Tackle even the most intense experiences, 90 seconds at a time.
I’ve worked in demanding settings, including U.S. Army Ranger training and top-flight management consulting. Outside work, I routinely (and voluntarily) undertake gruelling cycling challenges and other outdoor adventures. I share this not to brag (honest) but to invite you into my own surprise at how sensitive and downright emotionally fragile I am. Surely, someone who’s handled all that stress and hardship must be robust, resilient?
Well, apparently… not this someone. A perceived slight or disrespect from a friend or colleague throws me. Wobbles in my relationship make me vibrate the bolts of my chair loose. Periods of financial or career uncertainty can leave me scrambling for any resolution, even a bad one.
But I am willing to work at things and want to learn and mature. I am building resilience, and you can too. The good news is that it takes only three simple steps. The sobering truth is that it may involve repeating those steps several times a day for the rest of your life.
First, I’ll summarise them. Then, I’ll explain how and why they work.
The following practice works for me. When I say ‘works’, that is when I succeed in step 1. I don’t always manage. In those cases I miss an opportunity and have to live with the repercussions of any childish behaviour that might follow.
When I do my part, the exercise has both an immediate effect and a longer-term, ‘training’ one. In the short term, I act out less frequently, and I seldom slip back into unhelpful internal narratives that would otherwise cycle through my head. I’m normally able to move on. If the commentary does reappear, I can simply repeat the practice.
1. Notice and name my reaction
The crucial first step is to catch my emotional activation. My most frequent evidence that I’m triggered includes when I:
- Blame anyone (including myself) for anything;
- Yearn for resolution to uncertainty;
- Daydream negative ‘what if’ scenarios;
- Explain why I am right for more than 20 seconds.
Having noticed the reaction, I silently name it with as little self-judgement as possible (e.g. I’m rambling to justify my recent behaviour.).
I also give a name to the primary emotion I’m feeling. Karla McLaren’s work is helpful here in giving an emotional vocabulary to draw from. She identifies four emotional families. The fourth isn’t particularly relevant to this exercise, but it’s nice to have the full collection:
- Anger (Anger, Apathy, Shame & Guilt, Hatred);
- Fear (Fear, Anxiety, Confusion, Jealousy, Envy, Panic & Terror);
- Sadness (Sadness, Grief, Situational Depression, The Suicidal Urge). If you are in crisis, please contact a counsellor or crisis hotline;
- Happiness (Happiness, Contentment, Joy).
The emotions most likely to appear in intense form to me are Fear, Jealousy and Anger, but I have visits from others as well.
Of course, I’m always breathing! But in this step, I consciously slow and attend to my breathing. I check that I’m breathing through my nose and carry out three cycles of three-second inhale and three-second exhale, paying particular attention to the air passing out through my nostrils.
As I do this, I avoid chest breathing, trying to use my abdomen and allowing the lower ribs in my back to relax and expand for inhalation.
(Breath is central to physiological and emotional regulation. I recommend James Nestor’s Breath.)
3. Investigate and befriend discomfort
With my third exhale, I search for the most significant discomfort in my body. There is always a physical marker that accompanies my intense emotional triggers, usually a knot in my gut or a clenching in my chest. In rare cases when I don’t find one, I default to the region of my heart.
After locating this discomfort, I focus on it, not on the commentary that may be looping in my head. To make this easier, I bring my curiosity to it, investigating. Is it sharp or dull? Pinpoint or radiating? Continuous or intermittent?
Crucially, I welcome it. That’s right, I say silently, ‘You are welcome here.’ I’ll share more about this below.
I stay with this uncomfortable sensation until one of three things happens: a) a minute passes, b) the feeling disappears or c) I am overwhelmed and need to bail out of the exercise. The final case seldom arises. Please note, the aim is not to get the discomfort to go away, but it often does.
Finally, I inhale a parting breath into that space, and move on with my day.
How and why this works
Now let’s look at the reasoning behind the process.
- Give a name: Emotional intensity can create a bypass of the highest reasoning faculties, knocking them offline to hand control to the more (evolutionarily) ancient functions that handle fight/flight/freeze response. Verbal reasoning, including naming the trigger and primary emotion, calls the higher-order capacity back online, so that my unique human cognition engages with the intense experience.
- Breathe: On one level, the breathing inserts a pause in what might otherwise continue as a downward spiral. Beyond that, those thirty seconds can stem the drive of the sympathetic nervous response (the one that spins me up for battle or escape) and nudge towards ventral vagal’s nuanced parasympathetic function. Slow breaths help this. So does nasal breathing. The effect is also more powerful in the lower, deeper spaces of the lungs and is stronger during exhale than inhale.
- Locate discomfort: Attending to the body brings me from my past (guilt, resentment, blame) or future (anxiety) orientation into the present. I attend to immediate sensation. The mind can (seem to) wander from this moment, but the body does not.
- Investigate discomfort: In one sense, bodily investigation is a diversion from my more habitual mental chatter. But it also allows me to work with a simpler, more direct component of the intensity (somatic sensation) than its many-headed, elusive sibling (thought). I might not need to accept the millions of different events, words and thoughts that upset me, so long as I can accept the much smaller set of uncomfortable sensations they create in me.
- Welcome the uncomfortable feeling: This builds on the slow breathing to contribute to a sense of safety, which is necessary for the shift from sympathetic to ventral vagal regulation. Deeper, this is a poetic component of integrating what is probably a lifelong outcast experience/sensation. This is crucial for the longer-term, cumulative effect of the practice. I am allowing back ‘in’ a part of myself that I defined as ‘other’ in my self-image from childhood. Bit by bit, I am re-assembling my whole self, moving from being a grown-up to being an adult.
- Stay with the discomfort I: My reaction to intense emotions includes neurotic monologue and disproportionate, ill-directed behaviour. These, painful though they are, serve to distract me from directly experiencing the emotional intensity. My habit over a lifetime has been to dive into internal or external drama to avoid the uncomfortable sensation I am working with here. By staying with it instead, I am showing myself another option.
Carl Jung once said, “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” I agree with him, though I would say neurosis is always a substitute for experiential intensity.
-Bruce Tift, psychotherapist and author of Already Free
- Stay with the discomfort II: Since early childhood, I have unknowingly and automatically associated this uncomfortable sensation with an immediate, existential threat. Yes, a threat to my existence. That helps explain the gross disproportionality of my acting out. As I continue to engage with the experience, I prove to myself that no such threat is present. I teach myself, with the help of this previously unwanted visitor, that the experience is not overwhelming, that I can work with it.
That is a lot happening in 90 seconds! It comes down to accepting present reality, including myself, instead of fighting its deviation from my image of what it should be. Of course, no single instance of the practice completes this liberating shift in my perspective. It is the work of a lifetime.
There will always be problems. I cannot avoid disturbing experience. All that I’ve described above does not tilt the playing field of life to bring more good and less bad my way. Instead, it shows I can work with the disturbance. I realise the ‘bad’ half of life is not the bogeyman my childhood innocence cast it as. I cultivate and use adult capabilities that my younger self lacked.
The great thing is that, as the world continues to send me the bad with the good, living with resilience requires the same practice as building resilience — the steps outlined above. Maybe it’s like riding a bike. If building resilience is like pedaling up a hill, then living with resilience is like cycling along the plateau at the top.
I am still on the climb, but I’m developing strength and finding softer gears. I will pedal for the rest of my life. Over time, I’ll handle any bumps with increasing ease.