Resilience Series Part 2

Manage Emotional Reactivity

Our lives are full of positive and negative experiences that evoke a range of emotions. But what are emotions, and why should we manage our emotional reactivity? The American Psychological Association (APA) defines emotions as “complex reaction patterns, involving experiential, behavioral, and physiological elements” (APA, 2022). These patterns allow us to process or handle both the good and the bad experiences. 

It is unrealistic to believe that life will bring us only positive emotions such as joy, awe, or love. There are many ups and downs in life, and it is inevitable that we will encounter situations that will shake us to the core.  As a result, we may feel intensely unpleasant emotions in these situations. The key is to develop healthy coping skills so that we can manage our emotional reactivity. Managing our emotional reactivity starts with recognizing and acknowledging our emotions so that we can learn how to assess or process them. Then we can develop strategies to deal with unpleasant situations and keep our emotions in check.

Deep Breathing

When was the last time you paid attention to your breath? Most of us don’t think about breathing at all unless we struggle to breathe in a stuffy environment or during strenuous exercise. That’s because breathing is an automated function of the body that requires no conscious effort or decision-making. This automated biological action is managed by our autonomic nervous system, which is the division of our nervous system that controls reflexes and other automated functions of the body, such as the beating of our hearts or the actions of the digestive system. In other words, the autonomic nervous system is similar to the autopilot function of a self-driving car.

So how do negative emotions affect the functioning of the autonomic nervous system? For that, we may need to consider the fight-or-flight response, which is the automated stress response of our bodies. In the absence of perceived danger or an otherwise stressful situation, our hearts beat at a steady pace, and we breathe slowly. Our negative emotions, however, may influence the functioning of the autonomic nervous system, leading to an increase in our heart rates and breathing frequencies.

Although breathing is automated, we can still regulate it at will. Taking deep breaths can reset the autonomic nervous system. It may even reverse some of the adverse effects of emotions, resulting in a general relaxation of the mind and body (Jerath et al., 2006). Furthermore, deep breathing may be one of the easiest ways to relax. Focusing on our breaths may help us shift attention away from our negative emotions, let go of our worries, and clear our minds. The best part is that we don’t need any special equipment or subscriptions to take deep, energizing breaths. All we need is a few minutes regardless of where we are and what we are doing.

Exercise: Deep Breathing

A quick breathing exercise can help you calm down when you are overwhelmed with negative emotions. It enables overriding the adverse effects of the fight-or-flight response. All you need is a quiet and comfortable place to sit or lie down for a few moments. Ideally, you would spend about 20 to 30 minutes to get maximum benefits. However, even five minutes of breathing exercise have been shown to reset the autonomic nervous system (Nariyani &Vras, 2017).

  1. Before you start, take care of any physical needs. For instance, if you are thirsty or need to use the bathroom, you may want to drink water or use the bathroom. If the temperature isn’t comfortable, you might want to adjust the thermostat or your clothing. That way, you can focus on your breath without being distracted by your physical needs.
  2. Once all your urgent needs are taken care of, sit down on a comfortable chair with your back straight and your feet on the floor. Alternatively, you can lie down in a relaxed position.
  3. When you are comfortable, note your emotions and general state of mind.
  4. Take a deep breath through your nose and exhale slowly, filling and emptying your lungs completely in each cycle. You may choose to release your breath through your nostrils or your mouth; choose whichever is more comfortable and relaxing for you.
  5. Notice how your diaphragm moves and your belly rises with each breath. Also, notice the air moving in and out of your body.
  6. Aim to count at least ten deep breaths. However, you can continue counting your breaths if you have time. Additional deep breaths may help you relax further.

Note: You may notice random thoughts entering your mind during this exercise. This mind-wandering is entirely normal and happens to everyone. When you catch yourself hopping from one thought to another, acknowledge these thoughts and continue counting your breaths. After a few minutes, you may start feeling calmer and more relaxed. Once you start to relax, you may find it easier to cope with stressful situations. In other words, a few minutes of deep breathing can make you feel more powerful and resilient.


When life surprises you with an unexpected blow, you might lose your footing. You may experience a lot of negative emotions and have them play in your mind on repeat. Perhaps it is a disturbing development at your workplace or an unexpected quarrel with a loved one. Maybe it is a particular news development or a natural disaster that upsets you deeply. Whatever it is that troubles you and leads to rumination and anxiety, it can distract you from what needs your attention. For instance, you may find it difficult to concentrate on your tasks at work or pay adequate care and attention to your personal interactions. As a result, your job performance and relationships may suffer (Vytal et al., 2013).

So, how can you get out of your head and shift your focus on what you should be doing or paying attention to—or, in other words, how can you be more resilient? When you shift your attention from the negativity you feel, you get the chance to refocus on the present moment (Fisher, 1999). Like growing roots into reality, grounding can tether you to the present moment and keep your negative emotions in check by pulling you away from negative thoughts and emotions. In other words, it may allow you to get back on your feet and calm your mind.

There are many ways to ground ourselves but generally, all grounding techniques fall under one of three approaches. The first approach is mental grounding, which involves focusing our minds. One of the most common ways of mental grounding is journaling. Writing about what is going on in our lives allows us to recount our experiences and assess our circumstances. The second approach is physical grounding via focusing our senses to tether to the moment. For instance, you can look around and survey your surroundings or focus on the sounds near and far. Finally, the third way of grounding ourselves is soothing, which may involve practicing self-directed kindness or positive affirmations.

Exercise: The 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique

If you are feeling anxious and have trouble disconnecting from negative thoughts and feelings, the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique might be what you need. This physical grounding technique is one of the most common grounding methods, and for a good reason: it is very easy to remember and takes very little time and effort. Here are brief instructions to help you get started.

  • Name five things you see. Simply look around and name the first five things that catch your eye. For instance, it can be something like a phone, lamp, purse, fork, and blanket.
  • Name four things you can feel. Typically we don’t pay attention to how our clothes feel on our bodies unless they are uncomfortable. Similarly, we don’t notice the chair against our backs or our tongues resting against the roof of our mouths. This step requires you to pay attention to four bodily sensations.
  • Name three things you can hear. In this step, shift your attention to three sounds in your surroundings. It could be cars on the road, birds chirping outside your window, the coffee machine dripping freshly brewed coffee, or the faint sound of your neighbor’s radio —any sound that catches your attention qualifies.
  • Name two things you can smell. Again, this can be anything as long as you don’t have a cold and can detect scents. It can be flowers or food but also your clothes, hair, deodorant, or any item near you, such as your couch.
  • Name one thing you can taste. If there is a food item or a drink nearby, you can taste it. But you don’t have to eat anything for this step. Just assess how your mouth tastes at the moment.

Take-Home: The 5-4-3-2-1 technique engages all five senses and brings our awareness from reverberating thoughts to physical reality.

Cultivate Somatic Skills

If you haven’t heard of somatic skills or aren’t quite sure what it entails, you’re not alone. Somatic psychology is a subfield of psychology that is not as well-known as others. Not surprisingly, many people don’t have a clear idea of what somatic skills are or how they can develop them.

Let’s start with some self-exploration. Have you noticed that when you are surrounded by stressful situations, your muscles tend to be tenser than usual? Similarly, you might have complained about being plagued with backaches or other bodily discomforts as if everything, including your own body, is working against you. If these observations sound familiar to you, you might already be thinking that our mental and bodily states are interconnected. In fact, the term somatic comes from the Greek root word soma, which simply means body. Hence, somatic psychology is focused on the mind-body connection, and one of its central assumptions is that we hold on to our experiences in our bodies. In the context of adversities, a somatic approach would mean that these experiences would negatively impact our bodies in the long term. In other words, even if the stressful situation has passed, our bodies may still be stuck in the fight-or-flight response.

Another aspect of somatics is that the mind-body connection goes both ways. Therefore, we can alter our mental states by changing how well we are physically. When we work on our somatic skills, we focus on our inner experiences as we move. This inner focus can help us get in touch with our bodies and replace inefficient movements with more skilled and effective ones, which in turn can improve balance and posture and reduce pain. The other advantage of getting in touch with our bodies is that it can also increase our emotional awareness. When we learn how to detect the bodily changes associated with emotions, we can become more attuned to our mental states. This bodily emotional awareness can increase our emotional resilience (Tsachor &Shafir, 2017).

Still skeptical? A study with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients tested the effectiveness of somatic experience therapy in treating PTSD-associated depression. The results supported a significant reduction in depression symptoms after fifteen weeks in the therapy group relative to the control group (Brom et al., 2017), suggesting that building somatic skills may keep negative emotions in check and increase resilience. 

If you are ready to work on your somatic skills, you have a few options. Here is a brief list:

  • The Alexander Technique: This method is based on posture adjustment and is often used by musicians to improve vocal skill and tone. According to its practitioners, bad posture is associated with adverse consequences. Therefore, working on one’s posture may improve their well-being.
  • Laban Movement Analysis: This method is centered around the idea of recognition of movement, from the initiation of a movement to the ways we describe it. It is often used by dancers and stage performers.
  • Body-Mind Centering: This technique is similar to Laban Movement Analysis as they both emphasize movement initiations. In this case, the practitioners focus on the organ systems for the movement’s origin and aim to increase their movements’ efficiency. Again, this technique is often practiced by dancers and other stage professionals.
  • Dance: Although dancers might be using additional somatic skill training such as Laban Movement Analysis of Body-Mind Centering, dancing is also an excellent way to build awareness of your movements. Moreover, dancing to an uplifting tune can quickly make you feel energized and increase your mood.
  • Somatic Therapy: You can also find a certified somatic therapist in your area who can create a personalized therapy regimen.

Physical Exercises

An inactive lifestyle can enhance the body’s stress responses, which can be detrimental to our physical, emotional, and mental well-being. With regular physical activity, we can change the course and even reverse these adverse effects, including anxiety (Jayakody, Gunadasa & Hosker, 2014).

Choosing an exercise regimen may come down to what you enjoy doing, your physical abilities and restrictions (such as any disabilities or preexisting conditions), and your general fitness level. Many types of physical exercises may help you feel physically and emotionally better. Some people might blow off some steam when they go for a run, and some might enjoy rock climbing or practicing their butterfly strokes. Whatever it is that keeps you moving while giving you joy would surely help you lift your spirits. When it comes to reducing emotional reactivity, three types of activities stand out as they can be done by almost anyone and incorporate a mindful approach to exercising. These activities are yoga, Tai-chi, and nature walks. Let’s discuss each in more detail.


Yoga is one of the most popular physical activities, and most people are familiar with fundamental yoga poses even if they have never attended a yoga class before. It is a complete mind and body exercise tied to ancient Indian philosophy and turns breathing and movements of the body into a meditative mindfulness exercise. Mindful breathing techniques are central to yoga. During a typical yoga practice, the individual pays attention to their breath as they move through the poses and notice how each movement feels.

One might argue that yoga’s persistence through millennia is due to its ability to provide both physical and mental benefits. In addition, it seems the more experienced a yogi is and the more frequently someone practices yoga, the more benefits they get. A study with 36 yoga practitioners with varying experience levels tested their subjects’ physical and emotional reactions when they were shown pictures associated with positive or negative experiences. This experiment showed that subjects who have been doing yoga for many years had lower emotional reactivity than beginners (Mocanu et al., 2018). Similarly, the frequent yoga practitioners had reduced physical and emotional reactivity relative to occasional practitioners (Mocanu et al., 2018).

There are different types of yoga, and all yoga poses have unique names. Hence, some people get confused or overwhelmed when they try to remember them. One thing to keep in mind is you don’t have to memorize anything if you don’t want to, especially if you follow the instructions in a yoga class or yoga video. If you are a beginner or have health problems, it is okay if you can’t do every pose during your yoga session. Just focus on your breath and do whatever is feasible for your body. Finally, even though many people buy yoga mats, foam blocks, or other equipment, you don’t have to. You can do yoga on the floor or use a rug or a towel instead of a yoga mat, and use a small and sturdy box or a thick book instead of a foam block. The only equipment you need for yoga is your body.


Tai-Chi is a gentle movement-based practice growing in popularity and rooted in traditional Chinese medicine principles (Yeung et al., 2018). Although it is technically categorized as a soft style of traditional Chinese martial arts, it involves a meditative approach to cultivating and using Qi (or Chi, meaning vital energy) as it coordinates one’s breath with choreographed movements (Yeung et al., 2018). The core principle of Tai-Chi is calmness, with a focus on achieving a relaxed state while regulating the mind through movement and breathing.

Western medicine is skeptical about the presence of Qi. Nonetheless, scientists have proposed that Tai-Chi provides its benefits by reducing the body’s stress reactions. A study randomly assigned half of its subjects to a 3-month Tai-Chi class or a waiting list and then tested participants’ physical and psychological reactions who were asked to give a public speech or do arithmetic calculations in front of an audience (Nedeljkovic et al., 2012). The subjects in the Tai-Chi group had significantly lower heart rates and levels of the stress hormone cortisol when compared to the waitlisted study participants (Nedeljkovic et al., 2012). Similarly, Tai-Chi participants also maintained a higher level of calmness in response to psychosocial stress (Nedeljkovic et al., 2012), supporting the role of Tai-Chi in reducing emotional reactivity to stressful situations.

If you haven’t tried Tai-Chi yet, you may be able to find classes near you in Chinese martial arts studios. Some community centers and clubs may also offer Tai-Chi classes that you can attend. If you’re unsure whether this gentle form of martial arts is for you, Tai-Chi apps or online instructions and videos can offer you a glimpse.

Nature Walks

Let’s admit it; most of us rarely go outside and interact with nature. Not surprisingly, people spend approximately 93% of their time inside enclosed spaces (Klepeis et al., 2001). However, this wasn’t the norm in the brief history of humanity. For hundreds of millennia, our ancestors lived their entire lives interconnected with nature. Yet, somehow over the last few centuries, we have separated ourselves from the natural world and become alarmingly insular. As a result, we have started treating nature as if it were something to be tamed and shaped to fit our needs.

Many people think of nature walks as getting some fresh air. However, spending time in nature has many physical and psychological benefits beyond breathing in oxygen. Absorbing the refreshing beauty of nature can reduce our bodies’ stress reactions (Thompson et al., 2012; Nisbet, Zelenski, & Grandpierre, 2019). Moreover, spending time in nature can also cultivate a sense of wonder and help us feel connected to the living world. It can put the events in our lives into perspective and dampen our emotional reactions to them.

A stroll in nature is probably one of the most straightforward exercises you can do; you don’t need to take classes, learn some terminology, or buy special equipment. All you need is to go out and get to a natural area and move at your own pace.

Exercise: Nature Bathing

This nature bathing exercise is derived from the principles of forest bathing, which originated in Japan but started to gain popularity in the West. Forest bathing involves going into a forest and using our physical senses to connect with it. Landscape ecology can vary significantly between regions, and not everyone lives near a forest. Nevertheless, we can still use the principles of forest bathing to absorb the beauty of other natural spaces, such as a beach, a nearby pasture land, or a city park.

Start this exercise by walking at your own pace. You might want to move around at a slow enough speed that would allow you to carry on a conversation without running out of breath. Once you find your rhythm, start engaging your senses to absorb your environment.

  • Sight: Take a few moments to notice the animals and plants in your environment. Also, notice non-living parts of nature, such as boulders, sand, the color of soil, etc. You might also want to absorb the sights in the sky, such as the clouds and the horizon’s color.
  • Sound: Are there any sounds? These can be birds chirping, critters scurrying, leaves rustling, or wind gently howling between branches.
  • Smell: What does this environment smell like? Notice the smell of the air and soil, and if you are near the sea or a lake, the water. You might also notice the sweet smell of flowers or the freshness of grass.
  • Touch: How does the ground under your feet feel? For instance, if you are walking barefoot on the beach, notice the size and shape of the sand or pebbles you’re walking on. Is the ground cold or warm? Is it wet or dry? Similarly, you can touch the things you see with your fingers, such as barks of trees, blades of grass, or petals of flowers.
  • Turn inward: Now that you have observed your environment with your senses, see yourself as part of that nature in your mind’s eye, just like everything else you’ve seen, heard, smelled, and touched. In other words, notice that you are part of nature, just like the bird sitting on a branch or the rock on the path ahead of you.

Note: Some of us may find it challenging to walk and notice the things in our surroundings. If that sounds familiar, you can find a suitable spot to rest after a bit of walking. During this rest period, you can engage your senses for as long as you want. The more you walk in nature, the easier it becomes to absorb your environment.

Nourishing Your Body

Do you reach for a sleeve of cookies or a pint of ice cream when you feel sad, angry, or stressed out? Many of us crave food when we deal with such emotions. That’s because food comforts us, and when we are processing difficult emotions, we seek things that can comfort and soothe us. Yet some of us lose our appetites completely during difficult times, and no food looks appetizing. Regardless of whether you are an emotional eater or a non-eater, your dietary habits may contribute to your emotional reactivity.

Studies suggest that eating a natural, nutrient-rich diet keeps our nervous system healthy (Alvarez et al., 2017). Why? Because diets containing all the nutrients ensure that our brains can produce all of their structural proteins, enzymes, and neurotransmitters. Indeed, a diet deficient in vitamins A, B6, B12, folate, and minerals such as iron, magnesium, and zinc is associated with depression symptoms (Alvares et al., 2017). But how do we know if our diet is deficient in nutrients? It is known that highly-processed foods---generated through intensive manipulation of food items—are stripped of some of their most valuable nutrients, such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Hence, these foods are typically less nutritious than unprocessed or lightly processed foods.

So, how can one manage their emotional reactivity with their diet? First, you’ll need to ensure that you are eating a well-balanced diet consisting mainly of natural (unprocessed) foods. That way, you can ensure your brain has everything needed to function properly. This proper functioning also includes the production of mood-regulating neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Next, you might want to question your cravings when you feel emotional. Are you reaching for that tub of ice cream because you are hungry, or are you looking for something to soothe yourself? If you realize you are actually hungry, you might want to eat something more nutritious. If you are trying to soothe yourself, finding another relaxing activity (such as meditation, a brief yoga practice, or a deep breathing exercise) can help you feel better.

In Sum

The ups and downs of life are associated with a rainbow variety of emotions; some are dark, and some are light. The intensity of these emotions can vary as well. Some of us have dense and opaque emotions when our emotional reactions are high. This increased emotional reactivity can tint everything the same shade or reduce our ability to see beyond these emotions, which may further reduce our ability to cope with adversities. The good news is that we can use a few strategies to keep our emotional reactivity in check, such as grounding ourselves, cultivating somatic skills, and engaging in some mindful physical exercises.

Esther  Adams-Aharony MSW,  CTMH, CFT, CCTP, CCFP, CMHIMP, ICADC, CPLC, CBDT, CGCS, CAMS-II, CDVS-I, CCATP, CAMC, CPLC, ADHD-CCTP, C-PD, ASDCS, CSTS is a trained trauma-informed licensed Israeli Social Worker in Central Israel.  In March 2018, Esther made Aliyah to Israel and resides 20 mins outside Ben Gurion airport in Sitiriya, Israel on a horse farm. She conducts animal-assisted therapy (AAT) as well as traditional therapy with holistic properties to boost her clients well being and meet treatment goals.