Resilience is the ability to rebound, maneuver the unexpected and turn adversity into opportunity. Physical resilience comes naturally to trainers, coaches and fitness pros. It’s as though we were born with springs on our feet, and we keep getting back up no matter what it takes. Surrender isn’t an option.
Emotional resilience, however, is another matter. For all of our training in kinetics and physiology, many of us need help with strengthening our emotional resilience—especially when stress is involved. And our clients need help, too.
I’ve dealt with these issues for years in my work in fitness, education and counseling. Read on for some of my favorite tips on building resilience in the face of stress.
5 Ways to Build Stress Resilience
Resilience seems to be instinctive for some people. But even if you don’t bounce back with ease, you can still develop it. Think of resilience as an emotional muscle that becomes stronger through practice and repetition. Each of these five strategies for building stress resilience comes with a reflection exercise to help you master the concept and make it a part of your everyday existence.
1. PRACTICE OPTIMISM
In the book Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges (Cambridge University Press 2012), optimism is defined as “a future-oriented attitude, involving hope and confidence that things will turn out well.” The authors describe optimists as people who believe the future will be brighter and situations will work out for the best (Southwick & Charney 2012).
To practice optimism, we have to regularly reappraise and change the way we look at situations to build a more positive outlook. It’s important to pay attention to what we are paying attention to! Are we focusing on the problem and putting our energy into complaining? Or are we figuring out how to manage the situation, zero in on a solution and move forward?
When you face a challenge, remember a time when you’ve turned adversity into opportunity. It’s great to hear heroic stories of others who have overcome obstacles and gone on to achieve greatness, but what about the obstacles you’ve overcome?
Bullying, divorce, job loss, financial setback, love, grief—you’ve been there, right? And you’ve also heard your clients’ stories. Recognize how far you’ve come and remind yourself, “This isn’t the worst thing I’ve been through. If I made it through _______, I can make it through this.” Remember that setbacks are a chapter in your book. They’re not the end of the story.
REFLECTION: Think of a time in your life when you felt really optimistic. Paint a detailed picture in your mind or write it down.
Is that time now? If not, when have you felt peak optimism? Where were you in your career, and what was your relationship status? How old were you? Whom were you spending the most time with?
How can you create a life where you experience that sense of optimism again?
CLIENT FOCUS: Share this exercise with clients as you coach them to focus on all the positive gains they’ve made during their time with you. Remind them of their progress.
2. FOCUS ON FLEXIBILITY
Rigidity is not our friend. The more attached we are to our plans, schedules and ways of thinking, the more committed we become to believing things should go a certain way. This just leads to stress and anxiety when things don’t work out the way we expect. We’re more likely to snap when unforeseen things stand in our way. Then we blame, accuse and refuse to address the situation productively.
Southwick & Charney say resilient people tend to be more flexible in how they think about stress and respond to situations. Adaptability helps them apply unique strategies to match different situations. When life changes, they change with it.
While that may sound like a simple task, it is easier said than done. Relocating, for example, can throw you pretty far off your center. A move can leave you reeling with a sense of loss as you attempt to recreate your community and build new networks. Don’t make the mistake of trying to rebuild the life you had; move forward and build a new one.
REFLECTION: How many times a day do you say “should” with regard to yourself or someone else? That is, how often do you find yourself thinking that you or someone else should have done or said something or that things should have gone a certain way?
“Should” statements—e.g., “I should,” “ought” or “must”—lead to shame and guilt, create resentment, and kill motivation. They’re strong judgments and expectations based on our view of the world. It’s not that they’re wrong, but the more we let these feelings define our experiences, the more likely we are to feel disappointed when things go differently.
Once you recognize your shoulds, challenge them. Start by asking, “What if things go a different way? Can they still turn out okay? What if my idea about how things should go isn’t the same as someone else’s idea? What if neither of us is right or wrong?”
CLIENT FOCUS: Catch your clients in the act of saying they “should have” eaten better or worked out harder. Remind them that they are doing the best they can and that adding shame or guilt to the process is not productive.
3. STRENGTHEN YOUR SOCIAL NETWORK
We are social creatures. We function better, feel better and live better when surrounded by support. Social support has been found to improve our psychological well-being by improving our coping skills and lowering our risk for mental illness, including depression (Ozbay et al. 2007). Social support offers a sense of belonging and connection, increasing our ability to manage the effects of stress.
REFLECTION: How strong is your social network? Is it better or worse than it was a year ago or 5 years ago? What can you do to build it?
CLIENT FOCUS: Accountability and community help people stick with their programs and promises. Encourage your clients to find a workout buddy, get their families involved in healthy habits or create a small-group training opportunity.
4. LIVE A PURPOSEFUL LIFE
Those who are resilient tend to have a strong purpose in life. They live with intention, and they stay true to it even when life changes unexpectedly. Their lives reflect their values, beliefs, passions and strengths.
Fitness professionals are primed for a purposeful life owing to the nature of the industry itself. You are in the perfect position to help people change their lives for the better through intentional movement. This serves a dual cause: You feel purposeful, and that has a ripple effect on those you work with.
When we live our lives according to our values, passions and strengths, work doesn’t feel like work. The people we spend time with add strength and positivity. The world seems to be as it should be. It’s not that we don’t suffer setbacks. We just find our way back with less suffering because we have a strong foundation, and we build from there.
REFLECTION: Can you think of times in your life when it felt like you were swimming upstream, when everything you were doing was an effort? How about times when you couldn’t wait to get out of bed in the morning?
CLIENT FOCUS: Offer clients positive feedback when they share their passions and reasons for living. Often remind people of their strengths.
5. MEDITATE TO MASTER THE ART OF SELF-CARE
Meditation can promote peace, calm and mental clarity. It helps us stay mindful, in the moment and free of distraction. When our minds feel filled to capacity, our thoughts can overwhelm us. Meditation can clear some of that space, helping us relax and unwind. It drives down stress and anxiety, leading to greater focus and concentration. Research supports the positive effects of meditation in areas of the brain associated with learning and memory (Holzel et al. 2011).
REFLECTION: You can practice meditation formally or informally. Formally means taking time out to intentionally sit, stand or lie down to meditate. It may include some type of guided meditation. Informally means bringing mindful awareness to everyday activities like eating, exercising and work. It means applying conscious awareness to whatever you are doing in the moment. You’re in touch with all of your senses and devoting your full attention to the activity, which could be as simple as folding clothes or eating a piece of chocolate. (See “Meditation Made Simple: Tips for a Powerful Practice,” below, for more.)
CLIENT FOCUS: Encourage clients to be mindful of their movements and breath as you work with them. Promote the benefits of meditation for stress relief and exercise recovery.
Key Traits of Resilient People
Resilient people know where they’re going and how to get there. If they discover roadblocks or end up somewhere unexpected, they make the most of the situation. Resilient people adapt to stress by “bending,” not “breaking” (Karatsoreos & McEwen 2011). They mitigate the effects of stress with healthy coping mechanisms that help them manage setbacks.
While the strength of the human spirit can be remarkable, some of us are naturally resilient and some are not. But even those who lack a natural inclination to turn a frown upside down can learn to be resilient. We can adopt skills and traits that build stress resilience and transform our lives. These lessons then enable us to teach our clients, members, family and friends how to build stress resilience so they can transform theirs.
Meditation Made Simple: Tips for a Powerful Practice
- Start with 3–5 minutes a day and add more time as your awareness increases.
- Try to meditate at the same time each day to establish a habit; make it part of your daily routine
- Practice meditation in the same place—a calming, serene location free from clutter. Personalize it with candles or calming objects or even an object you can focus on during practice.
- Sit or lie down in a comfortable location—in a chair or on a mat. If you’re sitting, sit up tall like a mountain, dignified, unwavering and still. Allow your posture to reflect your commitment through strength and awareness.
- Close your eyes or focus on an object you’ve chosen.
- Breathe slowly, deeply and gently, not forcing your breath in any way. Keep your mind focused inward or on the object. If it wanders, gently bring the focus back to your breath.
- When your thoughts wander, avoid chasing, condemning or judging them. Let each thought go, like a leaf floating down the river or a cloud passing in the sky. Then bring your breath back to center and continue with your focus. Repeat this process if your mind wanders again.