Top tips for resilience: Emotional experiences and responses

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Introduction

In these top tips, Cornelia Lucey, psychologist and leadership consultant presents some possible approaches to building resilience for teachers and educationalists and shares ways they can be applied to build resilience.

It is important to note that these are only some tips to help you cope with everyday challenges at work and beyond. It is advisable to seek out professional help if you need support with your mental health. Education Support, a charity dedicated to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of education staff, also provide many helpful resources.

What’s the idea?

When thinking about our resilience in psychological terms, it can be useful to think of responses in terms of ‘emotional’ and ‘cognitive’ triggers, although this is a simplification;  they are not entirely distinct, each affecting and influencing the other. This guide looks at emotional triggers and responses.

What does it mean? 

There are considered to be three emotional regulation systems: the threat system, the drive system and the soothing (or content/recovery) system, corresponding to our most crucial emotional experiences – our ability to recognise danger, our motivation to pursue reward, and our need to rest and experience the safety of close relationships with others.

The threat system has evolved over millions of years to keep us safe from danger and is solely focused on keeping us alive. Whilst this system seeks to ensure our survival, it doesn’t always cope easily with our modern world. Activities like commuting, lesson observations and managing pupil behaviour might trigger your threat system as well as our sympathetic nervous system, which prepares us to ‘flee’ or ‘fight’ potential danger.

When our basic needs are met, we can become driven to pursue other goals. When we get that steady or sometimes intoxicating sense of feeling ‘wired’ with busyness at work, it’s our drive system that’s taking over. This system is fantastic for our development but it can easily become over-stimulated. 

The recovery system is the system we know least about. It has two biological functions: recovering from the stress of the threat and topping our energy back up. It also makes us social beings who can turn to one another for the mutual care we need to survive. So, when you relax or share a moment of connection, your recovery system triggers the parasympathetic nervous system – the body’s recharge button. This helps us to restock our depleted energy reserves and to care for one another.

What are the implications for teachers?

To deepen your understanding of your own resilience, start to reflect on your emotional experience more. Take some time now to think about what triggers your three emotional regulation systems.

  1. Look back over the day to see if you can identify situations where your threat, drive and recovery systems might have been activated.
  2. What proportion of your day is split across threat triggers, drive triggers or recovery triggers?
  3. Is there a balance between your systems? How might you build balance?

Want to know more? 

Davidson RJ (2000) Affective style, psychopathology, and resilience: Brain mechanisms and plasticity. American Psychologist 55(11): 1196-1214. 

LeDoux J (2012) Rethinking the emotional brain. Neuron 73: 653-676.

McEwen BS, Gray JD, & Nasca C (2015) Recognizing resilience: Learning from the effects of stress on the brain. Neurobiology of Stress 1: 1-11.

Pessoa L (2013) The Cognitive-Emotional Brain: From Interactions to Integration. Cambridge, MA, US: MIT Press.

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