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4 Ways to Build Emotional Resilience and Improve Your Mental Health at The Same Time

Here's how to stay on course when things go wrong.

Sad but true: you can’t control whether things go wrong or not.

So how can you strengthen your resilience, so that you’re able to manage the ups and downs of life without feeling like you’re on an emotional rollercoaster?

Here are 4 mental habits to develop greater emotional resilience:

1. Choose a Purpose as Your Compass

I remember a discussion, in high school: “What is the meaning of life?”

Back home, I came to my own conclusion. Surely the meaning of life must be to leave the world just a little better than it was before you lived?

If I could help even one person to find a more positive perspective on their life, mine would be worth it, I decided.

So my question is: what would make your life “worth it” for you?

Rather than seeking a passion – that lofty lightening bolt that we all hope will strike and electrify us with bottomless joy – I invite you to choose a purpose, a “why” that underwrites everything you do.

Purpose is the secret all passion-driven people hold. I have yet to meet one person who identifies as having a passion who can’t uncover a deeper purpose behind it.

Choosing a purpose gives your life direction and provides you with an anchor against the storm. When things are hard, holding onto your sense of meaning keeps you going. None of us are going to enjoy our lives all the time, but your chosen purpose is important to you, so those challenging parts of your journey will feel worth the extra effort.

What is important to you? What would you like to contribute to the world?

Your purpose may be to provide for your family, to create something new, to live with kindness and authenticity, to learn and grow, to build, to inspire, to connect… any why you choose.

2. Process your Negative Emotions in a Positive Way

Your negative emotions are trying to tell you something, but all too often we get caught up playing the same track over and over again, without hearing the underlying message, the music beneath the noise.

Psychological science has found that there are two primary ways we can respond to our emotions.

When we use recall thought, we ruminate on the emotion and re-live the relevant experiences that caused it in our minds. This up-regulates the emotion, causing it to increase. That’s great if you’re daydreaming about your wedding day – but can be detrimental to your wellbeing if you’re ruminating on how rejected you felt, or can’t stop worrying whether you did the right thing.

Here’s what to do instead.

Analytical thought involves analyzing an emotion, really getting to the bottom of why you feel that way. When we analyze an emotion – any emotion – we down-regulate it so it, over time, it reduces.

This is not as simple as considering your resentment and concluding: “Well, I feel this way because she never makes any time for me…”

Rather, it’s about working out what the emotion says about you and what is important to you. Your emotions reflect your values, needs, and expectations. For example, you might come to realize what specific needs you have in relationships. You could understand that you hold certain expectations about how time should be spent together. From there, you’re able to evaluate whether your expectations are realistic or not, and what to do about getting your needs met.

Negative emotions can be incredibly useful, and the more you do this, the more you’ll realize they contain crucial information about who you are as a person, what you want from your life, and how you’d like to craft your future.

Relying on thought can mean you more easily slip into unhealthy rumination. Since analytical thought tends to happen naturally through talking or writing, it’s best to process your negative feelings by either sharing with a supportive friend or writing in your journal. 

3. Develop your Sense of Hope

Maintaining a sense of hope is vital for resilience.

One explanation of depression is Martin Seligman’s theory of “learned helplessness”. The idea is that we come to the realization that we are helpless to change our circumstances, we feel hopeless – and we give up. This helplessness results in feeling depressed.

When we’re hopeful, we essentially believe that the future can be better than the present and past. Not only are we able to imagine a brighter future, but we believe we can make it happen and we see multiple ways of getting there. (Rather than feeling helpless, we believe we have a degree of control).

These are the 3 parts to hope:

1) A goal: ‘I know what I want and where I’m going’

2) Pathways thinking: ‘If this plan doesn’t work, there is a plan B and C.’

3) Personal control: ‘I can do this, I’m capable and largely in control of the outcome’

To link back to the beginning of this article, where we spoke about purpose, I believe that purpose has a big role to play in hope too. Your purpose can represent your goal.

Here’s what this looks like in action:

As long as I can remember, my purpose has been to help others change perspective on their lives. That has never changed. But the way I’ve lived this purpose out, the pathways I’ve taken, have taken varied forms.

I see my purpose in the short stories I used to write, in which the characters always went through something difficult but learned an inspiring lesson. I see my purpose in my wanting to be a counseling psychologist – and it remained when I realized positive psychology felt better-suited to what I believed in.

I even see it in the gap year I took learning and teaching flying circus trapeze at Club Med Resorts: somehow, when I watched that teenage girl, so afraid of heights, transcend her own fear, I felt her perspective of herself changed. She told me she felt braver, capable of more than she’d thought.

Hope means finding your purpose and then choosing a lower-level goal through which to live that purpose out. How you live out that why may change multiple times, be it because you change your mind or because you truly hit an insurmountable obstacle, but your why never does. 

4. Zoom in on the Positives

Finally, gratitude.

As the wife of a photographer, I see the mind as a lens. We tend to see only what it focuses on.

The brain has a natural ‘negative bias’, meaning it auto-focuses on the negatives. What you don’t have. Why you can’t do it. What could go wrong.

We need to zoom in on the positives if we are to remain resilient. However you like, remind yourself of the good in your life, and the good you’re looking forward to in the future. I love to travel, and when I’ve planned a holiday, I print an image of that place out and it goes on the fridge. Every time I see it, I’m excited. Small wins at work get written down in a journal to remind myself I am making a difference, even if I can’t change the whole world. Memorabilia from experiences I’ve enjoyed go into a jar I’ll go through later, pictures into an album.

This keeps me purposeful, hopeful, and grateful.

What are you grateful happened this year?

What are you grateful to have learned?

What tells you that you can do this?

How might things go right?

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