Why physical & mental fitness are the best ‘fertilisers’ for growing resilience

On Aug. 21, 2020

Whether you take a relaxing stroll through your nearby park with your family or whether you sit down with your friends for a cup of coffee on a Sunday afternoon, you can be pretty sure that you will overhear at least a few very similar conversations related to people’s feeling of stress, pressure and perceived lack of coping skills.

“you have no idea how stressful that felt” or : “I feel exhausted – it has been a really pressurizing time at home and at the office over the past months” or “I haven’t been able to exercise the way I usually do nor getting enough sleep due to the ongoing changes, office politics and workload that has been going on for the past months”.

There is the ‘perceived everyday pressure’ whether at work or in private life. But there is also more situational or contextual type stress adding to the equation. For example, how many of us have either personally experienced aviophobia (fear of flying) when travelling by air or know of someone close who does suffer from it (myself included)?

Stress can take so many different shapes and forms that it would be difficult to list them all here.

The feeling of ‘stress’ and pressure has been around since the origin of our existence. As we know, we are partly wired that way to be ready to fight or flight in face of ‘danger’. However, when our bodies, minds and hearts ‘perceive’ ongoing ‘danger’ (pressure) it poses a threat to our mental, emotional and physical well-being.

Much has been said, written and researched about resilience over the past years. As our understanding of the human mind and psyche progresses with the latest findings in neuroscience and applied psychology so does the topic of resilience.

For the sake of this short blog let us define Resilience as 'the ability to cope, withstand, recover, and grow in the face of stressors and changing demands' (Patricia A Deuster & Marni N Silverman, 2015).

Stressors are external stress factors (or adversity) that can become triggers for what each of us perceives as stressful.

The more science starts to understand and to share with the wider public related to the neuro functioning of the brain, the more it appears, that not only is the way we cope with adversity quite unique to each of us but so are those triggers and factors, which we ‘perceive’ as stressful and pressurizing.

Is it possible that we thought we had uncovered ‘the mystery’ of resilience and indeed the more we discover the less simple it actually turns out to be? I guess it’s a bit like ‘good old Confucius’ used to state: “The more we know the less we understand”

Why is it that some individuals are able to thrive under ‘adverse conditions’ and turn these challenges as opportunities to be ‘conquered’ and other people are very negatively affected by the same events/situations to the point of getting mentally, emotionally or physically ill?

At worst ongoing pressure and stress can lead to anxiety, depression and/or experienced burn out when exposed to them for a prolonged period of time.

According to the WHO (World Health Organization, 2016) 27% of the adult population (defined as aged 18–65) had experienced at least one of a series of mental disorders in the past year (this included problems arising from depression, anxiety, sleeping too and/or eating disorders).

One explanation for the differences of perception in people on what is stressful and what is not, might be that those 5 key elements, which play a role in helping us to build resilience, are not equally represented within each of us but unique to our ‘individual make up’- these are:

  1. Our Personality & Preference
  2. Potential Stress Factors
  3. Our Personal Attitude and Belief System
  4. Our Physical Well- Being
  5. Our Inner Self (Self–Confidence, Self-Concept)

The ability to learn, maintain and grow our own levels of ‘resilience’ has always been important for the preservation of the animal species. Today grooming a solid amount of resilience is crucial more than ever, to equip us not only to ‘survive’ but to be happy and healthy in a world which could easily be perceived as a permanently ‘stressful affair.

But what if the ability to ’cope’ well with ongoing change and bouncing back from setback (resilience) is related to our predisposition and personality? Does this mean that some of us will never be able to reduce our perceived sense of stress and will never be resilient?

In other words, imagine that people with certain personality types or enduring traits, tendencies and preferences tend to be more or less resilient. So to cite myself as a real example: My personality is partly characterised by a ‘lethal combination’ of a tendency to both perfectionism and worry… One could, therefore, argue: for somebody like myself, any external factor could potentially turn into a stressor, what hope is there for somebody with this type of personality to grow resilient?

Moreover, it has been proven by research when it comes for example to personality traits such as mental toughness (Gerber M, Kalak N e.g. Al in Stress Health, 2013) that this seemingly correlates with higher Resilience (tolerance for stress).

However, this is not the whole story. In reality, most of our perceived stress triggers are completely subjective – and even if this ’subjectivity’ might be partially rooted in the type of personality we have, this does not mean that we can’t actively change the way we react once we become aware of what it is that triggers us.

The good news is that resilience can be learned, developed and grown. The best ‘fertilisers’ to grow resilience are mental and physical fitness – so we can actively do something about it no matter what type of preferences, tendencies, past experiences we have. It will just be easier for some and harder for others but ultimately, we have the power to consciously develop our own resilience – Here a few simple steps that can help us to do this:

1. Become aware: Know yourself & your triggers

The more you know yourself the better you will be able to identify your potential stressors.

Take a step back and observe yourself as if you were an outsider who wanted to shoot a movie about your own ‘stress’ biography. In order to help you do that, take a closer look at your personality preference attitude and belief system through a few reflective questions:

  • Who & What triggers you to ‘feel pressurized or stressed’?
  • Are there any specific situations that make it worse or better?
  • Has it always been this way? If not when was it different?
  • How do you tend to react, think and behave under pressure?
  • What are the effects on your health, sleeping patterns, eating patterns, physical activity routine, relationship behaviour with spouse, kids, friends?

2. Train your ‘Mental Fitness”: Practice a different thought pattern

During step 1 above you might have identified in much more detail what type of situations, comments or people you get really worked up about.

Try and list these in order of priority: which is the absolute number 1 in terms of ‘stress trigger’ and start working on this first one – once you feel you made progress on this – then work on the next ones on the list- this might take weeks or even months.

  • Practice another, new, different way of thinking:
  • Once you identified your own key triggers to pressure and which constitute potential stress factors for you, try to consciously formulate an alternative way to ‘perceive’ this stressor. Let me give an example to explain what I mean by this:
  • You have a long commute to and from work each day at peak traffic time and you have no other choice than taking the car since you need to drop off the kids to school on the way. Your thought pattern might look like this:
  • ”Oh my God there we go again, the highway is completely blocked, it’s at a standstill…I can’t bear this. Why does it always have to be like this? I thought the roadworks which created the blockage were finished…I will be late again, the kids need to get to school on time today – they have their exams this morning. It will be a disaster if they miss the first part because of this.” etc…
  • You might start feeling nervous, reacting shortly to the kids in the car, feeling overwhelmed and maybe even ill equipped emotionally for the other things to be solved once you get the office.

Consciously reformulate your thought pattern from one ‘where you are controlled’ by the event to one where ‘you take control back’. In the example of the car ride – it might sound like this: “Should I get there late? I will explain to the teacher what happened she will understand and we will find a way to make up for possible lost exam time- it is obvious that I did not arrive late on purpose and she knows how that we need to cross the worst part of town and the highway to get there.”

3. Train your Physical Fitness: It strengthens your inner self

There is a strong relationship between regular physical activity and emotional well-being. The stronger your emotional well-being the stronger your ability to build resilience and inner strengths to cope with what ‘life throws at you’.

  • If you realized during the step 1 stress awareness activity, that your resilience decreases when you skip your physical activity routine, make sure you re-plan your time the same way you would do for any other work or social event. That way you integrate it back into your daily activity wherever possible.
  • As little as 20-30 minutes physical activity (walking outdoors, running, biking, swimming or similar aerobic activity) 3 times a week can boost resilience levels and make people feel stronger to cope with every day as well as more serious adversity.
  • In fact, an extensive amount of evidence is increasingly provided by numerous studies and research, that regular exercise and physical fitness increase resilience and decrease stress reactivity in individuals in response to both situational and physical stressors. Many chronic illnesses and stress-related disorders can be addressed when regular physical activity takes place. Depression and anxiety, for example, have been considerably reduced in a large population sample after only 8 weeks of regular physical activity (Bauman Ae, Reis RS et al in Lancet, 2012)
  • Studies by Berlin & Weinstein et al (in Medical Science & Sports Exercise 2007 & in Psychosomatic Medicine, 2006) showed that when somebody exercises regularly and is forced to withdraw from exercise for 2 weeks, negative mood increases significantly – which correlates with a decrease in fitness.
  • In addition to physical activity/exercise, regular meditation and breathing exercises, which are now scientifically proven to calm the busy mind, are also related to learning higher degrees of personal resilience, inner strength and self-esteem (Ekeland et al, in Cochrane Databse Systems Review,2004)

So where does this all leave us?

Regardless of our personality preference we can learn to think, behave and react differently in the face of adversity. If we work on our ’stress self-awareness’ and on our mental and physical fitness we can increase our resilience considerably.

Like with most things we first need to sow the seeds and (re) fertilize the ground by ourselves, before we can reap the first benefits of stronger coping skills in the face of adversity. No one else can do it for us -especially not when it comes to growing our personal resilience, which is unique to each of us.

But once we start ‘feeling’ and experiencing the benefits of freedom and power it gives us – there will be no ‘looking back’…

About the Author

Natalie Schürmann is the founder of Badiliko, a consultancy, which offers collaborative, customised coaching and development solutions to promote leadership excellence, positivity, well-being and fulfilment.

Badiliko is a valuable learning partner and social entrepreneur for people and organisations across the world, nurturing authentic, balanced and purpose driven leadership for a more fulfilled workforce and a happier world.

Visit www.badiliko.com