Why are some people unaffected by mental health problems?

Dr Muiris Houston: Emotional resilience, the ability to deal with difficulty, can be learned

Mental health has been defined as “a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”.

Like many definitions, it references an ideal.

Life is a struggle at times and can be an emotional rollercoaster. Some of us are able to ride this rollercoaster more smoothly than others. What is it that makes some of us calmer and less prone to mental health difficulties when faced with the vicissitudes of life?

According to mental health expert Dr Harry Barry, the answer lies in emotional resilience – having an emotional capacity to deal with life's difficulties. It is the subject of his latest book, Emotional Resilience – how to safeguard your mental health.

There is a sense in this latest publication of someone who has made a breakthrough in preventing mental health problems

A GP and cognitive behavioural therapist (CBT), Barry has decades of experience helping people with depression, anxiety and other psychological problems. He has written specifically about these conditions in previous books, but there is a sense in this latest publication of someone who has made a breakthrough in preventing mental health problems.

Over the years, he noticed how patients who developed and practised emotional resilience skills recovered faster and stayed well. They grew in confidence and became more resilient to whatever stressors came their way. Barry’s new book illustrates how we can best develop such skills.


What is emotional resilience? The word resilience comes from the Latin resilio, which means “to bounce back” or “recoil”, and has been in use for decades to describe how individuals respond to stress. Emotions relate to how we feel, lasting for relatively short durations, usually minutes to hours. If the feeling lasts for longer – hours or perhaps days – we call them moods. Emotions can be positive or negative, healthy or unhealthy.

Research shows that up to 75 per cent of mental health problems arise for the first time during adolescence. A 2017 school-based study of mental health and suicide prevention by the National Suicide Research Foundation (Young lives in Ireland 2017) revealed that some 25 per cent of 13- to 16-year old adolescents experienced significant anxiety; 14 per cent had symptoms of depression; 7 per cent had experienced suicidal thoughts; and some 4 per cent had attempted suicide earlier in their lives.

So there is clearly a case for buttressing young people’s coping skills during a difficult phase of development. The author sets out to do just that: “emotional resilience skills contained in this book are the basic building blocks for life that we require to improve motivation, increase self-confidence and foster a sense of self-reliance”, Barry says.

Skill set

He divides the emotional resilience skill set into three groups: personal: the resilience skills required to manage your personal life; social: the resilience skills required to cope with your social world; and life skills: those required to cope with life itself.

The skills he outlines are broadly based on the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This therapy is based on the relationship between cognition – how we interpret our environment – and behaviour.

CBT builds emotional resilience by recognising that:

Our thoughts influence our emotions which influence our behaviour.

It’s not what happens to us in life that causes us distress, rather how we interpret it.

We can learn simple techniques to change our thinking and behaviour.

These techniques will form the basis of the skills necessary to develop emotional resilience.

The book sets up the CBT sessions exactly as carried out in real life. Most of the exercises suggested are simple; for those who struggle with them a visit to a CBT therapist will help.

Barry points out that some skills take precedence over others. “I identify unconditional self-acceptance as the most important of all. We will never achieve emotional resilience unless we become kinder and more realistic about ourselves.”