This is the fifth blog in the series about the principles of building resilience. It has its origin in the research we carried out on resilience and the training based on these principles which is designed to assist people build their resilience. Delegates report the training builds their inner resourcefulness and enables them to live more joyful and fulfilling lives.

The fourth Building Resilience Principle is “Generate positive feelings”. Adversity typically involves strong negative emotions which have the potential to hijack rational thought and so reduce resilience. Fear, anger, guilt and grief are commonly experienced during the “dark night” of real adversity. These negative emotions are associated with surges in adrenaline and cortisol (the “stress hormone”) which prepare the body for the dramatic and life preserving fight, flight or freeze responses. In modern times however, the associated physical reactions are seldom useful and if experienced for a prolonged period, can have negative physical impacts.

Negative feelings are in themselves not “bad” as they convey important messages about the severity of the adversity. In excess however, they can lead to substantially reduced mental and even physical functionality and thus the capability to deal with the adversity: thinking and decision-making become impaired; sleeping, eating and relaxing become difficult.

The need to control strong feelings was highlighted in our research by a single parent mother of a 14 year old son who was living in a gang infested part of the Cape Flats area of Cape Town. She described him as having been “an ideal child” doing well at school, having good friends, attending church with her and helping out in their small apartment. Then seemingly out of the blue she one day realized that his behaviour had changed, he was missing school and mixing with a different group of friends. On investigation, she discovered he was taking tik (a highly addictive amphetamine drug). She described her initial emotions as a mixture of extreme anger, fear, depression, hurt, guilt and disappointment. Confronting the boy and getting him into rehabilitation required her to not succumb to these powerful feelings, which she did with guidance from her employer’s Employee Assistance Programme. Once she had mastered her fears, she was able to deal rationally with the boy and got him to successfully undergo a drug rehabilitation programme.

Strategies to deal with strong personal negative emotions include deep breathing, taking time out, positive self talk (although recent studies have indicated that simply reciting affirmations can in some cases do more harm than good) and meditation.

Controlling negative feelings is the first step; generating positive feelings needed for resilience to bounce back is the next. Positive feelings are effectively created by connecting to one’s purpose and meaning in life, using one’s strengths and reaching out to others. In addition, there are two exercises we have found useful in generating genuine positive feelings. One is a savouring exercise which involves reflecting daily on three good things which you have done each day and their impact on others. The second is a written exercise which requires creating a journal of your best possible outcomes in the future using topics such as loving relationships; career; finances; physical; faith; health; hobbies and so on. Both exercises typically result in enhanced feelings of excitement and joy in living a life of involvement and potential.

The implication for you is simple: what is the most effective way you control your negative feelings and in addition, what is the most effective way you generate positive feelings? Your resilience depends on how effectively you do this!