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How to Develop Emotional Resilience in the Modern World

Job 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 [1] 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 [2] 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 [3] and continuing. Think adaptability rather than invulnerability.

I think we all recognize that Grok and his kin [4] 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 [5] 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 [6]. 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 [7], 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 [8] 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 [9] 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 [10] 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 [11]. 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 [12], 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 [13] 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 [14]—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 [15] 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 [16] 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 [17]and mindfulness [18] practices can be helpful to this process. Exploring approaches like Stoicism’s negative visualization [19] 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 [20] 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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