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Emotional Agility

… and other techniques for trying times

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Emotional Agility

The world has changed dramatically in the past year, and many of us are fighting to remain positive and hopeful during these trying times. According to experts, it’s not positivity, but emotional agility that’s the key to resiliency and greater happiness overall.

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What is emotional agility?

The term emotional agility was originally coined by Susan David, PhD, and Christina Congleton in a 2013 <Harvard Business Review> article. The concept doesn’t ask you to chase happiness. Instead, it involves checking in with your emotions, viewing them as teachers and a means of learning about and cultivating your values.

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Why cultivate this life skill?

Seeking happiness can have negative effects, since ignoring thoughts and emotions can actually increase them. In one famous study, some participants were asked specifically not to think about white bears, while the control group were specifically asked to think about white bears from the outset. But the control group had fewer thoughts about white bears than those were asked <not> to think about them. By contrast, research shows that emotional agility can reduce distress and burnout and increase psychological performance in the workplace.

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Lifestyle techniques to access during difficulty

Of course, emotional agility is just one tool you can use during trying times. Making small tweaks, such as the following, to your lifestyle can also help.

Stay informed  But be sure to take breaks from the news and social media. Set a time-limit goal for consuming news—and stick to it.

Keep it light And keep laughing! Long before studies confirmed laughter helps decrease stress hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol, doctors such as 14th-century French surgeon Henri de Mondeville were using humour to distract patients from pain and help them recover.

Cultivate relationships  Connect with others by scheduling phone or virtual sessions (using tools such as Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, and FaceTime). Try playing games virtually together, so you have something to look forward to. Use relaxation techniques, meditation, or mindfulness  Research spanning decades shows that meditation-based practices are connected to positive psychological and health outcomes in both clinical and non-clinical populations. Autogenic training (a relaxation technique that can help reduce stress) is offered on YouTube. Some apps, including Headspace, are also offering free access for health care workers.

 Use movement Regular physical activity can help boost our moods and lessen anxiety. Depending on your local recommendations and rules, gyms with COVID safety plans can be an option. Also consider Zoom classes and outdoor offerings to keep you sweating.

Canadians during COVID  Many Canadians say COVID conditions produced some positives in their lives. We caught up with a couple of them to see what worked, and how they will carry that forward.

Coping through COVID in close quarters  Carol and Geoff Roderick live and work in a downtown Toronto condo with two young daughters. They rearranged their relatively small condo so they can both work at home, with Geoff lawyering from a closet-turned-office, and Carol growing her dating and relationship practice (<mylovecoach.ca>) from their new bedroom office. In March, Carol realized she was focusing on childcare to the detriment of her work and began to feel resentful. Eventually, she mentioned this to Geoff. It came to mind that, while daycare wasn’t permitted, they could still hire a part-time nanny. Since the nanny could take care of the girls in their home, the family would be able to spend more time together. “Our eldest has a new appreciation for being a big sister,” says Carol. “It’s a pleasure to see them play together more, and I’m fairly certain that this experience is going to have them be best friends for years to come. While COVID times have been challenging, they’ve brought us together as a couple and family.” Their COVID experience has also transformed the couple’s communication style from haphazard to intentional—now, they’ve cleared time for communication in their calendars. “We address things more quickly, because we have that regular time of checking in,” says Carol.

Creativity flourishes in long-distance collaboration  Lina Alvaraz, a young professional based in Ottawa, says her positive experience during COVID involved virtually co-creating a children’s book (<allthejoys.org>). It’s filled with visualization exercises and journalling prompts to help children discover their inner resilience during the pandemic. She worked with two others, from Portland and New Delhi, whom she’d never met. Pre-pandemic, Alvaraz actively sought out opportunities to co-create. But, once isolation measures were in place, Alvarez thought this would no longer be doable. That changed when her school, Parsons School of Design, announced its 48-hour virtual design challenge. At first, Alvarez says she was worried the experience would be awkward and unworkable. Instead, she found it to be productive and interactive. “In a Zoom call, people have to speak, because I guess we’re not really as comfortable with silence on screen,” says Alvarez. “So that made it a lot easier to have conversations.” She now understands the value of virtual collaboration. “When I’m using my mind, I don’t need to be limited by my body being in a certain place,” she says.

Processing difficult emotions is an important part of resiliency, because, as we know, life will not always go well. As Susan David explained in a 2016 <Washington Post> article: “Unless we can process, navigate, and be comfortable with the full range of our emotions, we won’t learn to be resilient. We must have some practice dealing with those emotions or we will be caught off guard.”

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Edible superheroes

Put the power of mood-boosting foods to work for you and snuff out your stress.  

Mood-boosting foodWhy it might help 
fatty fish (salmon, sardines)contain omega-3 fatty acids, which may prevent spikes in stress hormones
leafy greens (spinach, chard, kale)rich in magnesium, which may bring feelings of calm
almondschock full of B vitamins, possibly helping you stay afloat during stressful times
dark chocolateantioxidants in dark chocolate may have a soothing effect
orangesvitamin C in oranges may help lower stress
complex carbseating carbs may cue your brain to produce serotonin
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