Resilience, the ability to recover from adverse experiences, is a much sought-after quality but can be elusive. There seems to be a constant tug-of-war between stress and positive mood.
Broaden and build theory suggests that positive emotions broaden our thinking and this sets up an upward spiral of improved problem-solving ability, increased resources, improved health and mood. Positive emotions produce cognitive flexibility, resulting in more creativity, more diversity of thoughts, more efficient thought process. Over time, this cycle of better problem-solving ability and better outcomes becomes self-reinforcing and habitual. We tend to repeat behaviors that bring rewards.
Positive emotions enhance the immune system and buffer against stress. The ability to regain and maintain a positive mood after a stressful experience results in improvements in immune system functioning. People that use humor to cope have higher levels of a particular immunoglobulin (S-IgA) in their saliva. Humor is associated with lower rates of heart disease and better lung function.
Positive emotions offset the physical stress response brought on by negative emotions, thus helping us recover from the physiological effects of stress. So that when we encounter a stressful situation, taking steps to quickly improve our mood reverses the biological processes of the stress response. So the key to resilience is the ability to produce and maintain a positive mood. While some individuals are more prone to negative thinking, whether because of genetics, social learning or trauma, our brains have a high capacity to adapt, even in old age. We call this neuroplasticity, and no matter where you are on the pessimism-optimism spectrum, you can always build on what you have.
Here are a few ways to do just that:
Keeping a gratitude journal improves health, sleep and promotes physical activity. Along those same lines, journaling about positive experiences, meaningful life lessons, can promote the same positive thoughts and same cascade of positive health effects.
Emotional disclosure can enhance health. A study found that writing or talking about traumatic experiences can reduce the negative effects of unexpressed emotions. Initially this seems to run counter to producing positive emotions. The evidence is not strong, and in some studies the effects seem to be temporary. In the end, simple emotional disclosure can lead to rumination, which can perpetuate a bad mood. What makes emotional disclosure helpful, then? If emotional disclosure is coupled with redirection toward optimism, humor or problem solving, then it can produce positive emotions. If the “problem” is simply needing comfort after a stressful experience, having an empathetic witness may “solve” the problem.
Cultivate humor. Watch funny films, shows, videos. Hang out with people who make you laugh. Be careful that the humor isn’t sarcastic or bitter, however. Humor should promote relaxation and optimism, not cynicism or pessimism.
Play. Play helps manage stress and promote recovery from trauma. Play insulates against stress by improving problem-solving skills, building tolerance for frustration, increasing social bonds and promoting brain development. A study found that play produces BDNF, a type of neurotransmitter that promotes growth of new neurons. Play stimulates a sense of joy, produces a biological relaxation response. Simply being aware of when you are engaged in play enhances the experience. Give yourself permission to play. Contrary to some beliefs, it is productive and helps make us more efficient when we do have to work.
Proven Benefits of Play, NPR, Aug. 31, 2018, Anya Kamenetz, https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2018/08/31/642567651/5-proven-benefits-of-play
Psychological Resilience and Positive Emotional Granularity: Examining the Benefits of Positive Emotions on Coping and Health, Tugade, MM; Fredrikson, BL; Feldman Barrett, L; 2004 Journal of Personality, 2004 Dec; 72 (6): 1161-1190.
Disclosure of Traumas and Immune Function: Health Implications for Psychotherapy, (1988) Pennebaker, JW; Kiecolt-Glaser, JK; Glaser, R; Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56 (2), 239-245.