What do you do when life throws you a curveball?(1) Do your systems collapse? Do you rigidly adhere to what you think is best or most optimal and hope you can hold it all together until things settle down? Or do you practice flexibility and self-compassion, allow things to change as they need to but holding onto the highest priority needs until things can slowly rebuild and improve?
Resilience is the ability to weather the storms of our lives without letting the currents sweep us away.(2)
When it comes to self-care, nutrition, fitness, stress management, sleep and all the things we do every day to take care of ourselves so we can be who we want to show up as in the rest of our lives, a lot of us struggle with having resilience. Things get hard and we stop taking care of ourselves while we take care of whatever/whomever is in crisis. The other option we often see, through the horse blinders(3) of diet culture or perfectionism, is to continue to do all the things–still workout every day, still push as hard as we can when we’re in the gym, still prep all the meals from scratch with all the veggies and all the protein and all-the-things-because-it’s-what-we-should-do until, eventually, we burn out or collapse in exhaustion.
But there is a third option–remove the horse blinders and look in all directions. Usually we have a few key habits and practices that feel really good, that set us up for success, the “big rocks” that when we do them consistently, we get a lot more bang for our buck.(4)
The last few months have been a challenge for me. Family illness, novel work stressors, financial strain, and the usual mental health challenges of my PTSD exacerbated by all of the above. The PTSD makes it harder for me to focus; the part of my brain (the prefrontal cortex) that makes plans for the future, that can logically and rationally work things out, goes offline, or sort of stutters in and out of working order, like a bad transmission on an old radio. I can “hear” my rational self and then it goes away into static for a while. This is also the part of the brain that learns, so my ability to remember tasks, to take in new information and process it rationally, can become limited. So, I get a sort of negative feedback loop–life is harder, so my brain struggles to process new information and stay rational, which makes life harder, etc. And the only solution I have for right now is to slow. the fuck. down.
And so that’s what I’ve been doing these last few months. I’ve been practicing having the resilience to weather this storm. It isn’t perfect, and getting ok, or at least neutral about that, is part of the practice. There’s still a part of me, the part of me that survived many difficult life events by being more organized, more practical, more able to plan ahead and make-it-happen-no-matter-what that wants to get back on the horse(5) and do all the things today and make a plan to do all the things going forward. And the resilience is found in riding that feeling of urgency and reminding myself that it won’t help. That what I need right now is more downtime. More space to rest. More time to let my brain settle down so that I can manage the many other things that need to take my time and energy from a productive place rather than from a frantic one.
In episode one of this season (season 8) of The Food Medic, Dr. Hazel discussed intentionally creating these moments of unplanned time with her guest, Adrienne Herbert, who called it “white space.”
“White space” can be built into our schedules–like planning a 50-minute meeting instead of an hour so there’s 10 minutes to reset before the next task. What I’ve been doing is taking a hard look at my daily and weekly to-do lists and removing anything that I don’t value, that isn’t essential, that really isn’t urgent or necessary. And instead of packing my days one task to the next until I collapse, I do something and then I rest. And as much as I have the flexibility to do it, I wait until my body says it’s ready to tackle the next thing before I go on and do it. I’m working to let go of the arbitrary timelines I used to cling to, to be as efficient and productive as possible. I recognize the enormous amount of privilege I have that I get to do this, even for a few months out of the year, but I’m hoping that even when the schoolyear returns, I can make more of my nonworking hours more like this, with more intentional white space. And hopefully, it will help me practice resilience.
In another effort to slow down, instead of jumping back into lifting 4 times a week and making myself get back into running this summer, I’m letting myself decide day-to-day if I feel like lifting weights. I have given myself a menu of options to choose between each day to get some activity, but which option I choose is decided based on how I feel and how it feels in my body.
Option 1 is to just go for a walk or work in my garden, aiming for at least 8000 steps, which is about how many I get on a typical workday during the school year and seems like a reasonable minimum.
Option 2 is to go for a walk and do some bodyweight exercises or light resistance bands.
Option 3 is to lift weights out in the garage. While I’m lifting, I work on staying present my body, and I don’t have any time requirements. Do some lifting, stop when I feel done. This is the most I’m expecting myself to do, but if I feel really inspired, there’s no rule saying I couldn’t do more.
Whichever option I choose, I let it be enough for that day. I know that not lifting regularly will mean I will probably lose some strength. I know that it isn’t “optimal,” and I’m not adhering to some pre-designed progression or periodization scheme. The resilience is reminding myself this is what I need right now and practicing being ok with it. This “good-better-best” scheme also helps me to avoid the pitfalls of perfectionism, so that I’m not being all-or-nothing about movement, and I’m still maintaining the habit of intentionally doing some kind of exercise most days.
The ladies at Balance 365 talked about the values of movement and some of the setbacks and challenges someone might experience in maintaining a movement program on this week’s podcast. They also talked about the differences between having a movement practice, exercising, and training. By their definitions, I’m balancing between a movement practice and exercising these days, and I’m working on being ok with that for now.
I have similar practices when it comes to my nutrition. I value home-cooked food over prepared foods. And when life is hard, if that means I eat a little more prepared foods, then I try to get a balanced plate and move on. The resilience is in focusing on the big rocks of my nutrition–feeling satisfied and having the energy I need to do the other work. Does it mean it’s more calorically-dense? Maybe, but that’s ok. It’s diet culture that tells us we should eat the same way all the time, regardless of our needs. It’s fatphobia that tells us our body size shouldn’t change when our lives change. The resilience is in noticing these unhelpful voices and practicing letting them go.
I think it’s important to note that this idea of resilience can sometimes be weaponized. Folks who don’t value our boundaries and needs may just say we need to buck up and be more resilient. When it’s about their own needs, suddenly that talk of resilience goes out the window and the world needs to change for them. We saw this during the worst of the COVID lockdowns in the US. Over time, our needs for protecting the community have been subsumed by the desires of individuals to not be inconvenienced. A recent conversation on Maintenance Phase (Pete Evans Part 2: COVID and Consequences) vividly revisited that anxiety for me, as a person with immune disorders missing half of a lung, I was emotionally transported to that deeply challenging summer and fall of 2020 when people were literally taking to the streets saying the solution was letting everyone not like me go on with their lives. That the most vulnerable amongst us needed to have the “resilience” to live isolated and alone in our homes so that they could move freely without the burden of consideration to us.
So, I think it’s really important that when we are defining our resilience practice that it comes from a place of compassion, and with an honest, holistic view of our values. I’m certain many of the bodybuilders and other lifters I admire would define their resilience as pushing through hard times and still getting in their training and nutrition, no matter what. And maybe for some folks, that really works. And on the opposite side of the spectrum, if we have a victim mindset or find meaning in habitual martyrdom, the opposite can happen, too. We can give up on ourselves and our own goals too readily.
My guess is that true resilience requires developing a deep and honest connection to ourselves, really listening to the feedback our bodies and minds are giving us. For me right now, my mental health challenges give me pretty clear feedback when I’ve overdone it. At other times in my life, when things are less severe, the information is likely going to be more subtle. So, I’m keeping one ear to the ground, my eye on the prize, and avoiding rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
(1) That’s the end of the baseball analogy; I know next to nothing about baseball.
(2) Not sure why we’re on a boat now, but at least I know a little something about boats, and a lot about storms.
(3) Yup. Now we’re on to horses.
(4) To completely mix our metaphors.
(5) And we’re back to horses.