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How Resilience Works

Harry Mills, Ph.D. & Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 4th 2016

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.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Good job - Aleni Feata - Aug 27th 2010

This website helps me alot with my health work. Who ever came up with the idea of designing this website. whao....fantastic idea mate... keep up the good work. God bless!!!!

Its a choice - Karen Coe - Jun 13th 2008

We can as idividuals choose to "overcome " things in our life. Life is always changing and the things around us. We can either watch the change or wonder "why" or embrace the change and "run with it".

Life is always going to change but it does not have to controll us, we need to take control of life and what it has to offer. Emotional resilience can be challenging but we can bounce back through any situation if we take charge of our own responses.

Been there, done that, and am still bouncing!

Good points from all.... - - Nov 20th 2007

I can understand all points... and at different times, can feel each ones truth. I came to find this article in hard times while searching for this subject. I came back with the most perfect match than the internet has ever given me before, this article

. When one doesn't have the means to get help, surviving can only and truely come from you yourself. When no soul or means allows you to get outside help. I have had a very long line of abuse happening to me over and over from when I was a kid and up until adulthood... I can just understand all the posters points they make, including the Editors'. I can understand them... just can't find a way out of it myself yet.



- David - Nov 13th 2006
Changing how one FEELS is not really an effective way to deal with ones core issues (ones childhood). That is why one drinks or takes drugs to escape from feeling ones fear or pain. What I learned from years of therapy was to FEEL my feelings & if the FEELING is OVERWHWLMING to realise that the FEELING (pain, shame, fear etc) is probably from my CHILDHOOD & not the PRESENT. One needs to have SUPPORT & to get VALIDATED for ones FEELINGS, whether it be FEAR, SHAME or PAIN. FEELINGS don’t KILL one, it is ESCAPING from how one FEELS where the PROBLEM lies. No matter what you do whether it be to drink, take drugs, jogging, overeating, sex etc, one still wakes up at 2am feeling fear, pain etc. I have done the work (through the grace of God). I have empathy for anyone who suffers from DEPRESSION [BLACK DOG]. When one is in that SPACE (depression) one feels like one is in HELL. I hope my comments are of some help to: CHANGING EMOTIONS CHANGES NOTHING!! - - Nov 11th 2006


People get depressed because they don't know of any ACTION to take. They can't see any options to their situation. WHAT GOOD DOES CHANGING HOW YOU FEEL MAKE? You can "choose" to feel "happy" when you're depressed, and yet the situation that brought you to depression is STILL THERE! WHAT HAVE YOU GAINED? Feeling "good" when there's no action you can take to make a situation improve sounds totally insane!! People don't just get depressed! You make it sound like people can just "cope" themselves out of a situation. It sounds like DELUSION AND DENIAL. Depression needs ACTION to solve problems. You have to take some responsibility and ACT to make things better!! You can't just "think" or "cope" them better!! It's when there's no way out that people fall to dispair...

Editor's Note: No need to yell. The two goals, feeling better and acting differently, are not mutually exclusive. In fact, if you can work on your attitude so that you feel more hopeful about your situation, and maybe feel a little better, you have also likely motivated yourself to take actions that will further help you feel better. The one can lead or support the other. Action in the absense of motivation is more difficult to accomplish

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