Why is is that some people can suffer traumatic experiences and come through relatively unscathed? They have resilience: adapting in the face of adversity. It's a useful skill, and one we could all use. So, here are the top science-based tips for building resilience.
This is one of several psychological techniques you can use to help diminish the impact of negative emotions, which can make it easier to cope with unavoidable stress. It involves expressing in words, either in writing or out loud, the feelings that you’re experiencing.
An analysis published in 2018 of 42,000 tweets supported the effectiveness of this trick. It found that tweets containing a form of affect labelling, such as ‘I feel sad’, tended to be followed in the ensuing hours by tweets from the same person suggesting they were feeling calmer.
Dr Golnaz Tabibnia, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine, who studies resilience, adds that affect labelling doesn’t just help in the moment, but can also help in the long-term.
She conducted research with her team and found that repeatedly labelling the negative emotions conveyed by distressing images reduced the physiological arousal those same images triggered a week later.
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The 'best possible self' exercise
This exercise can increase your positive emotions, which in turn can act as a buffer against future stress. “It consists of writing about and envisioning yourself in the future in detail, after everything has gone as well as it possibly could,” says Dr Alba Carrillo, a health psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“Afterwards, spend about five minutes visualising that image in your mind, closing your eyes and activating all your senses while picturing yourself in that future.”
Carrillo was the lead author of a 2019 review that established the efficacy of the ‘best possible self’ (BPS) exercise based on the findings from 29 prior studies involving nearly 3,000 participants.
“Precisely in these times, the BPS exercise can be a useful tool to help you to recover – or build – your excitement and hopes about your future,” says Carillo. She adds that if it feels too frustrating to perform now, “you can try to imagine yourself some years from now when things are calmer”.
Alongside managing your negative emotions and accentuating your positivity, you can practise accepting adversity and uncomfortable feelings in the spirit of living a value-based life.
Grounded in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), this is about more just following your goals, explains Dr John Donahue, a clinical psychologist based at the University of Baltimore who practises and teaches ACT. “It refers to the quality of our intentions,” he explains.
“The coronavirus has reminded us how much our world can quickly change in ways that are beyond our control, though we do have control over our choices in the moment. Can those choices be driven by meaning and importance? In this way, connecting with our values during these times of uncertainty can provide direction when the path forward is foggy.”
Donahue was co-author of a 2019 study that showed how value-based living helped university students remain resilient in the face of stressful life events.
Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.