Stress Test

If you want to build more resilience, it’s time to listen to your body (and that nagging voice inside your head)

It’s a fact: Success cannot be achieved without failure. But let’s face it: Failure, no matter how big or small, can take a toll on your ego – and your motivation level. Whether you didn’t reach a financial goal or are experiencing a personal setback, it’s sometimes hard to bounce back quickly.

But doing so is key. “People succeed because they are willing to persevere, to knock on that door again no matter how many times it gets shut in their face,” says Le-Vel Co-Founder and Co-CEO Jason Camper. “The ones who build resilience are the ones who are going to enjoy true success.”

Unfortunately, “most people’s definition of resilience is old school: Put your head down, grit your teeth and push through,” says Steve Magness, a performance coach. But that doesn’t always work, he says, because your mind and body might be telling you two different things.

Here are three smart ways to build resilience that will also benefit your overall well-being.


Hit the Gym

Yes, a good workout gives you an energy boost and puts you in a better frame of mind. But a very specific workout – resistance training – is key to making you feel strong enough to move on from a challenge.

“The process of resistance training is a physical manifestation of resilience,” says Heather Hamilton, an exercise physiologist and owner of Barpath Fitness, an online coaching service. “When we do resistance exercises, like squatting, hinging, pushing or pulling, we go through a process of creating small, micro-tears in our muscles,” she says. “Then, we rest, our body adapts, and we grow stronger.”

As your body grows stronger, she says, so does you mind – and your resolve. Hamilton recently worked with a group of women in a corporate setting for eight weeks, providing them with resistance training exercises twice a week. At the end of the program, along with testing their deadlift strength, Hamilton surveyed the women to see how they were feeling at work. “The positive reports back were through the roof,” she says. “Their productivity, confidence and energy throughout the day was soaring.” And one woman even noticed that she had gained more confidence in public speaking.

Hamilton chalks up these wins to the fact that resistance training “teaches us we can do hard things, while also making our bodies more functional.”

For some resistance-training exercises to try, see “Get Moving”.


Just Breathe

Another smart action to take when you’re having trouble facing a difficult or emotional task is to practice some functional breathing, advocates Emily Hightower, a stress tolerance educator. Hightower, who’s worked with military veterans managing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, says that when many of us are going through a stressful situation, “our bodies start to shut down in unhelpful ways that won’t allow you to continue.” Many of us go into “stress-breathing mode,” (a.k.a. vertical breathing) without even realizing it, making it difficult to function. How to know if you’re breathing correctly?

If, when you inhale, your breath feels like it’s traveling from the bottom of your lungs to the top of your chest and your shoulders move upward, you’re a vertical breather – and you’re only using a fraction of your lungs to take in air, plus you’re putting strain on your shoulders and neck. This type of breathing also sends messages to your brain that you’re in distress.

To make yourself feel better, and be able to complete your task, make a conscious effort to switch to horizontal breathing, which uses the diaphragm and allows you to expand out, filling the biggest part of your lungs with air.

When practicing, imagine your abdomen is a balloon that’s being slowly filled with helium and then deflates until every last drop of air is gone. At the same time, you’ll see your ribs move like an umbrella, opening and broadening when you inhale, and moving inward when you exhale.

Taking a few moments every day to focus on horizontal breathing promotes a more parasympathetic relaxation response, says Hightower. “In other words, your brain tells you to relax – that everything’s going to be okay.”


Put Yourself on Pause

Most experts advocate facing adversity by jumping right back into whatever is challenging you. While that’s a sound strategy, give yourself just a moment to pause when you’re facing a difficult moment and consider how you’re feeling. “When you’re doing something really hard, often at the first sign of fatigue or pain, your brain starts to freak out, telling you, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to quit!’” says Magness. Instead of pressing the escape hatch, take a moment to “turn the volume down on your emotions” by giving yourself some psychological distance from your actions, he says.

One way to do that is by considering what advice you might give a friend who’s facing the same difficult task. “That gives you a bit of distance and space so that your emotions aren’t so intertwined with your actions,” he says.
Another way to quiet your inner nagging voices is to shift your positive self-talk from “I” to “you.” For instance, instead of saying, “I am strong enough to handle this,” pretend your best friend is speaking to you and say to yourself, “You are strong enough to handle this.”

Using “you” can be more powerful when you’re in a tough spot, Magness says, because it tricks your brain into thinking the information is coming from a third party and as a result, your mind may be more receptive to the information.

Get Moving

Whether you’re a gym rat or a fitness newbie, you can practice resistance training. Here are some exercises to try:

Squats: Considered among the best of all resistance training exercises, squats use all the major muscles in the lower leg, thighs and hips and help protect the spine. Simply stand in an open area with your feet hip-width apart, tighten your stomach muscles, and lower your body as if sitting in an invisible chair. Hold the position for a few seconds, and then straighten your legs to slowly lift yourself back up. Repeat the movement 10 times. If you’re a beginner, your own body weight is all you need. As you progress, consider adding a dumbbell or another weight to your routine. Hold the weight close to your chest with both hands, as if you were cupping a goblet.

Lunges: Like squats, these can be done anywhere, using only your body weight for starters. Begin in the same standing position as if you were doing a squat. Then, step forward longer than a walking stride, so that one leg is ahead of your torso and the other is behind. Keep your front foot flat while it’s on the ground, while you let your rear heel rise. Bend your knees to approximately 90 degrees as you lower yourself, while keeping your body upright and your core engaged. After holding the position for a few seconds, forcefully push off from your front leg to return to the starting position. Once the lunges become easy to do, consider adding dumbbells or barbells to your routine.

Deadlifts: Deadlifts combine two primary resistance movements – the squat and the pull – as a weight bar is pulled into the body and lowered at the same time the squat is performed. Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart.

Grasp the bar with your hands just outside of your legs. Lift the bar by driving your hips forward and maintaining a flat back. Lower the bar under control. It’s recommended that beginners do four sets of six reps, taking a few minutes to rest between each set. When you’re able to do all sets comfortably, increase the weight at your next session.