4 ways to make yourself emotionally tougher

Why is it that some people cope well with difficult experiences while others crumble with the anxieties of daily life?
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Why is it that some people cope well with difficult experiences while others crumble with the anxieties of daily life?

It was two in the morning and my mind was still replaying a conversation I had had with a colleague that afternoon – what I said, what he said, what I should have said; over and over. My heart was racing, the clock was ticking and, as the birds started singing, I realised that I'd lost any chance of sleep and would start the day exhausted and irritable – with things only getting worse from there.

To put this into context, I was 40, (generally) happily married, with two healthy children, a solid group of friends and a reasonably successful career as a writer. Yet my mind was all over the place. I didn't just lie awake worrying about things I couldn't change: I made diet and exercise plans, then abandoned them. I felt anxious, on edge, unable to relax.

Perhaps you recognise the feeling. I wasn't suffering from anxiety or depression as such – certainly nothing serious enough to see a psychologist about – but I was worried about what this constant state of low-level stress was doing to my body and mind, which increasingly seemed to falter at the slightest of forces.

Just this week, a study from Pennsylvania State University has linked stress with obesity, heart disease and cancer. The kicker? It's not stress itself that causes these problems, it's how you handle it. Which, if the answer is "not well", just gives you something else to worry about.

But why is it that some people cope well with difficult experiences – some even thrive on them – while others seem to crumble with the anxieties of daily life? While many talk about mindfulness, the new big buzzword among self-improvement circles is resilience – the mental muscle that makes you emotionally tough enough to bounce back.

So what can you do to develop this emotional grit? After yet another sleepless night, I decided to put my psychology degree and 20 years' experience as a science and health journalist to use to find out.

Trawling through journal papers, meeting academics everywhere from Newcastle to New York City, and talking to everyone from a US Marine to a world champion kickboxer, I discovered, thankfully, that resilience isn't just something you are (or aren't) born with – it's something you can build, stretch and strengthen.

Here are their tips as to how:

1. GET STRESSED

Sounds counter-intuitive, but Dennis Charney, dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, has spent decades studying resilience – interviewing those who have survived everything from natural disasters to being tortured as a prisoner of war – and is a big believer that "stress inoculation" builds psychological strength. That is, rather than shy away from stressful situations, take any opportunity to push yourself out of your comfort zone (but not too far). Doing so will develop both the confidence and toolbox of tricks you need to tackle life's slings and arrows.

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Take extreme sports enthusiasts. I'd always assumed they didn't feel fear like the rest of us, but a team of British psychologists who actually sat down with 15 of them, both men and women, discovered the opposite. When asked what was going through his mind when he leaped from a cliff, one BASE-jumper replied: "Please, God, don't let me die." All the participants in the study said they felt fear – acutely, in fact – but experiencing, controlling and pushing past it left them positively charged and "better-equipped to deal with the tribulations of daily life". More resilient, in other words.

This doesn't mean you have to take up BASE-jumping – anything that scares you, whether it's trying mountain-biking or speaking up more in work meetings, will help.

2. BE POSITIVE

Easier said than done, but when I met Ian Maynard, a sports psychologist who has worked with Team GB at various Olympic Games, and is now director of the Centre for Sports and Exercise Science at Sheffield Hallam University, he told me that mentally tough people are invariably "glass-half-full types". An online test from the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Centre (PPC) confirmed what I already knew – that I'm a natural pessimist. But Martin Seligman, director of the PPC, a man sometimes dubbed the modern father of positive psychology, shared his tried and tested technique to increase my optimism levels: write down at the end of each day What Went Well, and why.

The idea is that this helps you to focus on the good things about the day, rather than the bad, and to appreciate your role in helping to bring them about. The recommendation is to aim for three each day, however prosaic – and, sure enough, the accumulation of even very small accomplishments seemed to add up to more than their worth. The more positive I felt about day-to-day life, the more optimistic I became that my days would go well.

3. FOSTER FRIENDSHIPS

People who are lonely are more likely to be depressed and have a 30 per cent higher risk of premature death, according to an analysis of more than 3.4 million people by a team at Brigham Young University in Utah, published earlier this year. That's because they're "less able to get beyond even the normal disruptions, setbacks and mistakes of day to day life", says John Cacciopo, director of the centre for cognitive and social neuroscience at the University of Chicago, who has pioneered research in the field.

Charney concurs, naming social support as one of the most important factors contributing to psychological resilience. Worrying for someone like me, more introvert than extrovert. I have some very good friends, but, I wondered, did I have "enough"?

Thankfully, of all Cacciopo's fascinating findings (and there are plenty), the most crucial is that what matters is not how many friends you have, but how socially connected you feel. And that thinking more kindly about people – concentrating on their strengths rather than their flaws – is a more effective way to build meaningful social connections than simply meeting more people.

4. HIT THE GYM

Like most people, I knew exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, which make you feel good. But it was during a day spent at the Yale Stress Centre with resident exercise specialist Matt Stults-Kolehmainen that I came to understand the myriad ways in which exercise can toughen the mind as well as the body, temporarily boosting positivity and your ability to cope with stress. He found that people who exercise regularly enjoy enduring benefits – calming down faster after a challenging event than non-exercisers, with a quicker and steeper drop in levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

At Columbia University, Carol Ewing Garber has investigated how much exercise you need to do for maximum psychological benefits. The answer? About 150 minutes of "moderate to vigorous" exercise a week, which Matt suggests breaking into five 30-minute chunks. ("Moderate to vigorous" exercise raises your breathing rate and causes you to sweat – if you're not fit, even a walk could count.) Actually 150 minutes is quite a lot. But not as much as I'd feared.

So, how do I feel now I'm keeping up regular exercise, doing things I was scared of, thinking positively and sleeping better? A lot better than when I started. Instead of shying away from challenges such as public speaking, I find I seek them out, because I've come to enjoy the buzz of even the slightest success. That's not to say I don't still get stressed, thanks to setbacks at work, or family squabbles, but now I'm emotionally tougher, I definitely recover more quickly.

Sane, by Emma Young (Hachette, $37.99), is out in New Zealand on June 30.

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 - The Telegraph, London

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