When we think about what it takes to heal, we often think about things like medication, vitamins, therapy, and rest. But one of the most powerful aspects of healing can’t be prescribed: It’s called resilience, and it’s learned.
Anyone can become resilient, no matter their health goals. It’s crucial that we understand the true nature of resilience and how we can use this knowledge to promote healing. Resilience is the ability to recover quickly after an injury, illness, or life setback. Humans are very resilient creatures, physically and emotionally. Although we may not always feel this way, we need to give ourselves credit for just how resilient we can be. Of course, no one knows your body better than you; if you’re in pain or feeling unwell and suspect that your healing is not on course, it’s always best to check with your doctor to rule out anything serious.
The quick-fix society we live in has caused many of us to lose touch with this inner knowledge. While quick fixes may provide relief in the short term, they can be harmful in the long run. Experiencing setbacks, injury, illness, or discomfort for more than a few days can have us feeling like something is seriously wrong when it is important to remember that natural healing doesn’t happen overnight.
Treating the cause versus treating symptoms
There is a big difference between treating the root cause of the problem and taking a pill to manage the symptoms. After suffering an injury, our inclination is to seek out medication, various forms of exercise, therapies, and even surgeries, all in hopes of speedier healing. But here's the thing: Bodies are designed to heal themselves without outside assistance. If we trusted that, we probably wouldn’t be so quick to run to the drugstore.
We largely understand this concept for small things: When we get a paper cut, we don’t get stitches or attend physical therapy sessions. We know that if we keep the area clean, cover it for a few days, and forget about it, the cut will heal on its own. The body has built-in mechanisms and chemical reactions that know how and when to restore balance. The body can do this for injuries big and small, to a degree. We just have to get out of the way and let our body do its job.
Did you know that many soft tissue injuries heal completely in as little as two to three months? This may come as a surprise to many people, especially those who have lived with chronic pain for years.
In these cases, it's natural to assume that the initial injury “weakened” or “broke” a part of us and that the pain we feel is due to that old injury. Knowing how efficiently the body can repair itself may shed some light on other factors that may be contributing to the pain.
This is where Health Coaches can play a powerful role in educating clients about and supporting them in building resilience.
The science of resilience
Nociception is the process by which noxious (or unpleasant) stimuli are communicated through the nervous system. For example, when your hand touches a hot stove, nociception tells your brain and nervous system to register a burning sensation. In just milliseconds, the brain tells you to move your hand away. We all have nociceptors, which are receptors for these stimuli, all over and inside our bodies ‒ in our skin, muscles, skeletal structures, and organs.
Over time, our brains and bodies can begin to associate pain with a specific injury. For some people, focusing on the pain will cause their nociceptors to become more sensitive over time, resulting in the physical sensation of pain even when there’s no cause for pain. Though the injury may have healed long ago, the brain is reacting to sensations out of habit.
This hypervigilance and constant worry can actually create what many experience as chronic pain, which influences emotional and mental health, making them feel anxious, emotionally worn down, and anything but resilient.
This is why keeping resilience at the forefront of our awareness is crucial to healing: Whether we have a broken heart or a broken bone, how we think about ourselves and the injury will play a role in how well and how quickly we recover.
A Health Coach’s role in building resilience
Pain is not absolute. The same injury or illness can cause varying amounts of pain for varying amounts of time, depending on the person. There’s no perfect formula for getting over loss, overcoming setbacks, and setting timelines for resuming normal activities after an injury or illness. But pain and injury are subjective, and the brain has an incredible ability to filter pain and how we experience it. Learning what those filters are and how we experience them is crucial.
Health Coaches can work with their clients through injuries, exploring how much they focus on the injury and how they handle the emotions related to it. Health Coaches guide their clients to find ways to shift their attention to more positive (or at the very least, neutral) sensations and feelings. The idea here isn't to ignore the pain or expect to feel great all the time. The goal is to help clients build positive emotions despite the pain ‒ and to make room for other positive events in their lives. This is the key to resilience.
Health Coaches strive to get their clients from a place of "I can't handle this" or "I'm never going to get better" to "I've gotten through worse before, and I trust my body to get through it this time. I’ve survived hardship before, so why would this time be any different?”
When we train the brain to filter pain signals, we exercise our resiliency. By doing this, the pain itself can be minimized. We relax more; we don’t choose unnecessary treatments; and healing can occur, unobstructed.
Health Coaches can also broaden and reframe the expectations around healing, such as realistic time frames, expected setbacks, and trial and error. Setbacks are a part of healing, not an indicator that you’re doing something “wrong.” Health Coaches can normalize the discomfort and point out the worthwhile outcomes of exercising patience, a positive mindset, and self-compassion.
We can't control symptoms, but we can control how we feel and what we think.
Resilience through primary and secondary food
Quite often, when people get sick or injured, they focus solely on the injured part ‒ icing a sprained ankle, taking decongestant for a stuffy nose ‒ instead of on the underlying components that allow the body to heal. IIN looks at health through the lenses of primary food (things that nourish us off our plate), and secondary food (our diet).
In order to set our bodies up for success in healing and foster resilience, we must prioritize sleep, focus on nutrition, engage in gentle movement, and shift to a more positive mindset.
Sleep is crucial to our overall maintenance and health. It is when the body repairs and rejuvenates itself, not a luxury or something to pencil in if you have time. Regular, quality sleep helps promote healing in all areas of the body. A Health Coach can help clients establish good sleep hygiene and build a routine that promotes quality rest.
Focus on nutrition
Just like sleep, adequate nutrition is essential for optimal functioning and rebuilding of cells, energy, and tissue. The quality of our immune system is largely responsible for how well we heal. It’s best to avoid processed foods, excess salt, and added sugar, and instead focus on whole, unprocessed foods.
Additionally, our gut bacteria need to thrive to build our immunity, so aside from vitamins and minerals, we want to make sure we are feeding our microbiome with probiotics and prebiotics. These can be found in a variety of whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as in fermented foods. A Health Coach can work with clients to optimize their diet for healing, considering their bio-individual needs.
Engage in gentle movement
Contrary to popular fears, movement is not necessarily the enemy after an injury. As long as your doctor clears it, exercise is a safe way to promote optimal health. It is also important not to adopt a “bedridden” mindset, which can only increase nociception sensitivity.
The more you worry about your joint after spraining your knee, the more likely you are to experience pain when you try to walk on it. Trust your body. With the guidance of your doctor, physical therapist, and even a personal trainer, engage in gentle movement. Prove to yourself that you can not only handle it but also thrive with it!
Shift to a positive mindset
How a person views themselves, their pain, and their ability (or lack thereof) to cope with setbacks all play a huge role in recovery. There's no need to hold on to old pain when you know that the body heals itself. There is also no need to force yourself to feel great overnight; healing takes time. Work within a realistic time frame for healing so you can gauge whether you’re still having symptoms after your body has recovered.
Mind over matter
Despite not being completely healed, focus on other, positive aspects of your life. Above all, have a gentle mindset. We are all works in progress. The most important thing to remember: You can handle it, and you are resilient!
This week, take stock of any overlooked aspects of your own resiliency. You are capable of healing in ways you may not credit yourself for. If you’re experiencing pain or illness, it’s always best to rule out anything serious with your doctor. From there, remember that the body knows what to do ‒ and trust that it has your best interests at heart.