Emotional Resiliency for Sensitive People

I'm a sensitive person. Things that other people seem to just shrug off impact and disrupt my day significantly.

For a long time I thought I needed to “toughen up.” I thought being resilient meant having a thick exterior that wouldn’t let any hurtful experiences come in. I'm glad I’ve changed my opinion about what resiliency means. 

I've come to see my sensitivity as one of my greatest strengths. It allows me to connect deeply with the people around me and to experience my life fully. I don’t want a life that is insensitive and cut off from the connections that give meaning to my existence.

So if resiliency isn't a thick wall between life and me, what is it then?

I’ve come to believe resiliency isn't having no emotional reaction, but rather is about bouncing back quickly. Here is my current working definition for resiliency: having a well-rehearsed system for getting to a stable and balanced place after the inevitable ups and downs that come our way.

So this leads to the question; how can I become more resilient?

Five Steps for Emotional Resiliency

Stop: So many times I’ve made situations worse by overreacting on the spot. “Restraint of pen and tongue” was a hard earned skill for me. I had to burn myself several times by sending an email too soon or making a phone call when I should have taken a deep breath first. Rarely have I been in a situation where reacting while I’m emotional is helpful. Meditating regularly sets me up to be calmer and more self-aware when stressful situations inevitably appear.

Label the Feeling: For the same reason that we shouldn't label people, we should label anxious, worried, or disruptive emotions. Putting a label on something limits and constricts it. Labeling a person is dehumanizing by restricting the range of their human potential. Labeling a negative emotion puts a tight little box on it as well. I strive to label emotions and not people. When I label an emotion I have started a process of separating myself from it. Example, “Oh! This is that fear of disappointing authority figures that I tend to have where I overreact to a boss’s criticism.”

Get Creative: When we’re in fear, worry, anger or sadness the “lizard” brain has taken over. These emotions (sometimes referred to as amygdala hijackers) shut off our prefrontal cortex which is the section of the brain we can use to get rational and positive about our situation. Using our imagination is a great way of changing which part of the brain is active. Try getting creative to activate the prefrontal cortex by asking yourself a question like this; “What would it look like if I were unphased by this situation? How would I react if I were cool under pressure, loving and compassionate or taking an action I would be proud of?”

Don’t Do It Alone: I always bring my heartache, stress and worries to a friend or other member of my support group. We're very lucky in the Zen Happiness Project because one of the things I see often is our friends bringing their difficulties to the discussion group and getting positive support from each other. We don't have to do this alone. I'm stronger when I reach out and gain the strength of those who support me.

Meditate: One might be surprised that this is the last step and not the first. In many ways it is both. I meditate daily almost as a preemptive or prophylactic measure. Tough stuff always shows up unannounced and I want to be prepared when it does come. So, I meditate every morning to “suit up” for the day. In the face of a stressful situation I find meditating immediately doesn’t help much. I need to take some practical steps to calm down enough to be ready to meditate. After stopping, labeling, getting creative and reaching out for support, I’m ready for the soothing reset button of a meditation session.

May your practice go well!

Anthony A. Cernera, M.Ed.

P.S. Next Wednesday will be the start of a new 10 Day Meditation Challenge. If you haven't participated before, this is a short burst of intro and daily encouragement that will help you get a practice started. This challenge's theme is Emotional Resiliency and Intro to Zen Meditation. Sign up here