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Build emotional resilience with these quick tips

Published on Thursday, September 1, 2022

By: Ruth Cummins

An African spiny mouse can regenerate its skin very quickly, recovering from injuries that for many other creatures like them would be fatal.

It allows them to survive in an environment packed with predators. It allows them to keep going, keep their health, and keep living life.

Portrait of Danny Burgess

“That’s really what resilience is,” said Dr. Danny Burgess, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “It’s about adapting, and persevering in an environment that you can’t necessarily change. And not only to survive in it, but thrive in it.

“Some of us just try to survive through the day,” he said. “Sometimes, that’s all we can do.”

But how can you become resilient enough to thrive, despite chaos or uncertainty around you? How can you be responsive to change?

“Change can be a curse word in a human language. We resist change, but if you’re open to adjusting, you can survive and thrive,” said Burgess, who directs UMMC’s Center for Integrative Health. Integrative health complements traditional medical care with proven therapies to treat the whole person: mind, body and spirit.

How do you get there? Burgess offers some examples and guidance:

  • If you encounter adversity, trauma or tragedy, don’t pretend it’s not affecting you. “We have to get through it and then build ourselves back,” Burgess said.

    An example is medical students who, one semester in, “are completely overwhelmed and burned out already,” he said. “They might say, ‘There’s nothing wrong. I can keep doing this.’ That’s a great defense mechanism at the beginning, but over time, it’s not a helpful approach.”

    He suggests professional students – and anyone struggling similarly –make sure they’re getting sleep, even if it seems inconvenient. “When medical students are stressed, the first thing to go is sleep,” Burgess said.

    “If your sleep is off, or if you have uncontrolled pain, they are the most stressful things that can happen to your body. If sleep is not consistent, everything else crumbles.”

  • Don’t be satisfied with the mindset of “it is what it is.”

    “That gives up control that you have to change your approach to your environment,” Burgess said. Instead, I say, ‘It is what you make it.’ Saying that there’s nothing you can do is a helpless feeling.”

    Realize that stressors aren’t necessarily your problem. “Our reaction to the problem is much bigger than the problem itself,” Burgess said. “And if the problem paralyzes you, you have created a different problem. Your resistance is what really gets in your way in moving forward and being resilient.”

  • Take care of yourself. You’re worth it, and if you don’t, you can’t be resilient and might not be able to take the blows that life throws and come out of it with your physical and mental health intact.

    Self-care “has to be consistent and in place at all times,” he said. “It looks different for everyone. Find things in your life that restore you and reconnect you. Going to the beach is a self-care event. It can be as simple as a 15-minute meditation or physical activity.

    “Ask yourself what your nutrition looks like, and your sleep. If any of that is off, you can’t work on your resiliency.”

  • Decide what your support looks like, and use it in a way that will defend you against adversity.

    “When you have peer support, especially in the workplace when you have someone to share your grumbles with, it makes us feel better, and that we’re not alone in this,” he said. “That increases your belief that what you do will make a difference. We feel a little more in control.

    “When you have people around you, it helps to bolster your self-efficacy.”

  • Talk with someone. Nurture your relationships. “If you have someone you can connect with, it makes a world of difference,” Burgess said. “A lot of times, my patients will come in and say a lot, and I don’t have a solution. But, they feel so much better because they had someone to listen.”

  • Try to practice mindfulness. In short, it’s a mental state in which you focus your awareness and consciousness on the present moment, accepting your feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations.

    “Learning mindfulness skills is such a great way to help,” Burgess said. “Not to control your emotions or thoughts, but to control how you respond to situations.

  • Reflect.

    “It makes you sit and purposely recall a situation to figure out what it means to you,” he said. “Putting thoughts to paper allows your mind to think about it in a different way. If you are leaving work one day and totally stressed about a situation, instead of going home and strapping yourself to a phone, take 15 minutes and write about it.”

  • Create more of a balance in your life.

    “Start a garden. Go back to church,” Burgess said. “Do your behaviors match your values? If you have things in life that you value but you don’t have them in your life, you’ve got to reflect and say, what’s important to me? That’s one of the first things to go when we’re stressed.”

    Remember, it’s your approach that matters the most, not the problem.

    “If you can re-frame your approach so that you feel more in control of your life, then when a stressor comes your way, you can see it as a challenge, not a threat,” he said.

The above article appears in CONSULT, UMMC’s monthly e-newsletter sharing news about cutting-edge clinical and health science education advances and innovative biomedical research at the Medical Center and giving you tips and suggestions on how you and the people you love can live a healthier life. Click here and enter your email address to receive CONSULT free of charge. You may cancel at any time.