Emotional agility: how to build resilience in times of crisis

“Life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility.” This quote by Dr Susan David perfectly encapsulates the importance of emotional agility. We love and we lose, we are healthy and ill, we complain about someone, then we miss them when they’re gone. The complex interplay between beauty and fragility is at the core of life.

Dr Susan David defines emotional agility as our ability to experience our thoughts and emotions in a way that encourages us to reveal the best of ourselves. Emotional agility is not about being positive or optimistic all the time—quite the opposite. Instead of constantly chasing happiness and denying the fragility of life, emotional agility encourages us to accept both the positive and negative emotions we are bound to experience throughout the years.

Letting go of expectations

Especially in the self-help and entrepreneurial world, it’s common to hear people claim something along these lines: with crisis comes opportunity. Many people in Western culture have wrongly learned that the Chinese word for “crisis” (危機) is made of two characters signifying “danger” and “opportunity” respectively. 危機—pronounced “wēijī”—actually means “danger at a point of juncture.” With crisis may come opportunity; however, more often than not, with crisis comes uncertainty. And while a little bit of uncertainty can be exciting, too much uncertainty is anxiety-inducing.

Times of crisis have a way to throw your plans out the window. One week you are making plans for a trip with your family, the other you are hastily figuring out how to work from home. One week you are brainstorming new menu items for your restaurant, the next one you are calling your bank to negotiate an emergency loan.

According to Dr Susan David, while this uncertainty is inherently stressful, we are often making it worse for ourselves by clinging onto our expectations. We tend to associate the anchor point of our happiness with specific goals. “When I get that promotion, I will be happy.” “When I finish that marathon, I will be happy.” “When I’m cured, I will be happy.”

When these goals become suddenly out of our control, we feel frustration, fear, anxiety, grief, sadness. And because society has taught us these emotions are negative and to seek happiness first and foremost, we do our best to push them aside.

But research shows that seeking happiness paradoxically makes us less likely to be happy. As the researchers put it: “Valuing happiness could be self-defeating, because the more people value happiness, the more likely they will feel disappointed.”

We should instead develop emotional agility to let go of our expectations and accept the full range of our emotions—the good, the bad, and the ugly. This is especially true in times of crisis.

Observing our inner world

We are taught to label emotions as positive and negative. We either rationalise them, bottle them up, and brush them away, or we get stuck into them, unable to move on at all. But emotions are neutral pieces of information about how we feel and think, and should be viewed as such. Dr Susan David recommends to be “compassionate and curious.”

Being compassionate means accepting the reality of these emotions. Loneliness, grief, anxiety, fear—they all hurt. But they also give us a valuable window into our inner world. Being curious is about asking ourselves: why do I feel this way? What is my frustration telling me about what is important to me? What is my anger telling me about what I value?

Of course, having such a calm approach when looking at our thoughts and emotions is not easy. But with practice, we can then start examining them in a mindful and values-driven way. Studies show that developing such emotional agility can help us alleviate stress, become more innovative, and—while this is not the priority in times of crisis—improve performance. So what are some practical ways to develop emotional agility?

Three ways to cope in times of crisis

There is no magic formula to deal with trauma or crisis. There are just more or less healthy ways to cope. Some strategies may work in the short term, but become damaging in the long term. And everyone has different levels of emotional agility as well as different circumstances. That being said, there are three main pillars to coping in times of crisis.

Emotional Agility: Contact, Contribution, Compassion
  • Connection. While some alone time can be helpful, and even necessary, to deal with your emotions—loneliness is not the same as solitude—it’s often better to seek support from friends, family, or even from a professional. Loneliness tends to amplify our tendency to judge our emotions as negative.
  • Contribution. Times of crisis make us feel helpless. Gaining back some form of control by contributing to managing the crisis can give us a sense of control. Are there any initiatives you can contribute to? Is there a charity where you could volunteer, an article you could translate for someone, a student you could mentor, some products you could deliver to someone in need?
  • Compassion. Be kind to yourself and to others. Accept the whole range of your emotions, and realise that other people may also be struggling with their own emotions. Show forgiveness when someone doesn’t react the way you expected them to. Times of crisis affect people in different ways—especially in the case of global crises, where jobs and lives are on the line—and compassion is key to staying grounded and connected.

These recommendations are based on a fantastic interview Dr Susan David had with TED. It’s also available as a podcast TED Talks Daily. I highly recommend giving it a listen for all the nuances Dr Susan David brings to the concept of emotional agility.

Again—if you are currently struggling with your mental health, don’t go through it alone. Here is a list of mental health helplines in the UK; here in the US. Stay safe.

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