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Emotional Resilience
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How Resilience Works

Harry Mills, Ph.D. & Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

The attitudes that make up emotional resilience are powerful because they enable people who subscribe to them to cope with great efficiency and effectiveness. It's not really that emotionally resilient people know more or better coping skills than do non-resilient people. It's more that they are better able to apply the coping skills that they do know than are non-resilient people.

stressed out 3D figureConsider, if you will, that the first principle of coping successfully is to believe that it is possible to cope. Resilient people believe that they have the potential for control over their lives; they believe that they can influence their situation. Non-resilient people tend not to share this belief, and consequently their stress-coping efforts don't fair as well. People don't work at coping when they don't believe that coping can help.

Stress is stressful precisely because it is a source of negative emotions: depression, anxiety, anger. These negative emotions exert a powerful influence over perception. While you are experiencing negative emotions it can easily seem that there is no way to resist them. Depression, for example, often feels like it is a permanent condition that must simply be experienced; that nothing can be done to make it go away. This perception of being helpless in the face of negative emotion is not necessarily true. It is possible to consciously influence and change one's negative moods to more positive moods. Simply deciding to exercise (physically) when feeling stressed can temporarily lift one's mood, for instance. Rationally challenging negatively-exaggerated perceptions is another effective method for lifting one's mood. It is, in fact, quite possible to think or act one's self into a better mood. Resilient people understand this intuitively. For the rest of us, there is a scientific explanation as to how this is possible.

Mind Over Matter

The past quarter century of neurological research has revolutionized our understanding of how the brain creates and regulates emotion. Scientists used to think that the limbic system, a set of brain structures located above the brain stem but below the wrinkled, walnut-shaped cortex, was wholly responsible for producing and managing emotions. Recent studies suggest that it is not that simple. Though emotional impulses do originate in the limbic system, our expression of those emotions is regulated by the prefrontal cortex, a cortical brain structure located just behind the forehead which is associated with judgment and decision making.

The involvement of the prefrontal cortex in emotional responding is one of the things that separates humans from animals. Animals have little control over their expression of emotions. When an animal's limbic system becomes activated, that animal will experience and act out the resulting emotion. Scared animals will instinctually run and hide, or get aggressive, for instance. Human beings, on the other hand are able to make judgments and decisions regarding their emotional state, and to act on those decisions even when those decisions run counter to their emotional state. Frightened humans can evaluate whether or not their fears are justified, and act counter to their fears, for instance, making a speech in public despite being afraid of possible negative judgments that might result. People's ability to change the way they experience emotion is important for two reasons: first because it means that people have a real, if limited, capacity to snap out of negative emotions that don't serve them, and second because choosing to snap out of negative emotions is usually a good decision that can have a positive influence on one's overall health.

In part then, resilient people believe they can change their moods, and so they work to change their moods. The less resilient among us can instead fall prey to hopelessness. A major purpose of this document is to help convince those of you who do fall prey to hopelessness that it is possible to become more resilient. We've just described how how it is possible that you can change your negative moods to more positive ones. Now, let us tell you why it is a very good idea to do this.