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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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March 31 2016

How to Develop Emotional Resilience in the Modern World

By Mark Sisson
28 Comments

Resilience FinalJob stress, social conflict, illness (sometimes serious illness), financial hardship, our children’s struggles, a move across country, a divorce, a death of a loved one…they’re all events that can test our mental fortitude or—in more extreme cases—leave us emotionally adrift. Some people turn into a puddle during a critical emergency, while others jump in the middle of it to save the day. Yet, watch those same people face a protracted struggle like the death of a spouse or a child, and the one who managed the momentary crisis may have a much harder time. Adversity varies and challenges us in different ways. But our ability to endure and bounce back from stress, struggle, and loss is what emotional resilience is all about. What can our ancestors’ examples teach us about psychological hardiness and mental fortitude?

Genuine resilience demands a deep level of acceptance—the acceptance that even if some things in life shake or shatter us, that’s not the end of our story. Just as our physical bodies are vulnerable and resilient, so are our mental selves. We can survive a horrible car accident with damage to multiple organs and limbs—and still heal to a large, if not complete, extent. We can suffer a stroke—and more or less regain full functioning as other parts of our brain take over tasks previously handled by the damaged section. In the same way, we can recover from great emotional damage.

Let me be clear though. I would argue that emotional resilience isn’t about pushing down feelings or living in denial. There’s a mammoth-sized gap between being forbearing and simply unfeeling. Resilience isn’t seated in an original sense of inviolability, but in a commitment to and capacity for healing and continuing. Think adaptability rather than invulnerability.

I think we all recognize that Grok and his kin experienced loss and travail in ways modern first-world citizens can only imagine. Emotional resilience was truly a survival (not to mention survival of the fittest) mechanism. Child mortality and accidental death from animals or the elements were anticipated, albeit tragic, occurrences. No one was shielded from seeing the likes of a predator’s mauling, the face of starvation or the ravages of random disease.

Likewise, there were other shifts. People came and went from band to band. Others migrated. When you said good-bye for the season or for a migratory trek, you truly didn’t know if you’d ever see that person again. (And obviously there were no means of communication beyond in-person contact.)

We might be confounded as to how they could weather this amount of loss and uncertainty. It’s easy and convenient to just assume they were somehow less emotionally evolved—that they were less affected by these upheavals and tragedies than we moderns would be. This is false, of course. We don’t want to think of that kind of pain in anyone, considering our natural, poignant inclinations toward empathy certainly don’t make it a pleasant recognition. Nonetheless, when we fully acknowledge the capacity for others’ pain (in prehistory or on the other side of the globe today), we not only grasp others’ humanity, but we can see and honor what allows them to move through life in spite of what they’ve weathered.

Compared to the struggles of our primal ancestors, we might have it pretty easy. We may not be fending off daily threats to the survival of ourselves and our kin, but we have our own modern problems that can wear down our mental stamina and emotional equilibrium. Likewise, none of us are spared the eventual human losses. Aspects of the human struggle are truly timeless.

When we accept that emotional resilience isn’t about unconsciousness or desensitization, it breaks open the question: What really helps us weather life’s travails?

The works of various psychologists are often cited as a model for assessing (or a guide for strengthening) a person’s capacity for resilience. Although much research and models focus on children, I think most of us would say these domains and dimensions are just as relevant to our emotional health in adulthood. They stress the importance of “protective factors” that shore up psychological health and offer us both social resources and psychological reserves when adversity does hit.

They revolve around the idea of a “secure base” with elements like fundamental physical health, solid family and friend relationships, engaging educational/enrichment opportunities, talents and interests, positive values, and social competencies that allow for self-care and the need for communication.

The more secure we are in these essential areas, the idea goes, the more resilient we will be to various challenges that come down the pipe. In that way, the more we can shore up these various dimensions of life, the better off we’ll be.

Likewise, research suggests better communication and problem-solving skills as well as emotional regulation and executive planning abilities (creating a plan and following it) enhance our capacity to deal with psychological stress and crisis.

Clearly, these all would have figured into the picture for Grok and his kin. Social relationships, in particular, would have offered support for both the emotional toll and the logistical details (e.g. help with daily chores) of bouncing back from major events.

We lean on others for literal help with the efforts and tasks necessary to get through the day when we’re coping, but we also depend on the depth of the human bond itself to get us through those times. Just as we’re wired to empathize with others, we’re also wired to receive empathy.

Instead of getting caught up in the whirlwind of daily busyness, we can take the time for these dimensions that strengthen us. Just as we invest financially for our future security, we can invest in our emotional security by prioritizing social connections. We can keep in close and frequent touch with friends and extended family by calling or enjoying a night out or a weekend trip together. We can expand our social networks and invite new people into our lives.

We can deepen our sense of identity by pursuing outside interests and hobbies. Life is about whom we love and what we enjoy doing. The more we invest in our own enrichment, creativity and self-development, the more solid we are in ourselves and the stronger we can be in the face of stress or loss.

And let me add one of my favorite points here. For hunter-gatherers, the picture of identity and connection went beyond just human social networks. Their relationship with the natural world was an important part of their identity, a key element of communal belonging, and a supportive element for their psychological resilience.

Can you imagine not just believing intellectually, but believing both spiritually and emotionally, that nature was something to which you belonged—that it was an anthropomorphized force you were obliged to venerate and participate in as its kin? While I’m sure Grok might have better language (and stories) to illustrated this, you get the general idea here. That sense of deep, original belonging offered both a comfort and structure, and the psychological vestiges of this long-practiced belief system are part of our own psyches. Evolutionary psychology as well as the relate theory of biophilia take up this dimension of emotional well-being.

When we view our lives and those of the people we care about against this larger, cosmological (or simply evolutionary) backdrop, the toils and tragedies of regular life have a meaningful place. Modern humans generally view themselves as an exception to nature’s laws—as destined conquerors or shrewd hackers to the system. The result is we either feel like strategizing owners of the natural world or an unfortunate scourge upon it. Any possibility of true belonging and mutual consolation within the natural world disappears.

Living Primally for many people means cultivating something of that original relationship and benefitting from that sense of integration. There’s a grander, enigmatic power beyond us, and we all return to it. Those we love when lost are incorporated into it again in a way that isn’t just the literal dust to dust but is part of the mythic dance of life our ancestors understood. Grief had a clear and ritualistic role, and it too was communally revered. Ceremony and story placed feelings in a larger collective container. We can reclaim those rites for ourselves in our own lives however they make sense for us.

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, resilience isn’t about being emotionally impenetrable. Nor is it about simply being strong and solid enough to preserve the self that already exists. It’s not even about the grit to supposedly resist or keep out the negative effects of crisis. It’s about the ability to incorporate adversity and to grow from it.

Beyond the emotional regulative strategies and social supports we can use when we’re stressed or overcome, we can also cultivate a fundamental flexibility and adaptability within ourselves. Meditation and mindfulness practices can be helpful to this process. Exploring approaches like Stoicism’s negative visualization can help us let go of outcomes and our attachment to our will in exchange for peace with what is present now.

Because the fact is, things do fall apart. None of us are guaranteed an easy ride in life. The more we can let go of the idea that we deserve to not feel stress or pain or grief or frustration, the healthier we’ll be. Unconditional acceptance—for circumstances and the emotions we’ll go through in responding to them—is perhaps the ultimate form of resilience.

In the face of the most serious adversities and losses, we will come unglued to a certain extent. If we can see that as a useful adaptive response, we can work with it. If we put all our energy into resisting what is and how we’re feeling, we’ll suffer more than we need to. Grok and other traditional groups understood this far better than modern Western humans.

Maybe the most adaptable strength is the willingness to feel all there is to feel in a human life. It’s the willingness to change and be changed by circumstance. The less we clutch our current relationships, our identities, our locations, our jobs, our will and belief about how it all should go, the more emotionally buoyant we’ll be.

Not surprisingly, we find ourselves back at the beginning of the circle with that old Primal principle of advantageous adaptation.

Thanks for reading, everyone. I’d love to hear more about your understanding of emotional resilience. Share your thoughts in the comment board, and enjoy the end of your week.

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28 thoughts on “How to Develop Emotional Resilience in the Modern World”

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  1. “Because the fact is, things do fall apart. None of us are guaranteed an easy ride in life. The more we can let go of the idea that we deserve to not feel stress or pain or grief or frustration, the healthier we’ll be. Unconditional acceptance—for circumstances and the emotions we’ll go through in responding to them—is perhaps the ultimate form of resilience.”

    Tell that to the modern parents who insist on bubble-wrapping their children against experiencing precisely those emotions. Everybody’s special; everyone gets a trophy; there are no winners or losers, etc. I work with young millennials who were brought up this way, and it’s a very rare day I don’t have to deal with one figuratively crying about how unfair something is or that their duties are too hard/much–if they’re not outright quitting the second there’s resistance to something. When the Brussels attacks occurred last week we had a slew of requests from kids that wanted to go home because they were “grieving.” One of my managers said that we didn’t shut down on September eleventh. That went over well (not). Not every millennial is like that, but enough to make things difficult. If they’re this bad over minor things, when a big thing happens–and it will–it’s not going to be pretty.

    1. Every generation complains that the upcoming generation is ill equipped to endure what life will bring to them. From my advantage point as a baby boomer with millennial children, they are growing up in a world where they have to adapt more quickly and be more resourceful in today’s economy. They seem to be better grounded than my generation in some ways, more involved in charitable work, more tolerant, more entrepreneurial and less greedy. Don’t think it adds to the discussion to disparage an entire generation. What does that say about those of us who are responsible for helping to raise them?

  2. I understand this is geared towards major life crises, but sometimes everything really feels like a crisis to me. So I react emotionally – even though I logically know it’s not the end of the world. I think “#firstworldproblems” was invented for me specifically. Anyway, here’s my real challenge – how does the solution (prioritizing social connections) work for someone who is extremely introverted? I’d like to be more resilient, but really prefer alone time, particularly when faced with adversity.

    1. I, too, am an extreme introvert. One of the things I’ve found helpful in my first half century of life is learning how to breathe through the emotions. Let the fear, sadness, grief bubble up from the depths, and breathe yourself through the waves. Emotions are energy in motion – let them move through you. Emotions, especially brought on by someone else’s tragedy, are not yours to hang on to.

      I have a huge toolbox of alternative and complementary techniques to get me through my own trials and tribulations. Bet it EFT/meridian tapping, NLP (neurolinguistic psychology), specific audios to calm my nervous system, I rely on myself first. At this age, I also know when it’s too much to handle alone, and I turn to one or two professionals I trust to get me back on track.

      1. I’ve just started using hypnosis for weight loss (I’ve been primal for a long time but no weight loss as I over eat!) and I have found it amazing for stress. Little things that would wind me up so I couldn’t cope with the big things are no longer a problem. I never have and probably never will turn to other people for help so finding an ‘on-my-own’ solution was necessary.

        1. FYI, you say you’ve been primal for a long time but you overeat. If that’s true then you are not primal as a big part of primal is only eating when you’re hungry and fasting occasionally. I would say if you followed the primal blueprint the little things in life wouldn’t wind you up.

          1. Dear Men,

            Shut up about fasting. Grokesque may not be female, but women have very mixed results (some quite bad) from fasting. You may not live as long as we do, but you won the lottery when it comes to fat loss, muscle mass, and physical stress tolerance. So please shut yer gob!

        2. Yes Roger, that’s why I’m aware I over eat and why I’m using hypnosis to help. I also don’t have a thyroid.

    2. As a perspective from the other spectrum, I was an extreme extrovert for the first 25 years of my life and found a lot of solace in external relationships but I felt very unbalanced and knew I wasn’t handling stress as well as I could be. As I got a bit older, some influences in my life (mother and fiance) gently pushed me to round out my recharging, stress management, and daily life to include other ways to recharge that were more introverted in nature. I gained a lot more internal stability and reliance I was able to call on during stressful times. As I rounded out I felt much more balanced and found stress easier to manage.
      From what I’ve studied on Myers-Briggs introvert/extrovert theory, it seems that people who are able to identify where they are in the spectrum and then gently work closer towards the medium are the happiest and steadiest. That seemed to vibe with my experience.
      Personally I just picked up one small thing at a time that I could do by myself; first reading, then yoga, then working on a blog until I had an array of pass times to support recharging in an introverted way. Perhaps working from the other side of the scale, extreme introvert, and slowly adding one enjoyable ‘extroverted recharging pass time’ at a time would help?

  3. Some things that have really helped me with emotional resilancy are making daily quiet time (prayer/breathing/journaling) a priority, and learning to open up more to my friends. I have learned to accept the help and support of friends and family when before I might have tried to figure everything out on my own. Those two things may seem like opposites, but they really work together for me.

    1. This is exactly what has helped me too. It’s very easy to try to roughhouse it by ourselves, especially if we’re fiercely independent. Prayer has also been a source of encouragement for me in this way, we all have to find our own mechanism for maintaining resilience.

  4. Add to the equation someone who is deficient in transporting neurotransmitters through the blood brain barrier (a polymorphic condition lol?) … in other words suffers from depression, anxiety and / or panic attacks. I could write a book on the challenges having panic attack syndrome poses to developing emotional resilience. You have a condition that on a physical and psychological level convinces you that you are dying, even if intellectually you know you’ve suffered through these episodes many other times and you are not.

    A combination of the right lifestyle and attitude as Mark so wonderfully documented certainly helps mitigate this situation (along with the appropriate treatment plan). I need more sunlight, today is too gloomy and rainy! I need to move to San Diego I guess. 🙂

  5. Mark…I think you have shared a stage with Mark Devine, the author of The Way of The Seal.. I think his writings on this subject, based on his experience as a former Navy Seal and beyond are fantastic. This is a great topic and now one of my favorite posts.

  6. Mark, you wrote this especially for me!

    Lots of interesting perspectives for me to ponder.

    Having been through a fairly extreme 15 months on the ‘stress’ scale I’d say a social network that knows you as they know themselves is the biggest factor, and the one I have been missing.

    For all parents out there – really consider the effect of multiple moves on your children, I had so many addresses and schools in my early years I have no network of friends who’ve always known me. Contrast that to my Mum who still writes to her primary school friends 60 years on… it makes a massive difference to ones emotional resilience.

  7. I like this article. A lot of ideas. I find meditation and yoga help me deal with emotions and stress. I noticed with tragic events I let it get to me. I lost a loved one. But I learned to move past it and I knew that loved one wouldn’t want to see his family all crying over him. He would want us all to be happy. However I never lost a parent/sibling or partner. I can’t even imagine the pain that causes, and I give credit to the people who are able to handle that without losing themselves int he process.

    Although I live with my boyfriend and his grandma lives upstairs. Her husband died 2 years ago and her daughter died about 6 years ago. When her daughter died she let herself and health go. Now she is 300 lbs, diabetic and horrible health. Every other day she is falling and cannot get up. She isn’t taking her meds. It is causing my boyfriends family so much work and stress. It is because of the loss of two family members she let herself go. It’s sad to see some people go this route.

  8. Acceptance is something I’ve had to learn over time. And forgiveness too for those times when I’ve felt unjustly treated. Both help combined with the understanding that things do end – people come and go, jobs change, stress has its ebb and flow, goals and expectations are sometimes met and sometimes not. I am grateful for the maturity I’ve gained over 48 years of living to at least reach this point of emotional awareness. I was also touched thinking of Grok and their challenges of their day – in comparison to my mostly trivial complaints – they are quite an inspiration.

    1. Acceptance and a belief that there is no right or wrong, good or bad and that we are all just doing our best to get our needs met. The work of Dr Marshall Rosenberg and Non Violent Communication has been a great help for me to accept myself and those whom I have trouble connecting with.

  9. It’s human nature to look at every situation with ourselves as the underlying focus. It isn’t easy, but it is possible to learn to look for and open up to other perspectives, beyond how a given situation might apply only to ourselves.

  10. Such an important message, Mark—the value of prioritizing and investing in our emotional resilience.

    I love how, rather than champion some new “life hack”, you point toward returning to our natural place and way of being—with self, others, our surrounds, the universe.

    It doesn’t have to be complicated; it *just* requires attention and care.

  11. This is very relevant for those of us that suffer from Aspergers syndrome. Its difficult to connect on a emotional level when dealing with people who think on a completely different (mostly narrow) frequency. Close relationships are nearly impossible and therefore it is better to be alone. It seems tragic that I may feel a greater loss with the passing of family pet than the loss of spouse. I guess that’s why they call it a “disorder”. I get along with animals better than I get along with people. On the spectrum, canines and equines think in infra-red whereas cetaceans think in ultra-violet. Many humans only think in red(NPR listeners) or blue(FOX watchers), and cannot comprehend a yellow or green perspective let alone ultraviolet or infra red. Obsessing over the truth is taxing especially in a world that feeds us lies and dealing with the narrow minded people that believe these lies. Perhaps that’s why I appreciate Mark’s information. It’s a mindful journey towards the truth in dietary health and personal fitness. Even so we still need to emotionally accept personal entropy as a way of life.

  12. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve sought out advice like Mark’s at a time when I’ve also become better and better at my work. The reason for my improvement has been an increasing focus on being centered – calm, present, relaxed. While calmness has always been central to my very being, this active pursuit of a core sense of being centered has taken this to a different level. I also sense that this in turn has impacted the way that I relate to others in my life. (I am often reminded of the Hitchhiker’s guide credo – Don’t Panic!) Thanks for your good work here, Mark.

  13. I don’t know if it’s because I’m an introvert but while I do sometimes ask for advice or emotional support from close friends and family, I prefer to try and deal with things myself rather than lean too much on others. I feel very connected to the natural world and losing myself in a woodland and just working through my thoughts is something I find very beneficial. I find several of my more extrovert friends are the other way and I end up almost sharing and taking on their every woe in life which I find very draining. I enjoyed this article but it does lean towards the more extrovert, not everyone wants to be ‘connected’ all the time or invite more people into their lives.

  14. There have been a lot of losses around here lately. I live in a rural community in the South, and as you may have read in the news, our people are dying at a faster rate than normal.

    What I have learned is that solidarity is the most important value. We are taught to be competitive, and that life is a zero sum game with winners and therefore losers. We have to shed that mentality and realize that our solidarity as humans is really all we have. The universe does not really care that your husband died suddenly, or that your brother is crazy, or that a teenager raped another teenager. But other humans have the potential to care.

    I have also observed that death really scares Americans. When my ex-husband died, I felt a surprising amount of grief, considering that I didn’t even like him any more. When I tried to talk to people about his death (let alone the complicated feelings around it), a lot of people literally ran away or changed the subject. A family member who is quite elderly himself told me that the subject of death and illness is “boring” and he didn’t want to talk about it or even be around impaired people. Other people practically attacked me verbally, berating me about my feelings at times. It was shocking. Others insisted on proselytizing about Jesus and being saved, even in my grief group. One woman told me that if I didn’t believe in God and the afterlife, I should just kill myself, because my life was meaningless.

    Only a few people were really able to talk to me about this death and the strange grief that accompanied it. It’s hard to say what made those people different and able to listen and talk, except maybe that they were perhaps less narcissistic than the other people. Not all of them had had any real experience with losing a person they were close to. Some were younger than I, and had not yet experienced the death of a person in their generation at all.

    Anyway, this baffling and isolating experience made me realize more than ever that “there’s nobody here but us chickens” and we should for that reason courageously make solidarity with other people our highest value.

  15. Peace to all. What a comforting and timely article (3/30). My mother passed last night. She wa 94 years old. I see that our mother daughter dance is done. It will continue now with my own daughter. It is about mourning, accepting and making the experience part of who I am. Thank you.

    1. Georgina,
      Your post brought tears to my eyes. It’s true–it is an ancient, mother-daughter dance that lasts for two half-lifetimes. Thank you for your post, and my thoughts go out to you in your time of loss.