Emotional Resilience Blog from The Fear Course

The latest research, realisations and thinking in the world of emotional resilience, anxiety and fear reduction from around the world.

Dealing with anxiety - important new research

Dealing with anxiety - important new research

It has been known for a long time that people suffering from anxiety process information differently compared to people who don't have anxiety. People who suffer from anxiety are much more likely to appraise a situation, even a neutral situation as a threat than people without an anxiety disorder. In effect people with anxiety disorders are invariably hyper-sensitive to situations, and are frequently searching for threat or something to worry about compared to those who don't suffer from anxiety.

This hyper sensitivity is associated with significantly increased activity in a couple of areas of the brain, particularly the older limbic parts in the centre of the brain and the prefrontal cortex, just behind our forehead. Additionally anxiety sufferers display higher and different heart rate functioning when they perceive a threat.

This new study by colleagues at my own university, the University of Oxford, and the University of Bristol, University College London (UCL) and Universitaire Vaudois in  Switzerland carried out a ground breaking series of experiments looking at the responses of a group of anxiety sufferers compared to an equal umber of non-sufferers.

What they did was present everyone (both anxiety and non-anxiety sufferer) with a set of images whilst they were in an fMRI scanner and whilst they were also monitoring their heart response.

They got the subjects to do two tasks whilst their brain activity and heart responses were being monitored and they were being presented with the images.

The first task was to do nothing but watch the images. A number of the images were considered to be threat images. In this condition they found what they expected. The anxiety sufferers responded with anxiety to each of the threat images faster and with a greater response than the non anxiety sufferers. The anxiety sufferers also frequently reacted to the non-threat images. No surprise there.

They then taught all of the people in the experiment an emotion regulation technique based on a couple of techniques we use on the Fear Breakthrough Course. These techniques, known as reappraisal techniques basically get people to see things differently.

This time, when anxiety sufferers used the emotion regulation techniques they saw the effect immediately both in the brain and with their heart responses. Not only did the techniques reduce the hyper-activity within the brain, it also had an immediate effect of reducing the heart response to the threat. What surprised the researchers was that in many cases the techniques actually reversed the effects of the anxiety induced hyper-activity.

In effect what this means is that the techniques we use not only reduce the level of anxiety at the time but have the power to reverse the effects of the anxiety and stop it happening altogether.


A Reinecke et al (2015) Effective emotion regulation strategies improve fMRI and ECG markers of psychopathology in panic disorder: implications for psychological treatment action. Translational Psychiatry (2015) 5, e673; doi:10.1038/tp.2015.160


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How To Forgive And Let Go

How To Forgive And Let Go

I have heard over the years lots of people say how important forgiveness is and I never ever really understood what they meant. I didn't know how to do it and I certainly had no appreciation of what it was. In fact forgiveness became a word I would end up squinting at sideways, with suspicion.

"Forgiveness became a word I would end up squinting at sideways, with suspicion"

I have heard religious people talk at length about forgiveness and therapists (yes I've had a few) talk about forgiving myself to the extent that it had become a sort of non-word for me. I kept hearing the word but no-one told me how to do it.

It was only in the last few years that I think I have started to understand what it is and how to do it.

Most of us carry around hurts and anger about things other people have done or said and embarrassment, shame or even horror at things we ourselves have done or said.

It wasn't until I realised that at any particular time, everyone is doing the best that they can, with the thoughts, emotions and beliefs that they have - at that moment. At any moment in time they make the decisions they make believing them to be the best response right then. Even if the outcome has dire consequences.

I was a police officer for 18 years and over that time met many many criminals and people who had done terrible things including murder. When I look back on the long line of people I dealt with, every single one of them (even the odd socio and psychopath) were doing what they believed was a reasonable response given the way they saw, felt and believed the world to be at that moment.

When I think back to the hurts I have carried, inflicted by loved ones and others and perpetrated myself...

When I think back to the hurts I have carried, inflicted by loved ones and others and perpetrated myself, they were each and every one, responses to how they (and I) saw the situation at that moment. They (and I) were doing the best they could in that moment with everything they felt, understood and believed.

Now that's not to say they (and I) couldn't do better. It is only after the fact that we may (or may not) reflect on what happened and hopefully learn.

This realisation has helped me to 'forgive', let go of things and find peace.

This understanding is also the basis of another thing I never understood. Be gentle with/on yourself. For me, now being gentle requires forgiveness which in turn requires understanding the nature of the way we often decide to do and say things.

"The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong." ~Mahatma Gandhi

The problem is if we don't forgive and let go, we become prisoners, locked in the cells of our own making - with only our hurt, anger or shame as cell mates.


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Why the Fear of the Fear is More Damaging than the Original Fear

Why the Fear of the Fear is More Damaging than the Original Fear

When someone gets anxious or has a fear the feelings, thoughts, memories, physical sensations and other internal experiences the the fear or anxiety bring about are frequently so unpleasant that the individual will do just about anything to avoid them. This fear of the fear, or more correctly the fear of the effects of the fear is so distressing for many people that even talking about the issue is a problem. The distress is often heightened when there is no apparent direct cause or fear as occurs with GAD or General Anxiety Disorder or SAD Social Anxiety Disorder. There is a fear that these feelings could strike at any time.

It is not surprising then that people with fear and anxiety often end up not just avoiding the object of the anxiety, if there is one, but also of the resultant feelings, thoughts, memories, physical sensations and other internal experiences. This second type of avoidance is known as Experiential Avoidance.

Recent research has shown that how one reacts to the emotions and feelings that result from the anxiety makes a huge difference as to whether the individual is likely to get worse or not.

A swath of research is showing that people who are unwilling to experience the feelings, thoughts, memories, physical sensations and other internal experiences associated with the anxiety are much more likely to find the symptoms escalating and deeper problems arising.

Part of the problem is avoidance can only ever be a temporary relief and will never 'fix or solve' the problem. It merely side-steps the issue, which means that it is left still to face later. This is one reason why people who engage in avoidance as an emotion regulation strategy keep having the same and often escalating problem.

Another issue is that avoidance of anything psychologically reinforces the idea that the thing, in this case the feelings and thoughts, being avoided are bad or even dangerous in some way.

In order to avoid something requires that you end up focussing on and in many cases often obsessing about the very thing you are trying to avoid. This then means that the individual is focussing and obsessing about a negative. This takes time and effort and in effect crowds out all the other experiences of being a human, many of which are positive and joyful. As the individual focusses more and more on avoiding the horrible feelings and experiences, less and less concentration is placed on the positive things in life. In effect it becomes a negative vortex, dragging the individual down, often resulting eventually in depression, OCD, resorting to drugs and alcohol, self-harming, restricting food intake and even suicide.
We are finding that all of these problems frequently stem from Experiential Avoidance.

This is one of the reasons I deal with the avoidance as a matter of importance whilst treating the presenting anxiety and help the individual develop better and more effective emotion regulation strategies.





Chawla, Neharika; Ostafin, Brian (2007). "Experiential avoidance as a functional dimensional approach to psychopathology: An empirical review". Journal of Clinical Psychology 63 (9): 871–90. doi:10.1002/jclp.20400.PMID 17674402.

Gámez, Wakiza; et al (2011). "Development of a measure of experiential avoidance: The Multidimensional Experiential Avoidance Questionnaire". Psychological Assessment23 (3): 692–713. doi:10.1037/a0023242. PMID 21534697.

Hayes, Steven C.et al (1999). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change. New York: Guilford Press. ISBN 1-57230-481-2.

Hayes, Steven C. Et Al (1996). "Experiential avoidance and behavioral disorders: A functional dimensional approach to diagnosis and treatment". Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 64 (6): 1152–68. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.64.6.1152. PMID 8991302.

Losada, A. etal (2014) Development and validation of the experiential avoidance in caregiving questionnaire (EACQ). Aging & Mental Health. Volume 18, Issue 7, 2014


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Episode 12 of the Emotional Resilience Podcast

Episode 12 of the Emotional Resilience Podcast

 Here is episode 12:

 Download this episode (right click and save)

Download at itunes

For all the notes and references from this podcast go to Podcasts.

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How to be Emotionally Resilient

How to be Emotionally Resilient

In this article I want to have a look at what the research says about what emotional resilience is and what is it that makes someone resilient.
The first thing I usually have to say to people is that emotional resilience is not a lack of feeling or not having any feelings. I think that is called dead.

So what does the research say? Most studies describe emotional resilience as what happens as a result of adapting to a situation regardless of the level of risk, the amount of stress or the amount or level of adversity encountered. By successful adaptation they mean the ability to operate and deal with a situation without being adversely effected by anything which could have a negative emotional impact, which in turn means being able to deal with our emotions.

One set of researchers added that it is a set of beliefs and traits that enable individuals to bounce back from adversity, adapt to situations, thrive, learn and have mature emotional responses across a wide range of situations.

The point I made above about this not being a lack or absence of feeling or emotion is important. Empathy and our very human ability to 'feel' our way through a situation is important here and moves resilience away from being hard, unfeeling, remote or cut off. The ability to be able to operate with other people in difficult situations and to experience and use our normal range of emotions in the middle of an adverse situation suggests something else than just hardness. This includes active coping processes that encompasses what would be termed as psychological adjustment even in a difficult situation.

There is an old saying "Anyone can lead when things are easy. It takes a real leader to lead effectively when the going gets tough."

Self-leadership is a vital component of resilience, which incorporates the ability to be able to function positively with ones self and others, which in turn requires a level of self-esteem, respect and empathy. People like this can often find themselves leading others, particularly in difficult situations.

What is interesting is that a number of studies have found that people with higher levels of life-satisfaction (appreciation), self-esteem and optimism tend also to be the most adaptable and resilient. Indeed one study just published found that resilient people have higher levels of life-satisfaction even though they experience both negative and positive emotions. Research is showing resilience is not a lack of negative emotion or feelings, rather it is the sense of control one has over them.

There is also some evidence to show that people who feel they have control over their emotions also tend to feel more optimistic and enjoy life (life satisfaction). There is therefore a strong connection between resilience and emotion regulation - the ability to control our emotions rather than the emotions controlling us. Not only that, studies are now finding that people with greater levels of emotion regulation ability also tend to have heightened self-esteem.



Bonanno, G. A. (2004). Loss, trauma, and human resilience: Have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely aversive events? American Psychologist, 59, 20–28.

Burns, R. A., Anstey, K. J., & Windsor, T. D. (2011). Subjective well-being mediates the effects of resilience and mastery on depression and anxiety in a large community sample of young and middle-aged adults. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 45, 240–248.

Chang, E. C., & Sanna, L. J. (2007). Affectivity and psychological adjustment across two adult generations: Does pessimistic explanatory style still matter? Personality and Individual Differences, 43, 1149–1159.

Lui, Y,. et al., (2014) Affect and self-esteem as mediators between trait resilience and psychological adjustment. Personality and Individual Differences 66 (2014) 92–97

Luthar, S. S., Cicchetti, D., & Becker, B. (2000). The construct of resilience: A critical evaluation and guidelines for future work. Child Development, 71, 543–562.

Mak, W. W. S., Ng, I. S. W., & Wong, C. C. Y. (2011). Resilience: Enhancing well-being through the positive cognitive triad. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 58, 610–617.

Park, H., Heppner, P. P., & Lee, D. (2010). Maladaptive coping and self-esteem as mediators between perfectionism and psychological distress. Personality and Individual Differences, 48, 469–474.

Pinquart, M. (2009). Moderating effects of dispositional resilience on associationsbetween hassles and psychological distress. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 30, 53–60.

Siu, O.-L., Hui, C. H., Phillips, D. R., Lin, L., Wong, T., & Shi, K. (2009). A study of resiliency among Chinese health care workers: Capacity to cope with workplace
stress. Journal of Research in Personality, 43, 770–776.

Tugade, M. M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). Resilient individuals use positive emotions to bounce back from negative emotional experiences. Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 320–333.

Wagnild, G., & Young, H. M. (1990). Resilience among older women. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 22, 252–255.

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Run Away!: Why Avoiding What Makes You Anxious is Probably Making Things Worse

Run Away!: Why Avoiding What Makes You Anxious is Probably Making Things Worse

Did you know anxiety disorders are the number one most commonly suffered mental health issues. Almost 20% of the population, or 1 in 5 of us will suffer from some form of non-minor anxiety in any year. As well as the distress caused, anxiety results in a range of other secondary issues like social avoidance, problems associated with jobs and employment, achievement, functioning as a family member as well as decreased health and lower levels of quality of life compared to people without anxiety. The economic cost is estimated to over $42 billion a year in the US alone.

Recent research attention has been focussing on a number of issues and in particular the effect avoidance (see my last blog) has on individuals with anxiety. As I mentioned previously there are broadly three tiers or levels of problem caused by anxiety based avoidance.

1. The individual avoids the stimulus of the anxiety: flying, meetings or public speaking for example, which means they won't realise the positive effects of that activity
2. Avoidance, once used as a coping strategy, tends then to become the first method of dealing with any difficult emotion, thereby habituating it.
3. The individuals tend to avoid any associated activities connected to the anxiety, including treatment.

A study just published by researchers from the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, and Northern Illinois University in DeKalb in the United States looked in more detail at the effects of anxiety avoidance.

They discovered a number of important things:
1. Firstly they found that people who turned to avoidance or flight as a coping strategy not only tended to avoid all negative emotions in this way, but also positive emotions. In effect people who use avoidance as a coping strategy down regulate positive emotions as well. This obviously exacerbates things and has a powerful negative effect on their quality of life.
2. People who tend to avoid negative emotions also tend to suffer from heightened levels of anxiety.
3. People who have lower levels of ability to take and maintain control over what they pay attention to, also had lower emotion regulation capability. What this means in effect is that it is very likely that the basis of many emotion regulation (and therefore emotional resilience) techniques is the ability to shift our focus away from internal emotions, and in particular negative emotions, to more productive activities and focus.

In short, avoiding anxiety and the causes of anxiety tends also to avoid positive emotions. They are also more likely to suffer from greater levels of anxiety, and are less likely to have the skills (these can be learnt) needed to deal effectively with other negative and positive emotions overall.





Bardeen, J.R. et al., (2014) Exploring the relationship between positive and negative emotional avoidance and anxiety symptom severity: The moderating role of attentional control. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. Volume 45, Issue 3, September 2014, Pages 415–420



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How much of our happiness is actually down to personality or the situation we find ourselves in? The research evidence.

How much of our happiness is actually down to personality or the situation we find ourselves in? The research evidence.

In my last blog I shared some research showing that people tend to think about a third of their happiness is equally distributed between

  • Personality
  • Context or the situation they find themselves in at any time or
  • Own actions. What are called voluntary or intentional actions that help to up-regulate their own emotions

These are, however, perceptions and here I'm going to look at whether they are borne out by research.

One of the largest studies ever undertaken on human happiness found that just under half of all human happiness is determined by our own actions. This is by far and away the largest factor in our happiness and the good news is we can control it. Not only can we control our own actions in a way that can make us happy, but we can learn to get better at doing this. This is in essence the foundation of emotion regulation; using tools and techniques which can change our emotions at will.

So what about our personality?

The research about personality and happiness is pretty inconclusive, however one study published in 2012 found no correlation whatsoever between happiness or life satisfaction and personality and a large scale study of 16,367 Australian residents just published this year looked at the links between personality and happiness. The researchers concluded that there is no direct connection between personality and happiness as such. Rather that as a person matures they often learn to get better at regulating their emotions and this starts to have an impact on their personality which then reinforces the emotion regulation techniques they are using.

This works well if the individual learns healthy emotion regulation techniques, however if the individual gets into unhealthy emotion regulation like using alcohol, drugs, food and addictions etc. this is also likely to affect their personality which in turn reinforces those habits.

So it would appear our personality has little if any influence on our ability to be happy. When you think about it this makes sense. Think about the difference between introverts and extroverts for example. It is estimated that extroverts make up somewhere between 50 - 74 percent of the population in the west. Extroverts tend to get their energy from being with others and introverts get their energy from being on their own. Different things make these two types of people happy. Happiness for an introvert might just be a night in with a good book and extroverts are often happy at a party or social gathering. So it is hardly surprising that there is no direct correlation or cause of happiness in our personalities. It is more what we do with those personalities - the actions we take.

What about the context or situations we find ourselves in?

How much are the situations we find ourselves in are responsible for our happiness?

Clearly there are very severe situation which can impact an individual's happiness significantly like grief, being kidnapped or severely injured. However what we find here is that different people respond differently to these situations. For example a friend of mine was shot and almost killed whilst he was in the army. At no stage did he suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or depression or any similar disorder. In fact he is one of the happiest, most upbeat people I know. The control room radio operator who heard the incident, however, had to leave his job as a result of PTSD from that incident.

In various studies the context or situation has a much smaller impact on our happiness than we might at first expect. Some studies even suggest that like personality, context or situation has no significant impact on happiness on its own. Rather it is the meaning we make of, or impose on that situation. So again we find that context or situation plays a very small role in our happiness, even given the studies that do find some situational impact on happiness, at most they estimate that it contributes to less than 5% of the factors which do contribute significantly to our happiness.


So now we have a chart that probably looks more like this:

What actually makes us happy

As opposed to what people think makes us happy:

Screen Shot 2014-06-12 at 13.23.22





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