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3 Emotional Intelligence Skills to Boost Your Resilience for Challenging Times and How to Build Them

If you saw the Disney Pixar movie WALL-E, you might remember the little plant that grew from a seedling after toxin levels dropped on an obliterated Earth. The planet was overwhelmed with garbage and tapped of its precious resources. While on trash clean-up duty, Wall-E discovered the little plant growing in a broken-down refrigerator. The seedling managed to survive by taking refuge in a forgotten human possession, and it grew! This is a perfect example of resilience.

In many ways, the pandemic has forced us to nurture our resilience so we can successfully navigate through many unexpected challenges. With the changes brought on by the pandemic, including some that are now permanent, the opportunity is greater than ever to build resilience to thrive.

Just like the little plant, hope fuels our resilience. Three specific Emotional Intelligence skills correlated with resilience are flexibility, stress tolerance, and optimism. By building these three skills, we can better cope with the emotions associated with change or unpredictable circumstances while maintaining hope - even during challenging times. Let’s break each skill down, keeping in mind a basic equation for how Emotional Intelligence can be applied:

Thoughts + Emotions = Behavior

Flexibility is about how we adapt our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors to unfamiliar, unpredictable situations or circumstances. The saying “go with the flow” is one way to embody flexibility and is like skillfully surfing waves, no matter how small or large.

Practicing Flexibility

  • Think about your set routines. Do you ever change the way you do something? It could be a different route to work or school, brushing your teeth with the other hand, or adding a new desired behavior after another routine (drinking a glass of water after brushing your teeth). Trying new things or altering your routine builds up new neural pathways in the brain and activates the executive part of the brain where positivity and creativity reside.

  • It’s essential to squash limiting beliefs and irrational thoughts to build flexibility. Visualize how a successful experience may apply to new challenges or visualize a successful outcome. Olympic ski champion, Lindsey Vonn, was often captured on TV, visualizing a successful run at the top of a slope before taking off.

  • Visualization activates the brain similarly to participation in real events—revealing comparable outcomes. The power of visualization was studied in the 1950s by Dr. Biasiotto at the University of Chicago. He had 90 college students with no previous basketball experience and divided them into three groups. Each group was instructed to take free throws every day for one month, and the results were recorded. Group one that only practiced free throws improved by 24%. Group two solely practiced visualizing free throws and improved by 23%. Group three did not practice or visualization and had a 0% improvement. Interestingly, the improvement gains between the visualization and practice groups are almost identical!

Stress Tolerance is the ability to cope with challenging situations while maintaining the belief that it’s possible to manage these situations positively. An emphasis is upon management from a positive vantage point. Stress is a physical or mental response that can be substantially reduced when the focus is shifted to the present moment. When we focus on the past or future, a stress response is aroused that we call anxiety. Fear might be one response that is triggered in the present moment and is indeed related to being stressful, but only because it has a link to a future outcome. For example, fear of being bitten by a venomous rattlesnake encountered on a hike can get the mind reeling to what happens afterward if the snake bites! A mindful focus on the present will mitigate stressful responses and generate more peace and better outcomes. And as the saying goes - There is no way to peace. Peace is the way! If we want to live a peaceful life, we must practice peace.

Practicing Stress Tolerance

  • Most important for building stress tolerance is to get out of the head and into the body. Focusing on one physical sensation is a great way to disrupt negative mind chatter, creating a heightened stress response. Breath is taken for granted; without it, we perish, and yet, focusing on the rising and falling of the chest or abdomen for a couple of minutes pumps oxygen throughout our body, slows down the sympathetic nervous system where stress resides as part of the fight, flight or freeze response, and reduces stress. The 4-7-8 method is a straightforward breathing pattern to calm the nervous system. Here’s how to do it:

    • Exhale fully through your mouth.

    • Inhale through your nose for four counts (try not to rush).

    • Hold your breath for a count of seven (try not to rush).

    • Take eight counts to breathe out through your mouth, doing so with a force so that you may feel the air pass over your lips.

    • Repeat as many times as practical to get grounded and relieve tension and stress.

    • Using breath as a regular practice has a long-lasting impact.

  • Sight is another popular sensation to focus on. The point is to look at an object with utter fascination deeply. Set a timer for two minutes and choose an item that has some detail on which to focus; a flower or other natural element is a great choice. Next, notice the color, shades, and hues. Then, notice the texture and shapes. When was the last time you focused on an item with so much depth and mindfulness?

Optimism is the ability to maintain a positive outlook even during times of adversity. Focus on forwarding momentum instead of ruminating or reliving the past is key. Optimism is not about giving yourself pep talks because, after a while, you’ll realize that the sincerity is not genuine, and psyching yourself up will fall flat.

Practicing Optimism

  • One way to stop negative thoughts is to expose and record them. Write them down on paper and schedule a firm appointment time to deal with them. You may find when you revisit the thought that it is no longer worth the mental energy. Then throw the paper away in a cathartic, symbolic act if this is the case! Or deal with the thought if it is worth the energy and only do so after prioritizing your self-care (sleeping, eating, getting some exercise) because this is when you will be in the best state to act efficiently and effectively.

  • Reframing is critical to building optimism. Use a notebook or buy a gratitude journal, and every night before sleep, record three things for which you are thankful. Work to find or create three things, no matter how large or small they may be for you.

Consistency is key in building any new habit or behavioral change, as is incorporating positive reinforcement. Schedule time to practice these skills and give yourself a meaningful, modest (though healthy) reward afterward. Also, plan for some failures. There will likely be moments when you fall back to a baseline because your ‘well of will-power’ is finite. This is when it is important to enlist an objective accountability partner, whether a trusted friend, spouse, or professional because it’s challenging to become your best self by yourself. Building these three skills will positively impact your level of resilience. We know from all the fallout of the pandemic and research indicating favorably that resilience is an essential factor in achieving potential, success, and sustained happiness.


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