Boost your emotional fitness

There’s no doubt that some people are emotionally ‘stronger’ than others; more able to cope with life’s ups and downs; more capable of keeping a level head while all around are losing theirs. But if you’re not naturally one of them, here are some ways you can improve your emotional resilience…


1 Learn to switch off your ‘panic button’

A technique psychologists call ‘mindfulness’ can help stop your emotions from taking over by grounding you firmly in the physical world around you and then allowing your rational self to take charge. Clinical psychologist Isabel Clarke says, “Let’s say, for example, you’re panicking because you have to give a speech in public. Forget projecting your mind into the future and worrying about what might go wrong. Instead, look around the room you’re in right now. Take in everything you can see – the colours, the people, the objects. What sounds can you hear? What scents can you smell? Now concentrate on your physical self, how your body feels – the slow, calm breaths you’re taking. I find this technique very helpful for dealing with any emotional overreaction, because it allows the physical self to override the emotional self and grounds you completely in the present.” [link]

2 Make anger work for you

“Feeling angry about life’s injustices is natural, but not always easy to control,” says Isabel. “But you can learn to use it positively. First, try to put your anger in perspective and avoid phrases like, ‘It’s not fair!’ that just feed your frustration. As we all know, sadly it isn’t a fair world. Instead, re-direct the energy from your anger into something positive – a physical activity such as swimming or running, or a creative activity like writing or painting. Many people are angry about unjust things that have happened to them in the past, and that anger is often justifiable. But by investing that angry energy in pursuing your life goals you don’t allow it to ruin your present or future.”

3 Boost your self-esteem

“When patients talk negatively about themselves – criticising the way they look, for example – I say, ‘Would you say that sort of thing to a friend?’ and of course they say they wouldn’t,” says Isabel. “Well, making friends with yourself is the key to developing self-esteem. Banish that destructive, self-critical internal dialogue that tells you that you aren’t good enough. Instead, switch it around and talk to yourself the way you would to a good friend – kindly and with respect.”

4 Put things in perspective

“We live in a culture where we let our emotions override everything – we treat even the small problems in life as catastrophes and lose perspective,” explains psychotherapist Phillip Hodson [link]. “So you’ve had a row with your boss, you don’t have as much money as you’d like and there’s a hole in your roof. Well, no one’s died, have they?” he adds, advising that we regularly remind ourselves of what really matters. “And this is your own health, and the health and well-being of your children and partner. Everything else is simply what I call ‘administration’. So learn to grade your emotional reactions and only let the small irritations and disappointments have small reactions. You’ll find you have plenty more time to get on with the business of putting them right this way.”

5 Learn to look ahead

“Sometimes really bad stuff does happen,” adds Phillip, “and this is where even the strongest people can need help. When you lose a loved one, you must put yourself and your feelings first. Emotionally healthy people are able to say, ‘My job right now is to look after my feelings.’ And that is absolutely the right thing to do.” However, whether you’re grieving for a person, a relationship or the loss of a job or a house, it is also important to remind yourself that you will survive. Time does march on and whether it heals or not it pulls you relentlessly forward. It can help to know that no matter what you feel like now, you will laugh, love or work again.

6 Learn to do ‘crisis triage’

“When a crisis occurs, say a relative has been taken ill, it’s easy to lose yourself in your own emotions,” says Phillip. “And this can make you worse than useless. My advice is to perform what A&E doctors call ‘triage’ – quickly evaluating how serious a problem really is, then deciding the best way of handling it. So pause, breathe and take a step back. Now ask yourself the essential question, ‘What needs to happen next?’ not, ‘What do I want or wish would happen next?’ but what the situation needs. This is usually a practical action – in the case of the sick relative it might be that he or she has children that need to be cared for, or you need to drive their partner to the hospital. Your feelings don’t come into it. Once the crisis is over, by all means allow yourself a wobble.”

7 Be a realist

“Optimism is all very well – and better than being a pessimist – but it might not always be in your best interests,” says Isabel. “What if you keep telling yourself, ‘It will all be fine!’ and then it isn’t? Far better to be a positive realist, to tell yourself that you have no control over the future, but you can enjoy living in the present and will deal with whatever comes your way, if and when it happens. In short, a good motto for an emotionally fit person would be, ‘It might not be OK, but I will be’.”

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