It’s one of those days. It’s bleak and cold outside, and my mom just called to let me know that my dad left on another biweekly, 10-hour bus trip to the cancer clinic for treatment. I am driving to the studio to instruct an early-morning cardio blitz class. My thoughts drift, and I feel a familiar heaviness in my heart. The last thing I want to do right now is teach . . .

Unlike employees who can hide behind an office door when they’re feeling downhearted or having a bad day, fitness professionals face the constant challenge of having to be “on.” Instructors are expected to be upbeat, positive and inspiring every day. This is a particularly daunting job description when the motivation just isn’t there.

Many fitness professionals work for themselves; therefore, they don’t usually have the option of taking a day off or calling in sick. Consequently, it may be helpful and necessary to develop coping strategies for melancholy days and trying times.

You Are Not Alone

Sadness is as natural an emotion as happiness, anger or fear. It’s normal to struggle through the painful feelings that life sometimes presents. Sorrow and grief are universal, but what should you do when you feel that you’re the only one suffering? Perhaps you even feel guilty for being sad—especially when your subconscious tells you that others in the world are worse off than you.

“First, recognize that you are not alone,” explains Jacquie Stebbings, a certified life coach based in North Vancouver, British Columbia. “Everyone experiences sadness. Shared emotion is where we really connect with other people.” Stebbings cautions against comparing and contrasting your grief with the grief of others. “You may know people who’ve had greater losses than you,” she says. “While this may help create context for what you’re going through, it doesn’t usually lessen the experience of your own loss.” Nor should it.

Stebbings points out that experiencing your sadness allows grief to do what it needs to do: Slow you down, remind you what’s important in life, and inspire you to make changes such as restructuring your priorities, healing relationship wounds and so on. “Though it doesn’t feel good, grief needs to be experienced,” Stebbings says. “And the more we experience the emotions that are present—including the ones we wish would go away—the greater our capacity to truly feel. As we learn how to feel our sadness, we deepen our experiences of other emotions, such as joy.”

Stebbings says that as we learn to feel our emotions, we actually make room for others to have their emotions too. “Most people are hungry to feel and exhausted by only allowing themselves a very small expression of who they really are,” she says. “Not allowing, or repressing, our true emotions is where the dysfunction starts to grow.”

Coping Tools for Sad Times

Getting through a full week—or even a day—can seem overwhelming when you’re navigating difficult emotions. At such times, it’s important to have “tools” that can help you make it through. These suggestions may be useful.

Take It Moment by Moment

In particularly challenging times, break up the day into manageable chunks. Sit down and script a schedule. Focus on one task, one client or one class at a time. Avoid thinking too far ahead.

When teaching, remind yourself that you’ll feel much better when the class is over. Remember that endorphins, the body’s “feel good” hormones, increase with exercise. They will very likely elevate your mood, and you’ll get a natural boost to propel you through your next obligation.

Move forward in your day, moment by moment. When the day is done, recognize what you’ve accomplished. As challenging as it may be, find one positive thing to focus on. Let that be your motivation to get through the next day.

Be Prepared

When you aren’t operating at full capacity, it’s best to take extra preparation time. Simple and routine tasks help. Here are some suggestions:

  • Lay out your workout gear, choose your music and pack your bag the night before.
  • Instead of stumbling through a workout, make a plan.
  • Keep it simple. Don’t introduce something new or too complicated.
  • Revert to a workout you’ve previously prepared.

Knowing that you don’t have to reinvent the mousetrap, so to speak, may decrease unnecessary pressure. Less is more than enough in times of sadness.

It’s About Them

You may have noticed that helping others makes you feel good. Since everyone has a story, and most likely others in your class have or have had some form of sadness, remind yourself why it’s important that you are there for them. From the moment you walk into the studio, all eyes are on you. Dig deep and tell yourself you can do it.

Research has shown that plastering a smile on your face, even if it’s fake, can change your mood. There’s a cause-and-effect reaction, with facial changes having a direct influence on specific brain activities associated with happiness. If needed, find a private spot and take a moment to collect yourself. Use positive self-talk and remind yourself that what you offer helps people. This reminder can get you through the hour, or even the day.

Create a playlist of your favourite upbeat songs and have them ready to go—either on your way to class or at the beginning of the workout. Music is a mood lifter. Find a few happy faces in the crowd, and focus on those. If it helps, mingle with participants, but avoid moping. If you tell people you are having a bad day or feeling blue, it will bring your sadness to the forefront and may cause you to dwell on it further. Don’t overconfide—this could put participants in an awkward position. Instead, focus on the smiling faces you see, and remind yourself that making others feel good will help you feel better.

Take a Breather

There may come a point when it’s necessary to take some time off. If this happens, consider the following self-care action steps:

  • Make a plan to cover your classes or clients, and use the break wisely.
  • Pamper yourself in some way.
  • Take long walks.
  • Go to a yoga or meditation class.
  • Spend time with friends whom you can share your feelings with.
  • Consider journaling. It may help to write down the positives in your life and recognize the things for which you are truly grateful.

“Sadness often wakes us up to what really matters,” says Stebbings. The only constant in life is change. Very often sadness can help us see love and humility in a new light.

Remind yourself that as hard as some days feel, you will survive. Try to make the most out of each day. Sadness can be your teacher if you let it.

I’m not late, but I am moving a little more slowly than usual. I walk into my cardio blitz class, and participants are chatting and at ease. A long-term member whom I haven’t seen for ages squeals “Oh Krista, I am so happy to see you!” She rushes over and gives me a big hug. I smile and start my class. Thoughts of my dad, his cancer and his long bus ride are momentarily pushed aside. I look out at all the energetic faces. I am happy to be teaching. It will be okay.

Krista Popowych

Krista Popowych, 2014 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and a three-time canfitpro Canadian Fitness Presenter of the Year, is the global director for group education at Keiser®, where she co-created The Ride, an on-demand indoor cycling workout platform. Author of Partner Workouts, she aims to inspire others through movement and education. Reach her at [email protected]

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