As a fitness professional, I was more familiar than I wanted to be with the impact of stress on my clients. The more stress they had, the more likely they were to be late, miss appointments, arrive tired or irritable or get injured. What I was less aware of was how much their stress affected me!
Most personal trainers I know have read stacks of books on stress physiology, and they can rattle off stress-busting tips and tricks at rapid-fire rates. But many of these trainers have a hard time recognizing their own stress and practicing their own good advice. In this article, I focus on how you can mitigate stress in your professional life.
The cycle of stress reactivity starts with a triggering event. For example, maybe a client keeps whining or quits training, or you fall short of a quota. Immediately after the event, the brain perceives a threat and the emotions descend into a general feeling of “yuck.” Then the language part of the brain internally narrates the event with negative thoughts, opinions and judgments. Finally, you react in a way that falls under one of these categories: fight, flight, fix or fake.
Fight and Flight Reactions
The fight and flight reactions are the easiest to detect. The fight reaction tends to be associated with thoughts of blame, criticism or anger toward either yourself or others. Alternatively, when you experience the inclination to zone out, repress feelings or escape into your favorite vice, you are likely experiencing flight reaction.
The Fix Reaction
Being diligent and assertive can lead to success when you use these actions unconsciously, but they also can lead you to grind your gears while getting nowhere. An example of the fix reaction is to obsessively make lists that are never completed. You’re familiar with the fix reaction if you’ve ever woken up with a hangover and immediately signed up for a marathon, or you’ve overeaten and felt compelled to exercise twice the next day in order to compensate.
The Fake Reaction
We all like a positive, upbeat person, and there’s plenty of research to support the benefits of an attitude of gratitude. But nobody is happy all the time, so when being upbeat becomes habitual, you may be faking yourself out. You know you’re in a fake reaction when you find yourself saying, “It is what it is,” but you still feel horrible on the inside. Other examples are saying yes to more work when you’re already at capacity, pretending to like someone when you don’t and acting interested in something when you’re not.
All of this doesn’t mean you should never buy supplements, run a marathon or put on a happy face. What I am saying is that when your actions are unconscious and are motivated by stress, it can eventually lead to trouble.
Mindfulness of Stress
Applying mindfulness can help you limit the negative effects of stressful events. Begin by observing how the stress is causing you to tighten your body, think negative thoughts and feel the impulse to fight, flee, fix or fake. In these moments, the goal is to pause, soften the body and name the stress before reacting to it. Bringing mindfulness to these triggering events, with a sense of kindness and curiosity, eventually allows you to uncover a deeper truth: that at the core of all our stress is a fundamental fear. By seeing your fears for what they are—just fears—you can slowly relax their grip and the stress triggers begin to dissolve.
Here are a few common stressors and principal fears that exist in the fitness industry, along with mindfulness coaching practices that you can use to manage them.
Uncertain Income and Hours
A flexible schedule with ample free time is attractive to some personal trainers, but lengthy days, odd hours and inconsistent monthly income can create feelings of destabilization and disempowerment. While we all instinctively seek a sense of certainty and control over the outcomes of our lives, the need to control life can cause a great deal of undue stress. Two attitudinal foundations of mindfulness and stress relief are letting go and trusting. The first step is to let go: to acknowledge the stress that is caused by wanting things to be different. The next step is to trust: that is, to surrender to life as it is in the moment. Even though you’d prefer to have full control over your life, most things are actually out of your control. Letting go requires a trust in the process of life and an ability to accept the unknown.
Practice: Notice the tension caused by fighting against life. Try taking a deep breath and softening your body while you say to yourself, “Even though I’m scared of ____ (failing, not having enough money, etc.) and I want things to be different, I will practice accepting the way things are in this moment and I’ll trust that this process will continue unfolding.”
Some people we click with, and others we don’t. You’ll likely get both kinds of people in your classes and as clients. The clients we don’t click with may seem stubborn, whiny or mean. From the perspective of mindfulness, it’s not the clients that cause stress; stress is caused by our resistance and judgment toward these people. Mindfulness isn’t complete without the practice of compassion, and these challenging clients might offer the opportunity to train your own compassion muscle. When you begin working compassionately with your own stress triggers, you’ll notice that your tendency to fight, flee, fix or fake is occurring not because you’re bad or deficient, but because you’re afraid. Once you’re able to fully see this in yourself, you’ll gradually be able to extend the same compassion to others.
Practice: Notice the thoughts and judgments that arise when you’re working with difficult clients—and then shift them. You may say to yourself, “My client is not _____ (needy, nasty, lazy); he is scared and stressed right now, just like I am sometimes.”
The Pressure to Perform
The aspiration to educate and inspire is noble and worthy. However, constant, self-imposed pressure to be the most motivating person in the room can be exhausting. The fear that your clients will not like or value you for who you really are is enough to trigger the fake reaction. Dosing a little heavier on the caffeine and plastering a smile on your face can work for a while. Eventually, though, acting inauthentically can lead to resentment and burnout. It takes vulnerability to be authentic, but dropping your act gives your client permission to do the same. From the perspective of mindfulness, you can truly connect with others only when you’re fully yourself.
Practice: Notice whether you’re exerting an unsustainable effort to act a certain way with clients. Symptoms of acting include a sense of dissonance and fatigue at the end of a class or session. Try saying to yourself, “Even though I’m afraid of _____ (being found out as a fraud, not being smart enough, looking bad), it’s safe to be myself exactly as I am in this moment.”
A particular client once introduced me to a friend as her personal trainer. Like an artist whose work had been unveiled before it was complete, I felt the need to justify why her condition hadn’t changed since we began training together. What I didn’t understand then was the distinction between being committed to supporting the client’s process and taking full responsibility for her outcome. When your identity as a trainer is entangled in your clients’ results, you’ll constantly ride the roller coaster of their successes and failures. Although the trainer plays an important role, an infinite number of factors contribute to a client getting results or not, and the trainer is just one of them. To eliminate the stress and pressure of getting results, you can practice another key cornerstone of mindfulness.
Practice: Notice when you over-identify with a client’s results, and remind yourself that his or her successes and failures do not belong to you. Pause, take a breath and remind yourself, “Even though my client didn’t achieve that goal, and I’m feeling ______ (disappointed, embarrassed, frustrated), I know there are many factors outside my control, and lack of success doesn’t reflect on my skill or commitment as a trainer.”
Simply reading about the mindful approach to stress reduction can give you a few more stress-busting tips and tricks to share with your clients. But if you regularly make the choice to practice a more mindful way of being, you can drastically reduce your stress levels and positively transform your personal and professional life.