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Build Resilience by Creating an Upward Emotional Spiral

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Happy woman lying on grass

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Want to be more resilient? Start building your resilience now and benefit in hard times. Start by being mindful with your emotions and learning to focus on 'moments that glisten.'

In today’s world, resilience might be the single most important character trait you can have. Grit—tenacity—helps you overcome the inevitable obstacles that present themselves in your personal and professional life. 

Resilience can be built, and you’re much better off working on your resilience now instead of waiting and building it after tragedy strikes. 

One huge element of resilience is your emotional baseline. If you’re prone to negative thoughts—don't worry, we all are! But working to create a more positive baseline, intentionally seeking out and savoring positive experiences, can make a big impact on your ability to bounce back from adversity. Think of it like creating a well of positivity you can draw from in troubled times. (The mindfulness work involved in monitoring your emotions, by the way, is also great training for resilience!)

Psychologists have found that negative thoughts such as fear, anger, and sadness act like velcro in our mind—they get stuck in our awareness. We nurture these harmful emotions by attaching to the situation that caused them and worrying about what it means for us moving forward. It's hard to be resilient when you're chronically stressed even in times of relative calm. 

Increase Moments That Glisten

Positive emotions, on the other hand, are notoriously fleeting—happiness, awe, and humor never saved anyone from a saber-toothed tiger. These emotions have a tendency to come and go quickly, easily dismissed by our hypervigilant mind. The result is that even if your life is mostly filled with good things, your emotional life might be more negative than positive. 

Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, one of the pioneers in the field of positive psychology, found that the ideal is a three-to-one ratio of positive to negative emotions. Though scientists still debate whether we can set an exact ratio to an emotional experience, there is no argument that a higher positive to negative emotion ratio has important implications for mental health, overall wellness, and cognitive support. 

People who tend to their emotional experience in this way tend to thrive at a higher level; they actually have a wider view, figuratively and even literally—with positive emotions we see and notice much more of the world around us. 

Whatever your current ratio is you can tip it in the right direction … and it doesn’t mean walking around whistling a happy tune and pretending that everything is fine. Implementing these three subtle practices can, potentially, make a profound difference.

Three Steps to Cultivating Positive Emotions

Be open. Whatever the circumstances of our lives, there are always ways to find some light. Positive emotions such as gratitude, wonder, curiosity, and awe are easily accessible if we are willing to turn toward them. Look for little things to be grateful for or curious about. Widen your gaze to notice the color of the sunset in the clouds or to sit in awe as you listen to a bird sing.

Hold it gently. When you open yourself to these positive emotional states, shift your awareness to your body. Notice the sensations of gratitude, humor, curiosity, and wonder. Feel them swirling through you and let yourself bask in those sensations.

Let it go. Trying to hold too tightly to these positive emotions can have the opposite effect that you are looking for. You might feel a sense of loss that you can’t hold onto a feeling of gratitude or meaning, but they are not meant to be held onto. Let them go as softly as they arrived, return to your awareness, and be open for the next moment.

With enough practice, we can shift our ratio toward positive emotions. Doing this, we don’t lose touch with reality, we simply become more able to deal with the reality that presents itself to us in a more compassionate and creative way.

Read more about Fredrickson’s take on love.

More Than Happiness and Joy

Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, a pioneer in the field of positive psychology, developed the broaden and build theory, which explores the effect positive emotions have on our ability to take action in a new way. In her book Positivity, Fredrickson writes, “Joy sparks the urge to play and interest sparks the urge to explore.” Through actions such as playing and exploration, one’s personal resources are expanded—physically, socially, and psychologically. 

According to Fredrickson, positive emotions go beyond laughter and happiness, and can, she says, “literally change the boundaries of our minds and hearts.”

The Big 10 Positive Emotions:

  1. Love
  2. Joy
  3. Gratitude
  4. Serenity
  5. Interest
  6. Hope
  7. Pride 
  8. Amusement
  9. Inspiration
  10. Awe

Fredrickson stresses that this opening of the mind is not limited to just our own personal circumstances; it gives us a wider view of humanity. We can see our connection to others and the bigger systems at play in all of our lives. 

She closes Positivity with this thought: “By making more moments glisten with positivity, you make the choice of a lifetime: You choose the upward spiral that leads to your best future—and to our best world.”

Read the second article in Kalia Kelmenson's series on resilience: “Roadmap for Resilience After a Broken Heart.” Coming later in the week: “5 Ways to Supercharge Your Resilience.”


Kalia Kelmenson

Kalia Kelmenson is the editorial director at Spirituality & Health. She founded Maui Mind and Body to support women’s health, and is the creator of Mind Body Booty Camp. Kalia loves to explore the fascinating intersection of fitness and mind-body health, and to share inspiration for your movement practice from the research emerging from this intriguing field.



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