4 Steps for Emotional Agility and Resilience

The study of emotional agility and resilience is no doubt an interesting place to land, especially for our future leaders. Each morning I head to a local high school to work with students in an elective called “The United States of You.” This elective, which is 5 days a week for an entire semester, helping students understand and tune into the wide-range of “States” or emotional experiences they have.

This study centers around self-awareness, self-compassion and self-regulation. Guided meditations, body movement, breath work, journaling, image art and group discussions are tools used for exploring and transforming emotional states.

The program is a powerful one. Three months into it, I have observed transformation in each of the students. I also know that I am transforming in ways I could not have imagined. I learn through preparation for each class. I learn from what the students have to say. And I learn from practicing each day’s lesson outside the classroom.

There is no doubt that the universe conspires to assist me with this learning. Each week it seems I am given situations that align with the lessons and challenge me to grow. This week is not an exception. In fact, it has been my most challenging week since the start of this semester. But like the students, I am better equipped to handle what has come my way because of persistence with tools and practices.

The practices are worth sharing. These four steps are practiced by the students to help with self-awareness, self-compassion and self-regulation:

Notice – Rather than to suppress thoughts and feelings, they are taught practices for observing and experiencing them without judgment. They observe the thoughts as they come and go and notice thoughts that want to stick around. They experience the sensations and feelings in their bodies. And they notice where exactly in the body different feelings live. Through observation and experience, they are training themselves not interact with or get caught up in their thoughts and feelings. With mindfulness, they simply learn to notice by bringing their attention inward to what is in the moment with the mind, body and breath.

Label – Instead of brushing off or minimizing impact, they are taught practices for naming what they observed and experienced. One practice for naming feelings involves dis-identifying: “I am experiencing anger in my neck” versus “I am angry” or “I am feeling anxious in my belly” versus “I am anxious.” The key here is for them not to tie the emotion to their identity or inner truths (i.e., I am courageous). This use of language helps them know that emotion is a fleeting experience. Thus, it should be labeled as such and not confused with an inner truth.

Accept – Once named, the process of acceptance can begin. In acceptance, they own their named “state.” They identify the emotions’ colors, textures and temperatures. They discern the thoughts that have triggered their feelings. They recognize an impulse to react that might be brewing. In that process, they begin to bring their emotions “to life.” Image art, journaling and group discussions are tools used to strength the muscle of acceptance. Through those three tools, they develop intelligence about their patterns, triggers and reactions.

Act – This intelligence enables them to employ self-compassion and self-regulation. Self-regulation is the ability to act instead of react. They are taught ACT:

  • A: Awareness to what is being experienced
  • C: Clarity that the experience is fleeting and the truth of who they are is constant,
  • T: Tune-In to the impulse to react and instead act

ACT is a short mental checklist used in conjunction with the breath to help them avoid an impulsive reaction. Instead, with practice, they are able to control their impulses and cope more rationally with what comes their way. Knowing their inner truths and values helps them act with integrity and empathy.

The four steps can be transformative because they help develop emotional agility and resilience. It is not easy to develop the agility and resilience. While transformative, these practices are not a quick fix to being hooked on thoughts and emotions or reacting instead of action. They have to be regularly practiced. Over time, these skills are strengthened. The benefits will be worth the time and commitment it takes.