- There are strategies that can help build resilience and mental stamina in the face of challenges.
- Four of these strategies, which I learned from endurance sports, are applicable to daily life.
- These strategies can help make situations less overwhelming and can give you the "fuel" to keep on going.
For someone who hadn’t owned or ridden a bike since I was a kid, the idea of participating in a 150-mile charity ride (spread over two days) to raise money for Multiple Sclerosis seemed daunting. This was my first endurance event, I was in my 30’s at the time, and I had no idea what I was getting into. My inspiration was seeing my husband and some friends (who had never done anything like this before) complete the previous year. I knew the physical aspect of preparing for such a ride would be challenging, but I had no idea that the mental aspect would be equally difficult, if not more so (especially in the face of unexpected and terrible weather conditions on the second day with torrential rain, winds, and cold temperatures that presented a risk of hypothermia).
Looking back, I realize that the strategies that I used to help me through this and other endurance events are the same ones that I use now to help me with the mental stamina to go on in the face of difficulties (big and small).
What I learned about resilience from endurance events
Here are the big lessons that I learned:
1. Focus on what’s right in front of you (not what’s ahead of you). If I had focused on what lay ahead of me (having to bike 75 miles on day two in heavy rains, driving winds and cold temperatures), I surely would have been too daunted to keep going. Instead, I focused on what was right in front of me: the landscape with the stretches of country roads and lines of trees, the interesting house to my left, the feeling of the rain against my face, the riders with the purple jerseys twenty feet ahead of me. (Singing also helped, one song at a time — singing my favorite tunes out loud when I knew no one was close enough to hear).
Try this: Instead of thinking “I’ve got to get through this long day,” bring your attention to just this one thing in front of you. Your mind will naturally wander, but keep bringing it back to what is actually here right now. Research on mindfulness shows that cultivating this quality of focusing on the present moment breeds resilience.
2. Break things down into small, manageable steps (that feel “safe” for your nervous system). When our nervous system perceives “threat” and feels overwhelmed, it goes into a protection response of either “fight-or-flight” (anxiety, stress, anger, etc.) or some variation of collapse/shut down/freeze. Breaking things down into small, even tiny steps can help to dial down this response.
The thought of riding seventy-five miles in such horrendous weather conditions was overwhelming for sure, even with focusing on what was right in front of me (as in step one above). To help make this even more manageable, I played a mental game with myself. I knew the first rest stop was just ten miles away. That’s just two times around the lake that I often ride. “I can do two times around the lake,” I told myself. Then, when I got to that rest stop I recalibrated and reminded myself that the next rest stop is only twelve miles away. "I can do twelve miles" I encouraged myself. Breaking things down into smaller parts felt much less threatening for my nervous system to manage than trying to get through the whole seventy-five mile all at once.
Try this: Think of something you have to do that feels daunting or that you are resisting doing because it is unpleasant. Instead of taking on the whole task, could you find one very small step you could take today that feels doable (e.g., if you have a big project that’s due in a week, could you just commit to writing the introduction today)?
3. Find a sense of connection. What most helped me at points when I was physically exhausted and didn’t know how I could possibly have the stamina to keep going was cheering all the people on who passed me and taking in the encouragement of those who cheered me on. This gave me a surprising jolt of energy that made it easier to keep going. Ultimately, we’re all in this together. When I focus on the collective “we,” I find that there is energy available that is not present when I just focus on “me, myself, and I.”
Try this: Say something kind and unexpected to someone today and notice what the energy feels like in your body. Chances are it will not only lift the other person up but you as well. Think about how uplifting it is when someone offers a word of kindness toward you, or offers a kind gesture, even if that person is a stranger in the grocery store. It doesn’t take much to tap into this interconnection that can uplift all parties involved. This energy can help fuel you to keep going, even in the midst of difficulties.
4. Focus on a greater purpose or meaning. One of the things that helped me tremendously when I was so cold that I couldn’t warm up, was soaking wet, and had quite a way to go to get to finish line was remembering who I was riding for. I thought about all the people who have Multiple Sclerosis, and the money that this event was raising to help with research and resources to support those with this condition. Knowing I was contributing to something larger than myself gave me energy to keep going.
In daily life, being able to find some meaning and purpose amid challenge is an important quality of resilience. I know of people who endured tremendous adversity and found ways of giving back to the community in some way or contributing to decreasing the suffering of others who were in a similar situation. While this did not take away their suffering, it did help them to move through it in a way that was more bearable.
Try this: Think of something mildly or moderately stressful that you are dealing with. See if you might reframe the situation to see how your experience might contribute to growing qualities of compassion, empathy, inner strength, courage, insight, or wisdom that might help guide you or others in the future in some way. (This is not at all to dismiss or minimize your struggles, but to focus on some aspect of your experience that might help you get through it with more ease).
When days are challenging or times get tough, it can feel difficult to imagine how we can ever get through. And yet, somehow, we find a way to put one foot in front of the other and keep going. These four strategies won’t change your circumstances, but they can be a reminder to you to access your resilient mindset to make whatever you are going through more endurable.