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Using Exercise to Build Mental Resilience during Stressful Times

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

Recently I have been having various conversations with clients about mental resilience.

Being deep into a third UK national lockdown with the coronavirus pandemic, many lives have dramatically changed after spending months trying to adapt and overcome necessary obstacles to survive and keep strong during these times. Most people are seriously fatigued with the worry and stress of all the upheaval and are losing their fight to keep battling through.

Despite knowing that it is especially important to maintain a good level of health and fitness during these times, to combat the virus and other diseases, the vast majority are struggling to find the get up and go to exercise.

The stress of current life is enough to deal with so the thought of trying to fight and push through workouts on top of this is just too much.


1. Learning Mind-Body Connection

The mind and body are like parallel universes. Anything that happens in the mental universe will leave tracks in the physical one. Deepak Chopra

My advice to my clients, at this time, is to use it as an opportunity to truly find a deep mindful connection to movement. To thoroughly understand and appreciate how movement can make you feel and how your thoughts and feelings play a major part in how your body performs which you are ultimately able to control.

Work undertaken here can be long lasting and life changing. It is a matter of making a mental switch to how you view and approach exercise. Instead of trying to get those physical PRs right now flip the focus on training the brain and building mental resilience through exercise.


2. Practice Conscious Movement

Too often people attempt to separate the mind and body when exercising. To numb the mind or zone out so that they can keep going and not feel physical fatigue to enable them to push past limits. Thrashing the body every session to make the most of getting those weight loss goals or for getting that data to record on your gym app for everyone else to see. This can only serve you for so long.

When life places other stressors on the mind methods and techniques to handle those stressors have not been practiced. There has been no mental connection and therefore no experience of combatting them.

To build mental resilience it is important to “feel” and mentally connect with your workouts and all the emotions that kick up in doing them. In doing so you can decide how you are going to react on that day which will be different day in day out due to other life demands.

Most importantly you can use exercise as a mechanism to cope with the other stressors being placed on you. Rather than thinking about workouts as an additional stress on the body and mind they become an asset in your armour to relieve stress and anxiety – a valuable coping mechanism to make you “feel” good, to reset the mind and reinvigorate the body to enable you to carry on.


3. Controlling Your Stress Response

Stress is not what happens to us. It’s our response to what happens. And response is something we choose.

Maureen Killoran

Your reaction to events and therefore your thoughts and feelings are within your control. Thoughts are mental cognitions. They are perspectives that we bring to any situation based on our life experience and education. Being in tune with your thoughts allows you to understand them and change them if you choose.

How we react to stress is also known as the “fight or flight” response. It is a survival mechanism enabling people and other mammals to react quickly to life-threatening situations.

The pandemic has placed us all on high alert for over a year. Being in and out of lockdowns, hearing about death rates day in day out, seeing companies going out of businesses are indeed survival threatening situations which trigger the sympathetic nervous system meaning we need to decide whether to fight through it or take flight from it.

This autonomic nervous system is designed for instantaneous decisions and triggers a cascade of stress hormones to produce physiological changes to give the body energy to fight or take flight.


4. Reducing Chronic Stress

Stress becomes chronic when it doesn’t go away and stress hormones regularly circulate in the blood. When these hormones stay in your bloodstream for too long they can have a negative impact on physical and mental health.

It is therefore highly important to undertake activities that can bring you back into the parasympathetic state. Back to “rest” and “digest” in order that you can calm down your body and reset the mind.

Entering freeze means that you do nothing. For example, don’t get out of bed and essentially give up. Whilst initially this might be helpful to reset the mind and bring you back to a parasympathetic state, over time it can too impact hugely on physical and mental health as well as how you are living your life.


5. Finding Your Flow

A healthier approach would be to find activities that take you back into the flow state* or “rest” and “digest”.

Exercise has multiple benefits here:

  • Physical: It releases the pent-up energy within the body produced by the stress hormones. The hormones are there to assist physical action i.e. fight or flight.

  • Mental: Exercise counteracts the anxiety that the stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) may cause when in the bloodstream for prolonged periods. It can transfer the mind into relaxing “finding flow” so that it can reset ready for the next challenge. Giving the body and mind chance to recover to enable you to continue to adapt thus building mental resilience. As well as inducing the release of feel good hormones (endorphins) which stabilize our mood, feelings of well-being and overall happiness.


In summary, most people are well aware of the mental and physical benefits of exercise. Despite this they lack motivation to move during stressful circumstances. Being in tune with your mental and physiological response to stress as well as having techniques to adjust your thoughts and feelings during these times is life changing. Exercise provides a fantastic training ground to practice these techniques which ultimately can be transferred to many other aspects of life.

To read more about how you can use exercise as a coping mechanism in stressful situations check out my second blog on this topic - Building Mental Resilience through Exercise (Part II).... publishing soon!

* During this article we use the StrongFit Phylogenetic Hierarchy Wheel as our model and point of reference for the autonomic nervous system structure.


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