5 Exercises for Building Emotional Resilience for You and Your Child
In today’s overwhelming environment, it’s more important than ever to develop emotional resilience—the ability to recover from stress and anxiety. With constant device usage, adults, teens, and kids face a never-ending news cycle and pressures from social media. Add the challenges of living with a chronic condition like Gaucher disease, and developing life skills that exercise emotional resilience become vital.
For suggestions, we turned to Janine Domingues, PhD, a clinical psychologist in the Anxiety Disorders Center at the New York City-based Child Mind Institute. Dr. Domingues specializes in the evaluation and treatment of anxiety and mood disorders. She has a specific interest in helping children and families affected by trauma or who struggle with anxiety disorders, behavioral problems, or post-traumatic stress disorder. She is passionate about helping children and their families develop resilience, strength, and hope.
What Is Emotional Resilience?
Emotional resilience—also called emotional agility—is the ability to bounce back emotionally from stressful situations. It means you can cope or deal with distress and move forward, Dr. Domingues explains.
“Returning to the baseline means returning to the emotional state you had before a stressful event,” she adds. “It doesn’t mean you’re not experiencing stress, distress, or anxiety.”
Emotional resilience is not an extraordinary ability but an ordinary one. Everyone can be resilient, and there are skills and exercises you can use to foster that ability.
Why is Emotional Resilience Important?
Emotional resilience means you can manage anxiety and stress in a way that doesn’t impair you on a day-to-day basis. For children, Dr. Domingues calls it “fighting back the worry bully.”
In contrast, people who struggle with emotional resilience experience anxiety or stress so intense that it:
- Becomes the only thing they can focus on
- Doesn’t allow them to do what they need or want to do
- Impacts relationships
Challenges to Building Emotional Resilience Amid COVID-19
2020 has been a year of previously unimaginable challenges. The coronavirus pandemic has raised serious health worries worldwide, resulting in canceled plans, challenging changes in school and work situations, and an economic downturn. Over the summer, the U.S. also has experienced widespread protests relating to desired systemic changes.
As a result of this turmoil, symptoms of anxiety and depression have increased. A U.S. Census survey found that nearly one in three Americans felt anxious or nervous in the preceding week. Coping skills that support emotional resilience are particularly crucial as we face continuing unknowns in the fall.
Anxiety and stress can develop in children and adults of all ages. These disorders have manifested in different ways through each phase of the pandemic, Dr. Domingues says.
- Quarantine/Isolation: “In the beginning, when we all quickly mobilized to quarantine ourselves, there was an uptick in anxiety and stress around adjusting to a new norm,” she explains. “During an adjustment period, it makes sense to feel more stressed and anxious. Children might have more regressive behaviors—being clingy or having sleep disruptions. After we accepted the new norm, we saw a decrease in those behaviors.”
- Prolonged sheltering in place: Later in the summer, there was a second uptick in anxiety as people accepted that the shutdown will be much longer than anticipated. “We saw more disappointment about not seeing friends and anxiety about getting sick,” Dr. Domingues says. Teens are sad about not having graduation or other milestone events that they’ve expected. “These feelings can feed into isolation and symptoms of depression,” she notes.
- Reintegration: As places began to reopen, society entered the reintegration phase. Many families are nervous about going out and wonder what they should do. Teens and parents are feeling nervous about seeing friends in a way that is safe.
People living with Gaucher disease face extra challenges. On top of the day-to-day unknowns of a chronic condition, people with Gaucher may worry about access to medical care or medications. See our coronavirus tips for Gaucher patients.
Emotional Resilience Exercises
The key to practicing emotional resilience and building well-being is to focus on the things you do have control over. “It might not seem like much, but we do have some control,” Dr. Domingues says. “Ground yourself in the here and now.”
For parents, the lines separating family, work, and self have blurred. It’s especially important for them to make time for mental health. She adds, “Self-care is not an afterthought, but something planned out, even if only for two minutes or five minutes a day. It’s important to model for your kids how to do that.”
1. Manage anxiety with paced breathing
“Take a minute a day to focus on your breath,” Dr. Domingues advises. She recommends paced breathing, a deep-breathing technique that involves intentional, slow breathing. Here’s how:
- Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
- Inhale slowly and deeply, until your lungs fully inflate.
- Exhale just as slowly, until your lungs empty all the way.
“Deep breathing has benefits to managing stress and anxiety in the moment but also long term,” Dr. Domingues says. “It helps your body calm down. It sends a message to the brain that you’re OK and can handle what you’re about to face.”
For more self-care tips, see our blog post about coping with stress in the time of COVID-19.
2. Resist “thinking traps”
Thinking about our thinking is important in times of uncertainty. Learning the skill will help throughout life, Dr. Domingues says. Be mindful of falling into anxious thinking, or what she calls “thinking traps,” such as:
- Black-and-white thinking: Assuming everything is perfect or wonderful, or everything is terrible
- Catastrophic thinking: Expecting the worst possible outcome and believing you won’t cope if that outcome occurs
- Predicting the future: Imagining you know what will happen far into the future (for instance, “I won’t be able to go back to school, I’ll never get the education I need, and I won’t go to college”)
How to avoid these traps:
- Catch yourself: Notice when you are spiraling into a trap. You might start feeling sad, panicky, or hopeless.
- Be more realistic or holistic about your thoughts: Ask yourself, or talk with a trusted friend or family member, what’s real and not real about your thoughts. What are the gray areas? Are you missing “in-between” possibilities that are more realistic?
- Use a coping mantra: Come up with a phrase to help you answer your worries. You might try, “I’m doing the best I can, and I’m going to be OK.”
“Being able to turn down that intensity of emotion can lead to more self-care and more effective behavior for ourselves and our mental health,” Dr. Domingues says.
3. Keep a gratitude journal
Even small children can benefit from a practice of gratitude. In a notebook or journal, jot down three things you enjoyed and were grateful for during the day. It can be the smallest thing, like a snack you enjoyed, time with a pet, or something you saw outside.
“Focus on a silver lining for the day,” advises Dr. Domingues. “That shift in thinking can affect how we feel. It can help us manage emotions and what we do in response.”
4. Engage in behavioral activation
“Being behaviorally activated creates a buoy for our moods,” Dr. Domingues says. Behavioral activation can mean physical activity, like exercise. But it can include any activities that give you a sense of control and action. You might try these types of activation:
- Physical: Exercise, dancing, deep breathing, and relaxing your muscles can all be types of activation. Try five bone-strengthening exercises that are beneficial for people with Gaucher disease.
- Thoughts and feelings: Creative projects like painting, drawing, or even doing jigsaw puzzles can be activation. So can outward-focused activities, such as a service project that gives back to others.
- Mastery: Learning a new skill can give you a sense of empowerment. You might use this time to play more guitar or use an app to learn a language.
- Sensory: You might create a self-soothe kit to help turn down the intensity of anxiety and ground yourself. Include something for each of your five senses: something visually pleasing, a smell you like, and things to feel and touch, hear, and taste.
“When we’re sad or having intense emotion, we often have an urge to isolate. With anxiety, the urge is to avoid things. But behaviorally speaking, it can be healthy to think of the opposite action—being with people, getting involved,” Dr. Domingues explains. “We can take small steps to face fear in a way that keeps us safe.”
For example, you may be anxious about going out to a doctor’s appointment because of coronavirus. Do it in a smart way, weighing the risks and benefits. Be sure to take steps—wear a mask, wash your hands, and social distance—to ground yourself and realize you’re OK.
5. Monitor device usage and news intake
In today’s always-on world, it can be tricky to stay informed without getting overwhelmed. The availability of smartphones, tablets, and a constant stream of information affects adults, teens, and kids alike.
Pre-COVID, studies found that among teens who are predisposed to feeling more anxious and depressed, the overuse of devices can increase anxiety and depression. But during the pandemic, social media has been a way for teens and tweens to stay connected.
“The key is to balance connecting with friends in a way that’s productive. It shouldn’t be just how many likes on a picture on Instagram or fear that they’re missing out,” Dr. Domingues noted. “For parents, that means continuing to have an open dialogue on what makes sense for their family and what’s healthiest for them.”
Being in front of a screen all that time is tough for adults too! Screen fatigue and Zoom fatigue are real. With school on hiatus and nicer weather, it’s a good time to get creative with doing things outside as a family. We all need technology to stay connected during this time. But balance device time with old-school ways of finding fun and pleasure, whether it’s writing letters or taking bike rides.
“It’s OK to use social media or gaming to connect to friends, and it’s also OK to set a limit,” Dr. Domingues says.
When to Seek Professional Help for Anxiety
Worry and anxiety are normal emotions. They become problematic when they affect the things you want to do or when a family has to work around anxiety. When that happens, Dr. Domingues says, it’s important to treat the disorder. Otherwise, she says, “Anxiety disorders often don’t go away. They tend to get worse or morph into other disorders.”
To determine if you or your child needs professional support, ask:
- How intense is the emotion? How bad does it feel when you get anxious or stressed? How intense is it when you’re sad? More intense emotions signal a need for help.
- How long does the emotion last? Everyone feels sad or upset now and then. Most people bounce back after a day or two. But if you feel low and anxious every day or don’t feel good on most days for several weeks, it’s time to reach out for support.
- Can you do the things you want or need to do? Severe sadness or depression can lead to staying in bed and feeling unmotivated or irritable. Not wanting any social interaction can be a flag. Similarly, severe anxiety or stress show up as daily worry that you can’t shut off or can’t see beyond. When emotions get in the way of doing things, help might be useful.
For parents wondering if their child’s anxiety is out of control, Dr. Domingues suggests monitoring how much of the day focuses on helping the child manage anxiety or stress. “It’s important for parents to find a balance between meeting kids where they are and helping them push forward and giving tools to manage it all.”
“Honestly, in this time, just about everyone would benefit from talking to a professional,” Dr. Domingues adds. “Especially for those living with Gaucher disease, current events are a lot, on top of the normal concerns and stress of managing a chronic health issue. It can be good to reach out.”
Dr. Domingues ends with a message of hope, saying, “I do really believe in the resilience of people. I do think that we are certainly going to get through this.”
One silver lining of the pandemic is that more organizations, including Child Mind Institute, have moved more operations online—what Dr. Domingues calls “going borderless.” The Institute is able to share more information about mental health and the need for it, destigmatizing mental health and providing services to folks who haven’t had access. Families can find resources by visiting childmind.org/telehealth.
For more support and information, especially for parents helping their kids through these challenges, check the Child Mind Institute’s video archive. The Institute has offered daily Facebook Live talks on the subjects of managing parenting stress, anger, and frustration, and children’s anxiety in general.
- S. Census – Household Pulse Survey: https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2020/05/new-household-pulse-survey-shows-concern-over-food-security-loss-of-income.html
- Child Mind Institute – Janine Domingues bio: https://childmind.org/bio/janine-domingues-phd/
- Selective Mutism Association – Janine Domingues bio: https://www.selectivemutism.org/professional/janine-domingues-phd/
- Child Mind Institute: https://childmind.org/
- Coronavirus Tips for Gaucher patients – NGF: https://www.gaucherdisease.org/coronavirus-tips/