How to Be Emotionally Agile

Even small transitions can upset your daily routines. Restore your sense of balance and ease with these tips.

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Just when you think you have the perfect schedule in place, life happens. Your partner’s extended business trip suspends your morning workout regimen as the task of walking the dog now falls to you. The kids’ summer break forces you to re-arrange your calendar to accommodate camps and other activities. A bad case of the flu renders your meticulous agenda obsolete while you rest and recover.

These kinds of shifts and transitions may seem minor, but they can throw your daily life out of rhythm — increasing stress, souring your mood, and leaving you frustrated. Indeed, the angst and resentment you feel when you can’t do what you’re supposed to be doing (or what you’d rather be doing) are often worse than the inconvenience of the sudden change itself.

After all, the human mind is attuned to the status quo, explains Susan David, PhD, a Harvard Medical School psychologist and the author of Emotional Agility. “So, whenever change happens, our brains tend to automatically interpret it as unsafe.”

But, like it or not, life is more about change than it is about stability. Therein lies a hidden opportunity.

“We live in such a goal-oriented, high-pressured, and distractible world that we don’t mine the space that exists in transitions and use that space in a way that allows us to learn and grow,” David says. “When we open our hearts up to the idea that change is part of the rhythm of life, it allows us to go with the ebb and flow in a way that is healthier and more constructive.”

So how can you better roll with the punches when things are constantly in flux? Our experts offer four strategies for embracing life’s daily surprises.

1. Prepare for Change

When you can anticipate change — like the predictable shift from the school year to summer that affects families with kids — planning ahead alleviates tactical stress and gives you time to mentally adjust to the new routine.

“Start thinking about what you want this period in your life to be like, and begin laying the groundwork so that when it happens you’re not saying to yourself, ‘Whoa, what do I do now?’” advises time-management expert Julie Morgenstern, author of Shed Your Stuff, Change Your Life.

For life’s inevitable curve balls, however, the best defense is a mindset that readily embraces and adapts to change. Cultivating such equanimity isn’t an intellectual exercise or a matter of willpower, says Gina Caputo, director and principal teacher at the Colorado School of Yoga. “It’s a constant practice.” Her go-to strategy is meditation.

“Meditation is a great way to cultivate awareness, which boosts your ability to recognize when you’re having a strong, averse reaction to change,” she explains.

Mindfulness meditation in particular gives you the skills and opportunities to witness your own anger, frustration, fear, depression, sadness, anxiety, loss, or disappointment — and to even relax into them a bit. This acceptance doesn’t just improve your ability to overcome smaller bumps in the road; it helps you build the resilience you need when encountering those bigger and often unexpected life changes, like job loss or a death in the family.

2. Reframe Your Experience

“We live in a society that tells us to be happy and positive all the time, regardless of what the difficulty is,” says David. “But I think that way of being is misguided.”

It’s helpful to acknowledge and name the emotions that arise when something alters your comfortable routine. The key, she maintains, is to use language that enables you to step out of the emotions themselves.

For instance, rather than saying, “I am frustrated,” in which you identify with the frustration, you could instead say, “I’m noticing that I’m feeling frustrated.” This change in language helps create some space between you and your feelings.

“In that space, you then have this very powerful pause where you can insert a level of choice.”

3. Choose Your Response

Transitions are occasions to take a closer look at your values and perhaps even shift your perspective. A little self-inquiry about what’s really important might help you feel less resentful about “having to” walk the dog while your sweetie is working in Paris, because you value being a supportive partner.

This is not about pretending you want to do something when you don’t, David notes, but rather matching your new reality to your intrinsic desires as a way to boost your motivation. “When we can find a ‘want-to’ way of managing a situation, it is incredibly freeing and can help us with that transition,” she says.

You might even temporarily alter your priorities in light of a short-term situation. For example, sit-down family meals may be high on your values list, but hectic summer schedules regularly turn dinnertime into a catch-as-catch-can affair. Rather than fight this reality, you might embrace its improvisational nature while looking for other ways to enjoy family time, like sideline picnics at your kid’s soccer game. Or, if you feel frustrated by a health setback, consider how allowing yourself time to fully recover will better position you to meet the responsibilities you care about most.

Tiny perspective tweaks like these can make a big difference, says David. “We so often get overcome by the transition, the difficulty, the emotions, the things that get raised in us, and forget to think, Who do I want to be in this situation?

4. Reclaim Your Rhythm

When shifts happen, look for ways to add a sense of rhythm to your days.

“Sometimes the best way to create order is to anchor yourself in one block of time,” Morgenstern advises. Start with something simple — maybe a cup of herbal tea in the now-quiet evenings while your partner is away.

David suggests a method she calls “piggybacking”: Add a values-aligned habit to something you’re already doing. When you’re sitting in traffic on the way to yet another Little League practice, listen to an audio book with your child or play games like I Spy. Note how the stressful extra drive becomes a source of opportunity and joy.

Perhaps the most fundamental rhythm you can add is to connect regularly with the cadence and sensation of your breathing, says Caputo.

Transitions might trigger your sympathetic nervous system’s response of fight, flight, or freeze. The antidote: Stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system’s relaxation response. Breathing slowly, emphasizing the exhale (for example, inhaling to a count of three and exhaling to a count of four or five), helps ease tension in your body and mind.

In this state of greater ease, the fluidity of life may no longer feel quite as jarring. “It is inevitable that every single thing in our lives will change, some faster, some slower,” Caputo says. “Recognizing that fact and working with it is the key to finding balance.”

This appeared as “Roll With It” in the June 2017 print issue of Experience Life.

is a San Francisco-based writer specializing in wellness and lifestyle.

Image by Gregor Schuster

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