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emotional resilience

How to Build Emotional Resilience Instead of Making New Year’s Resolutions

Reading Time: 8 minutes

It’s that time again—time to crack open a brand new year and get started on all the goals we’ve been procrastinating. Making New Year’s resolutions is a great way to start … right? Nope, not according to researchers and mental health experts. Their recommendation is to learn how to build emotional resilience instead.

Why focus on emotional resilience instead of accomplishments? Because measuring our worth by what we achieve and how many items we can check off our list won’t support mental health or life satisfaction in the long run. New Year’s resolutions are typically based on our idea of what will make us more likable or impressive, rather than what really matters to us.

What would it feel like to stop striving toward goals and start embracing everything you already are? That’s the first step to build emotional resiliency and the well-being that resilience creates.  

Why Resolutions Don’t Work

Studies show that most New Year’s resolutions don’t work. In part, that’s because we tend to set unrealistic expectations and goals. We set out to do too much in too many different areas of life, and quickly give up because the tasks we’ve set for ourselves are so daunting. And instead of examining our real desires and motivations, we use others’ achievements as a guide.

Young adults in particular constantly compare themselves to others’ looks, habits, and accomplishments, as portrayed in carefully curated images on social media. That can lead to a sense of unworthiness and lack, which drives them to make unattainable goals for themselves. This mindset can lead young people not only to give up on reaching those goals, but also to drop out of college or quit a job.

Know the Facts

23 percent of people quit their resolution after just one week, according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Scranton.

Moreover, the idea that we can change our habits simply through willpower is flawed. Our behaviors are typically rooted in underlying psychological patterns created by past experiences as well as our current emotional needs. It may seem counterintuitive, but in order to create positive change and forward movement, we must first come to know and accept ourselves as we are. Without that essential—and often challenging—work, true transformation cannot occur.

Can Resolutions Actually Hurt Your Mental Health?

Statistics show that making a resolution is extremely likely to end in giving up on it. As a result, failure is baked right in. For those who struggle with self-esteem or suffer from depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues, giving up and “failing” at a goal can exacerbate negative emotions. Feelings of shame, self-hatred, hopelessness, disappointment, and despair can accompany the process.

In an essay on The Mighty, Laura Snelling, who has struggled with mental illness since she was a teenager, writes with raw honesty about her attitude toward New Year’s resolutions: “I already hate myself and think I’m a failure and a waste of space because I can’t do anything right. The moment I didn’t stick with my resolution for the first time, is like promising disaster. My mental stability would plummet down the drain because I just screwed up yet again, and here I am validating that I can’t do anything right and I’m definitely a failure.”

Perfectionism and the Negative Impact of Resolutions

Moreover, young adults who push themselves to achieve goals due to perfectionism and self-judgment often do so at the expense of other parts of their lives. Consequently, they sacrifice balance and well-being in pursuit of achievement and attainment. Furthermore, setting goals around health-related behaviors can be triggering for young adults with disordered eating or exercise addiction.

In addition, it’s common to achieve goals and feel an immediate sense of satisfaction that subsequently dissolves and leaves us back where we were before. That can leave young adults with the feeling that no matter what they accomplish, that don’t feel any better. As often as you’ve heard it, it still bears repeating: True happiness doesn’t come from achievements. So where does it come from? In part, it comes from emotional resilience, which allows us to rebound from difficulty with stronger self-knowledge and emotional awareness.

How young adults build resilience
How young adults build resilience

What Is Emotional Resilience, and What Builds Resilience?

The word resilience comes from the Latin resilio, defined as “to bounce back” or “retaliate.”What is emotional resilience? It’s the ability to navigate challenging experiences and recover more quickly from adversity.

It’s impossible to avoid grief, disappointment, distress, and other negative emotions. But emotionally resilient people tend to move through these experiences more easily and return to their usual levels of well-being. Resilience doesn’t make emotional pain go away forever. Rather, emotionally resilient people are able to grow from their difficult emotions and experiences.

Furthermore, resilience and mental health are closely linked. Multiple studies point to the link between resilience and mental health. Resilience is a source of positive emotions, overall well-being, and self-compassion. Young adults with higher levels of resilience are less likely to experience depression, trauma, and anxiety. Resilient people also have a lower risk of turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse, self-harm, or eating disorders.

People with higher levels of emotional resilience have an easier time adapting to stressful situations or crises, with fewer negative effects. They’re able to bounce back more quickly from setbacks, and to take challenges in stride.

Kristin Wilson, MA, LPC,
Chief Experience Officer, Newport Healthcare

Characteristics of Emotionally Resilient People

Positive psychology researchers have identified a number of traits and behaviors that help with building resilience in adults of all ages, including:

  • Having a sense of purpose and meaning
  • Cultivating optimism
  • Feeling a sense of gratitude
  • Being drawn to help others
  • Using humor to cope with hardships
  • Strong social connection and support
  • A willingness to confront and grow from difficult emotions and difficult situations.

Moreover, all of these traits can be cultivated in order to boost low emotional resilience and enhance mental health. This is what’s known in positive psychology as “an upward spiral of positive emotions”—the opposite of a vicious cycle.

What Are the 7 Cs of Resilience?

The 7 Cs model of resilience was first published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2006. It draws from the 5 Cs Model of Resilience, which was established by the Positive Youth Development movement, and adds two more (coping and control). Together, these seven qualities create a roadmap for building emotional resilience. Hence, the 7Cs of resilience are:

  1. Competence: the sense that you have the ability and skills to deal with stressful situations and tough times
  2. Confidence: a feeling of self-worth and self-esteem that allows you to move forward and take risks when necessary in order to recover from adversity
  3. Connection: social support in the form of authentic and trusting relationships with friends and family, and a larger community, such as a workplace, college, activist group, etc.
  4. Character: a sense of integrity, the desire to do the right thing, and the strengths that support you to do so
  5. Contribution: giving one’s time, talents, and caring to others and to the world, which is proven to enhance meaning and purpose, boosting self-resilience and well-being
  6. Coping: healthy coping mechanisms to turn to during stressful moments rather than maladaptive coping strategies like self-harm, disordered eating, or substance abuse
  7. Control: a sense of agency over and responsibility for one’s own life

How to Build Resilience: 5 Evidence-Based Approaches

Some people seem to have naturally high resilience levels, while others have low emotional resilience. However, recent research shows that building resilience in adults, and even in children and teens, is possible. We can build resilience just as we would work to acquire any other skill. For young adults, becoming an emotionally resilient person may in fact be easier, because the brain continues to develop up to around age 24. Therefore, young people are actually biologically more receptive to building emotional resilience.

Here are five ways to build self-resilience in everyday life, stress resilience in the workplace, and emotional resilience in relationships.

Start with self-compassion

Offering yourself acceptance, compassion, and unconditional love regardless of your perceived flaws or failures is central to developing resilience. A study with teens and young adults done by Kristin Neff, well known for her research in this area, shows that resilience and self-compassion go hand in hand. Neff suggests that we build resilience by using compassionate self-talk or touch, such as placing a hand or both hands on your heart when you feel stress or self-judgment arise.

Reframe the narrative

Reframing self-judging thoughts and stories can help young adults to break the habit of negativity and see themselves and the world in new and more positive ways. Reframing can enhance self-esteem and self-confidence. Looking for the positives in a situation also trains the brain to focus on strengths and opportunities rather than flaws and problems. For example, a young adult can reframe “I’m bad at X” into “I’m still learning how to do X.” Or, “I messed everything up” might be reframed as “I see what didn’t work well and I can do it differently next time.”

Practice mindfulness

Mindful practices like yoga, guided meditation, and even simply deep breathing help to enhance self-acceptance and self-awareness. They also help us become more emotionally resilient by increasing our ability to be in the present moment, rather than regretting the past or worrying about the future. Moreover, these practices build resilience on a neurobiological level as well. Mindfulness exercises increase what’s known as vagal tone, a measurement connected to the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) nervous system. And high vagal tone is correlated with stronger stress resilience.

Develop strong social connections

Having a strong social support network is proven to increase resilience and counteract what’s become known during the pandemic as “virtual isolation.” These connections may include friends, family, colleagues, and mentors, as well as a mental health professional who can guide you in addressing underlying issues affecting your well-being.

Appreciate what’s good in your life

Research done with university students shows that consciously practicing gratitude increases stress resilience and positive emotions. So instead of making a New Year’s resolution, consider ending the year by reflecting on your silver linings, your supportive connections, and the things you love about yourself. Then begin 2022 with the knowledge that where you are right now is exactly where you need to be. From a foundation of self-acceptance, gratitude, and resilience, growth and change will happen naturally.

How to Build Emotional Resilience in the Treatment Environment

At Newport Institute, we focus on building emotional resilience in every aspect of a young person’s life as part of addressing mental health concerns. Skills for building emotional resilience support young adults in school, in the workplace, in relationships, and in establishing a sense of self and sense of purpose.

In our residential and outpatient programs, young adults build emotional resilience and healthy coping strategies through tailored treatment plans designed for their specific needs and stage of life. Clients’ daily schedules include a variety of clinical, life skills, and experiential modalities, including cognitive reframing exercises, meditation and yoga, peer bonding, and gratitude practices.

Contact our Admissions team to find out more about our specialized approach to young adult treatment and our nationwide locations.

Key Takeaways

  • Studies show that most New Year’s resolutions don’t work, often because we tend to set unrealistic expectations and goals. Moreover, true happiness doesn’t come from external accomplishments.
  • As compared to resolutions, building emotional resilience is an ongoing process that can lead to lifelong well-being. Emotionally resilient people tend to move through difficult emotions and difficult situations more easily and return to their usual levels of well-being.
  • Resilience and mental health are linked. Research shows that young adults with higher levels of emotional resilience are less likely to experience depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
  • According to positive psychology, emotionally resilient individuals have a certain set of ttraits and behaviors, including optimism, humor, and gratitude.
  • We can build resilience just as we would work to acquire any other skill, by building our levels of self-compassion, mindfulness, and social support.

Frequently Asked Questions About How to Build Emotional Resilience

What creates emotional resilience?
Emotional resilience encompasses a set of traits and practices that support people to move through and grow from difficult situations. We can all cultivate stronger resilience through our choices and behaviors.

What are the 5 Cs of resilience, and what are the 7 Cs of resilience?
The 5 Cs model of resilience (competence, confidence, connection, character, and contribution) was established by the Positive Youth Development movement. The 7 Cs model, first published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2006, takes these five elements and adds two more (coping and control).

What are three ways to build resilience?
Gratitude, mindfulness, and self-compassion are three evidence-based strategies for building emotional resilience.


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Mental Health / December 26, 2022

Newport Institute

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