get through times at work? We'd love to hear it in the comments below.

Arm wrestling photo by Gratisography via Pexels; man looking at work on wall photo by Startup Stock Photos via Pexels; tug of war photo by Steve Weaver via Flickr;

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