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30 May 2020

Emotional resilience; learning to stave off social anxiety from rejection and other tribulations

There comes a point in everyone’s life when we have had to feel the sting of rejection. Some, however, never learn to grow beyond it and steel their minds with what I will now call emotional resilience; shielding you from what would otherwise possibly be felt as a traumatic experience. What exactly is emotional resilience and how can it be learned? First, I define it in this instance as one’s ability to resist corrosive peer pressure as well as developing a hardened resolve by which you can easily learn to rebound from rejections and all other social dilemmas.This is achieved in a multitude of ways: first and foremost; understanding your personal limits and understand why it is that our neurobiology predisposes us in our adolescent years towards primacy of first impressions over all other considerations to weigh in assessing acceptance of the “other.” That is, how virtually everyone forms the basis for determining who belongs to ‘Us’ and who does not and thus is a ‘Them.’

When we develop past early childhood state, we are said to have shed off what psychologists call our narcissistic toddler state and transition into adolescence. The key import of this transition is the importance now placed on group based perspective taking. However, unlike fully formed adults, if such a crude aphorism is to be allowed; we’ll inevitably be far more inclined towards first person perspective taking rather than assessing, ‘the larger picture’ in even attempting a third person account. For instance, as an adolescent barraged with premeditated social ennui upon going out on a first date, I thereafter would be far more likely to to ask upon its conclusion, “How might I have felt in her situation?” Rather than having asked the more useful third person, “How does she feel in her situation?” Hence, adolescents due to having developing frontal cortices are not any less in their understanding of how particular individual circumstances impact behaviour, rather, it’s just because of underdeveloped reasoning in their brains they have an inability to perceive wider perspectives, i.e. systemic circumstances.

So, why should there be such importance placed on adolescents in particular to cultivate emotional resilience in order to best instill them with SEL? For starters, in order to first captivate them to the ways of social emotional learning we need to truly understand where they are coming from. Adolescents are fully submerged in a much more transitionally complex social realm than are adults or children. As shown in a Temple University psychology study conducted in 2013; teens will average more than 400 social media friends, far more than do adults. Moreover, teen sociality is particularly about affect, and responsiveness to emotional faces in adolescents. In short, this period of one’s life is mostly about one sole pursuit: the frantic need to belong. Hence, the offshoot of this is that the drive to belong invariably produces much greater anxiety and vulnerability in teens when it comes to peer pressure and emotional contagion. In addition, Neuroimaging studies show that adolescents over any other group show dramatic sensitivity towards their peers’ responses. When asking adults in the study about what they imagine others think about themselves two different, but partially overlapping areas of the brain light up: the prefrontal cortex, which is the most sophisticated and recently evolved area of the brain that is our reasoning HQ. Second, the limbic cortex: our emotional and regulatory center in the brain. In stark contrast, when the adolescent is then asked the same question, there is no PFC activity and the two profiles are merged into a singular response: “What do others think about me? Well, they think of me the way I have shown them to think about me, I guess!”

So, how exactly do we go about teaching adolescents to instill emotional resilience paired with SEL as instrumental to their maturity? Rather than just providing a lifeless laundry list of the various psychological schools of thought on the matter, I’d rather just confide in one exemplary case in this study on social exclusion conducted by Naomi Eisenberger at UCLA. She devised this clever computer game called “Cyberball.” The subject plays the game whilst lying in a brain scanner, the subject is then told and conditioned to believe that they are playing against two other human players. Each player occupies a spot on the screen, forming a triangle. Each one gets a turn tossing the ball to one of the other two players. The subject picks the next player to throw to and in turn believes the other two are doing the same. The back and forth continues until the real experiment begins and the programmed behavior of the other two players is then altered to no longer throw to the main player. Almost immediately, brain scans show that the subject feels excluded. In adults, however, this would not be an instant knee jerk reaction. Instead, you would see activation of the following areas of the brain: periaqueductal, anterior cingulate, the amygdala, and the insular cortex. Aka, the areas in the brain neurologist point to as central to pain perception, anger, and disgust. In short, the key point of distinction is that in adults the prefrontal cortex is fully developed and allows for all this heightened activity in the brain. Unfortunately, for our adolescent subjects here they are unable to pass the test of emotional resilience in this experiment due to not having the right temperament of mind. Which, of course, is largely owed to the fact that they have yet to fully develop their PFC. Hence, this renowned experiment should be viewed as a litmus test to get our adolescents to pass who exhibit easily bruised emotions from having played.

In lieu of this, how can we possibly hope to train adolescents to have the necessary wherewithal to learn emotional resilience in order to rise beyond the occasion? Simply put, mastering emotional resilience in the framework in SEL will be all about having a viable long game. That is, the process should be viewed as akin to monks having gone through rigours practices of meditations and lessons. As adolescents go being more given to impulsivity, the odds as far as this goes may never be in favour of it from the start. However, by learning emotional resilience religiously, it can be surmised that one day we could have adolescents who could routinely pass Naomi’s Cyberball experiment. Further, beyond just “making the grade,’ in terms of larger pursuits of posterity, we all stand to benefit from having adolescents who gain greater autonomy from earlier on in their critical years when they learn to free themselves from peer based predetermination in having fully developed self identities at earlier times. Individuals who hone their emotional resilience will more likely than not, show greater social awareness in regulating adverse empathetic emotions most often expressed in statements such as, “It’s an overblown problem,” or “Someone else will fix it.” Same goes for developing an advanced awareness to not stray down the path of over empathetic responses to others painful experiences. As aptly put by endocrinologist Dr. Sapolsky, “Feeling someone’s pain can at times become far too painful, and people who do so with the most pronounced arousal and anxiety, are actually far less likely to act prosocially. Instead, the way they internalize the personal distress induces a self-locus that prompts greater avoidance.”

In the final review, how exactly can we teach emotional resilience to students? First, there has to be some impetus herein on teaching adolescents about their still developing brains. Then, we can start to incorporate that into lesson plans with activities which challenge their emotional resilience by way of moral quandaries and then relaxes them into controlling their breathing in meditation so they can begin to reel in on their sharp impulsive behaviours. In addition, another key part of this would be to understand the impact and bearing parenting also plays into emotional resilience. This would introduce and further develop on the 4 typologies of parenting styles which was created by Berkeley psychologist Diana Baumrind. In the typology, she addresses how understanding the lay of the land from the various styles gives you a working framework for seeing how then adolescents construct their subsequent behaviours for then developing their circle of peers. Hence, the main take away from all of it is that while parenting as a main factor to determining a child’s adult personality is greatly exaggerated, it nonetheless gives adolescents their first framework by which to solidify their circle of peer based interactions. The health of their engagements in their circle of peers is shown to be more important to later developed social competency than is the parent. All of which is to say that we all stand to greatly benefit in full consideration of incorporating emotional resilience into SEL developments.

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