Every single one of us has gone through difficult times in our lives.
But sometimes, something comes along that shatters everything.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re collectively facing something we’ve never experienced before.
For many of us, nothing feels safe or stable any more—simple activities, human interaction, our daily routines, even the air we breathe.
People are getting very sick and dying.
People are losing their jobs, businesses, and livelihoods.
We all want to stay safe and healthy, and help others do the same.
Yet right now, we may not be able to do everything we want for our bodies.
Indeed, it might feel trivial to think about staying in shape or eating healthy. Or it may feel crucial. Or overwhelming. Or simply… impossible, if you can’t even find or buy food at stores with empty shelves.
Each of us will have a different relationship with our physical health. Some of us will be lucky enough to enjoy and preserve it. Others won’t. We can’t control everything that happens to our bodies.
We at Precision Nutrition can’t fix things.
We can’t take away the uncertainty or the pain.
But after coaching over 100,000 clients (who are often going through periods of great difficulty), there is some stuff we do know.
We’ve learned a lot from the people we’ve coached.
As humans, we tend not to consider change until not changing feels too painful to endure. Coaching by definition often involves walking the path with our clients during times of crisis, transition, and loss.
Many of us are familiar with post-traumatic stress. Fewer of us know about post-traumatic growth—discovering and cultivating our strengths during and after difficult times.
The reality we’ve seen in coaching over 100,000 clients is:
- Suffering and flourishing can occur together. As a lyric from the famous musical Fiddler on the Roof goes, “Life has a way of confusing us, blessing and bruising us… be joyful even when our hearts lie panting on the floor.”
- Like physical health, much of mental and emotional health comes from what we practice.
- Also like physical health, small practices add up.
So, we can’t tell you how to fix things. (Again, sorry.) But we can…
- Tell you what we know about supporting human hearts and minds through periods of change and difficulty.
- Help you care for your inner world.
- Support you in building the resilience you already have.
That’s why we wrote this article.
(Want more deep insights and helpful takeaways on the most important health, nutrition, and coaching topics? Sign up for our FREE weekly newsletter, The Smartest Coach in the Room.)
To be clear: This isn’t a list of things you have to do.
We don’t want to give you more well-meaning “advice,” chores, or obligations. We don’t want to add more “stuff” to your already-full plate.
But tiny steps forward—even the teeniest and tiniest of efforts—can make things a little more manageable and help you keep going in times of great uncertainty and hardship.
So please, think of these as ideas. Possibilities. Stuff to mess around with—kind of like that at-home science experiment you did with the kids that exploded over the kitchen counter this morning.
As much as possible, go easy on yourself. Try to embrace a “progress not perfection” motto.
We promise: The small things really do add up.
1. Focus on what you CAN control.
There is so much we can’t control.
This feels really scary sometimes. We desperately want to know what’s going to happen in the future. (Preferably, that everything will be okay.)
It can be really easy to spiral into a frenzy of uncertainty, panic, and/or frustration over stuff we have zero control over. Or double-down on our attempts to control harder.
Yet you probably have more control than you realize.
There are factors and elements that you CAN control in healthy and productive ways. You can show up for those things, own them, and take an active part in shaping them.
Focusing on those things that you can control can help you feel calmer and more capable of carrying on.
Here’s what this can look like.
“We have no control over the virus itself. And we can’t control what our governments or politicians are saying or what laws they’re mandating.
We might have some control over influencing others around us to practice proper hand washing or keeping a proper physical distance.
What do we have total control over?
- How we make use of the foods we do have
- Moving our bodies (by doing home workouts or going for walks if possible)
- Managing stress (by practicing habits like the ideas listed in this article)
- Washing our hands
- Our mindset and attitude, or the story we’re telling about what things mean
- Connecting with people we care about
- Helping those in need
- Keeping our physical distance
- Following public health directives
It’s important to bring our focus, mindset, and actions within the sphere of total control, because this is where you’re going to be most impactful.”
So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed:
- Make a list of the things that are within your control right now.
- Consciously commit to focusing on and acting on those things, rather than the ones beyond your total control.
- Take a moment to grieve the loss of control, if you need to. It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that much of the world operates without us as general manager.
- And, honor the fact that you tried. It probably shows that you really care and want the world to be a better place.
2. Have a “clean slate policy.”
Let’s be honest: When the stuff hits the fan, so can a lot of our habits.
Maybe the ice cream and beer is disappearing from the freezer and fridge a little faster. Or maybe you’re in the throes of a full-on, multi-day binge.
Seriously. We still like you. We understand you more than you might realize. (Uhhhh… don’t look in our recycling bins.)
You’ve still got this.
You’re not screwed up or broken. In fact, you’re working beautifully.
Coping mechanisms—overeating, bingeing, drinking, smoking, staying up all night playing video games, huddling in bed under a blanket—have a purpose. They offer comfort, solace, distraction, and emotional anesthesia.
Think about this:
Even if you’re not coping well, you are coping. Or at least trying to. That’s kind of awesome.
Whatever you’re doing, as silly, crazy, or dysfunctional as it might seem, is a sign that your body and brain are trying to help you feel better.
You’re trying to alleviate your own suffering.
Pause and reflect on what a lovely thing that is, and what elegant mechanisms our brains have to help us relieve pain.
It might not be the ideal way to cope, especially long-term, but it’s important to acknowledge that this is an attempt at self-compassion and self-soothing.
Do not do further harm to yourself by beating yourself up afterwards.
You’ll only cause yourself more pain and stress, which causes you to cope harder… and so on. Self-criticism just amplifies the stress-coping loop.
Instead, try this:
- Gently acknowledge what happened in a factual way.
- See if you can identify the thoughts and feelings you’re having. (If you can’t, that’s OK.)
- Recognize: This is normal.
- Then—move on.
Clean the slate.
At every moment, you can wipe the board clean and start fresh. In life you get infinite erasers.
Each moment is fresh. Whatever happened yesterday—or one hour ago—is irrelevant to your NOW.
Right now, only THIS moment matters. Every single day, every hour, even every minute, you can wipe the slate clean and move forward.
The Clean Slate Policy means that you don’t beat yourself up over your mistakes. You don’t wallow. You don’t call yourself names. And you don’t say “F-it, I’m screwed forever” and give up.
Instead, you put the past in the past, and move forward. And, ideally, be kind to yourself as you do it.
How do you move forward? May we suggest: Take a 5-minute action.
3. Take a 5-minute action.
One of the most fundamental practices in our coaching programs is the 5-minute action.
There’s nothing special about 5 minutes. It could be 10 seconds, or 1 minute, or 10 minutes.
The point is:
- It’s something that is very, very small.
- It’s an action—something you do.
- It’s something that feels easy and simple.
- It moves you in the direction you want to go.
- Anchor Moment: Something specific in an existing routine that “triggers” you to do the new behavior. For instance, “After I brush my teeth, I will…”
- Tiny Behavior: The very small action you’ve chosen to take.
- Celebration: Consciously reinforcing your new action and being proud of your success. It’s important to use a celebration that works for you—something that makes you feel happy and successful.
- I’ll leave a water glass on my bathroom counter. After I wake up in the morning and use the bathroom (A), I’ll drink one sip of water (B) and then high-five myself (C).
- I’ll keep prepackaged cut vegetables in my fridge. At dinner (A), I’ll eat a handful of them (B) and make them extra-special with the salsa I love (C).
As Dr. Fogg’s adjective “tiny” implies, these 5-minute actions should be very simple, small, and doable. Like:
- Step outside your house, or onto your balcony, or open up a window and take 5 deep breaths of fresh air.
- Make your bed.
- Tidy up one shelf or drawer.
- Play a 1-minute game of catch with your kid and the last roll of toilet paper.
- Send a text message to someone.
- Slowly enjoy a glass of wine. (Just kidding. Sort of.)
- Do a mind-body scan. (We’ll show you how to do that in a minute.)
And so on.
If it seems too simple, we assure you, it’s not. Small actions over time add up. Do what you can, when you can. We promise you it’s enough.
(To hear more from Dr. Fogg and Jennifer Broxterman, check out our conversation with them here.)
How can I maintain my health and fitness at a time like this?
Maybe you were just starting to improve your exercise and nutrition, or perhaps you had your healthy habits down to a fine art.
And then, KAPOW. Life was totally disrupted.
Your gym routine? Forget it. Perfectly planned meals? Nope. A good night’s rest? Ha!
At a time like this, it can be really easy to just press pause—to say, “I’ll come back to this later when things are less of a sh*t show.”
But now more than ever, it’s important to stay in the game.
Even if that just means showing up and taking a five minute action, as we described earlier.
You may be thinking that this “isn’t the time” to be working on your health and fitness.
We’d argue it’s exactly the time to show up for YOU.
In fact, this is a perfect opportunity to take radical action on your own behalf. Even if radical action just means a few deep breaths when before you might have just freaked out.
So, how to keep going? Try the “dial method.”
Think of your health and fitness habits as a dial.
When you’re completely on your game, you can dial things up. You can work out more, or pursue more challenging goals.
But during times when you’re already stressed and taxed, you can dial those same habits way down—by doing less, simplifying things, and/or doing a smaller/easier version of what you usually do.
The trick is to never turn them “off” completely.
“I meditate pretty much every day. Well, right now, I still meditate—but I’m only doing five minutes a day. I keep doing it because I know that when I come out of this, I’ll be able to reinvest more time in that when the time is ready. So, try to shift your efforts, but don’t totally neglect them either.”
(For more on using the dial method and avoiding pressing pause on your health and fitness habits, check out: How to never press “pause” on your health and fitness again.)
4. Breathe. (Really.)
How are you breathing right now?
Short and fast, or long and slow?
Are you breathing from high up in your chest, or from deep in your belly?
When we get anxious and stressed, our breath tends to respond; your chest might feel constricted and your breathing might become short and fast. You might even find yourself holding your breath, gasping for air, or even feeling like you’re on the verge of a panic attack.
The good news is that simply paying attention to your breath can be an amazing antidote to stress, sending the message to your body that you’re in a relaxed, safe state. In turn, your body and brain can start to calm down.
Michael Gervais, PhD, creator and host of the Finding Mastery podcast, mindset trainer for the Seattle Seahawks, and a member of the Coalition of Health and Fitness Leaders, recommends breathing exercises to anyone suffering from stress and anxiety.
“When you feel tight, when you feel your heart skip a bit, when you feel your breathing rate change, when you feel nervousness or that internal ‘scratchy feeling,’ breathing is a massively helpful skill,” he explains.
Why does it work so well? “A long exhale sends a signal to our ancient brain that we’re safe,” says Dr. Gervais. “It sends a signal to the brain that says, ‘Hey, there’s no saber tooth tiger right now. You’ve got the luxury of a nice, deep, relaxing breath. So chill out, dude.’”
Here’s a simple way to practice this:
- Blow up an imaginary balloon very slowly, trying to empty out your lungs.
- Then, relax your body and let the in-breath naturally occur.
- Blow up a balloon again.
- Relax and let the in-breath happen again.
- And so on.
For a slightly more advanced version, Dr. Gervais suggests something called box breathing. Here’s how that works:
- As you inhale, practice breathing in for 4-5 seconds.
- Then, hold that breath for 4-5 seconds.
- Slowly breathe out for another 4-5 seconds.
- Then hold your breath for 4-5 seconds more.
You can then repeat this as many times as you like. Dr. Gervais suggests doing this for 12 breaths, though you can start with as little as one slow breath.
Want some help tuning into your breath? (Or just calming down?) Try a mind-body scan.
A mind-body scan is like a simplified meditation technique that helps you sense inwards and connect with your body. Want to give it a try? Check out this free mind-body scan worksheet.
And if all else fails…
Take a breath.
Just keep breathing.
You’ve got this.
If you’re a coach, or you want to be…
Learning how to coach clients, patients, friends, or family members through healthy eating and lifestyle changes—in a way that’s personalized for their unique body, preferences, and circumstances—is both an art and a science.
If you’d like to learn more about both, consider the Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification.