As I write this, we’re in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are many sources of stress resulting from this situation, from health to financial. Studies show that having social support helps decrease stress, so I picture having a worldwide support group with millions of people in similar situations as me. Until that day comes, health and exercise professionals like us can help fill the gap and provide the kind of support and guidance our clients need to not merely survive these challenging days, but perhaps even to thrive.

To do that, of course, we all have to learn how to better manage our stress levels.

What Is Stress?

Hans Selye, considered a pioneer in the field of stress research, was one of the first scientists to begin connecting stress with health consequences in the body. Selye defined stress as “a state manifested by a specific syndrome which consists of all the nonspecifically induced changes within the biological system.” Selye, an endocrinologist, began connecting stress to disease and other health problems; he is credited with the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) model of stress theory, which essentially states that the body can adapt to a stressor for only so long before its reserves are depleted. 

While we tend to think of stress as a bad thing, not all stress is unhealthy; in fact, some is necessary. For instance, when faced by an immediate danger—like a protective mama bear on your hiking trail—the body’s “fight-or-flight” response can literally help save your life and is a much-needed survival strategy. It’s when this stress response is constantly on call that it wreaks havoc on the body. 

While Selye and other researchers in his day were just starting to prove the stress-health connection, we now have many studies that show a connection between chronic stress and various diseases and health issues, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and gastrointestinal issues. Being under constant stress decreases immune function, and even speeds up the aging process. 

When working with clients, an important thing to note about stress is that it follows the “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” phenomenon; what stresses one person out, another will let roll off his or her back. This is because stress is based off one’s appraisal or perception of the situation. 

What determines one’s appraisal, says Melanie Greenberg, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of The Stress-Proof Brain, can be based on several factors, including:

  • Previous experience with stressors: “If you’ve overcome difficult things in the past, you probably have a sense of mastery and some coping skills you can use again,” explains Greenberg.
  • Your resources: Having financial security and social support tend to decrease feelings of stress, as you won’t feel as alone or desperate.
  • Genetics: “Some people are more wired for anxiety,” says Greenberg, “Their nervous systems are more reactive.” 
  • History of trauma and other stressors going on at the same time: For example, loneliness and job stress occurring simultaneously can make you more reactive to stress. “Some people are also unfit, have weaker immunity or have pre-existing health conditions that may limit the amount of stress they can bear without getting sick or physically exhausted,” adds Greenberg. 

When working with your clients, it’s important to keep this in mind—that stress is subjective and based off one’s own perception of it. Keeping this in mind will help you, as the coach or trainer, to also have the proper perspective. 

Coaching Coping Strategies

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “cope” as: “to deal with and attempt to overcome problems and difficulties.” As a health and exercise professional, you are in an ideal position to offer your clients tools they can use to cope with their issues. According to researchers, there are two main forms of coping: emotion-focused and problem-focused. 

Emotion-focused coping skills are the tools one can use immediately to help calm down so a response can be made in a more thoughtful manner, as opposed to giving a thoughtless, emotionally fueled, knee-jerk reaction. Tools that stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which decreases heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, fall under emotion-focused coping.  

Problem-focused coping is more for long-term, chronic situations. This is where you coach your clients to uncover the options they have to change situations and the steps to take to make them a reality. While it can depend on the situation, some research suggests that having a sense of control over a circumstance can help mediate the amount of stress you feel with it. Having several options, as opposed to none, gives people the feeling of some semblance of control. On the flip side, having too many options can be overwhelming and stressful, so a balance must be struck.

Research also shows that having a sense of self-efficacy is another important aspect in stress management. Psychologist Albert Bandura is credited with developing the theory of self-efficacy and defines it as the belief in your abilities to succeed in specific situations (you can read more about coaching self-efficacy here). A lack of self-efficacy is a common obstacle to change. 

As is the case with most stressful situations, there are many aspects of current circumstances that you cannot change. If this is your focus, you will most likely have a high stress level. Instead, says Greenberg, focus on what you can control. “Put your energy into thinking about how to move forward in areas where your actions can make a difference.” 

“Put your energy into thinking about how to move forward in areas where your actions can make a difference.”

Greenberg also encourages radical acceptance and avoiding catastrophizing situations. “Things may not be what you want them to be, but you can change yourself to better accept and adapt to the reality you have.”

Amy McCann, a certified High Performance Coach in N.H., agrees. “Where obstacles arise, ask clients questions that directly point to opportunities within the situation. This develops higher levels of awareness of what’s possible.”

For example, McCann and I have used this time of social distancing to partner together, increase our online presence, and expand our businesses in ways that we might not have considered had we not chosen to see the potential opportunities in these current circumstances. “If a client is feeling engulfed with a situation,” advises McCann, “help them look for what is still ‘moving’ that can bring them forward…into a new vision, a new level of thought, a new level of faith regarding their situation.”

Emotion-focused Tools

Emotion-focused tools offer some immediate relief from stress and anxiety. This can, of course, include exercise and other self-care activities such as calling a friend or spending time working on a favorite hobby. Here are some additional examples of emotion-focused tools: 

  • Deep breathing: Deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system. When practicing deep breathing, sit tall, but relaxed. Take a deep breath in through the nose, allowing the abdomen to expand (like a balloon). Hold the breath for a couple of seconds and then very slowly exhale out through the mouth with lips pursed (as if blowing out a candle). The exhalation should take at least twice as long as the inhalation. Repeat.
  • Grounding: Used in conjunction with deep breathing, grounding does just what it says— it grounds you to the present moment by changing your focus. There are several ways to ground. Here are two of them:
    • Considering where you are right now, name five things you can see, four you can touch, three you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste. Avoid getting hung up on which sense goes with what number. 
    • Repeat a familiar routine. I use my bedtime routine: wash, brush, read, sleep. Repeat it over and over until you feel a sense of calm. 

How to Take Your Client Through a Grounding Exercise

There's never been a better time to arm yourself and your clients with tools that can help identify healthy coping mechanisms, such as the grounding exercise demonstrated here by the author.

Problem-focused Tools

One simple method I use with my clients when problem-solving a situation is to have a brainstorming session where they write down any and all possible options or solutions to the situation, no matter how bizarre or undoable they might seem in that moment. We then go over each option one at a time and, by asking thoughtful, relevant questions, determine if it would be a realistic possibility. In some cases, your client might want to immediately toss an option out simply because he or she doesn't like it. Therefore, it’s important for you, as the coach or trainer, to convey to your client that not every realistic option is going to be appealing and that sometimes, to get from point A to point B, we need a few undesirable, albeit temporary, steppingstones to get there. Use your listening and reflecting skills to coach the client through any fears that may surface. Remember, you’re encouraging your client out of his or her comfort zone, which may be uncharted territory; fear is likely to come up. 

We all need both emotion-focused and problem-focused approaches as strategies. Think of emotion-focused skills like Band-Aids to get you through the immediate situation, and problem-focused skills like surgery. Each take intentional practice and mindfulness and can be effective when used appropriately. As you practice and master these techniques, you’re also honing your coaching skills—which is a win-win for both you and your clients. 

Assessing Stress and Coping

If you’re not practicing mindfulness and intentionally using healthy coping measures, you may fall into the trap of using unhealthy ones. This can include denial, avoidance and numbing or distracting ourselves with things such as food, drugs, alcohol, shopping, etc.  

Two commonly used assessments are the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS), which evaluates an individual’s overall stress level, and the Brief COPE, which gives you an idea of what coping methods—whether healthy or unhealthy—you’re using. These tools are a helpful way to identify how an individual perceives and copes with the stress in his or her life. 

Expand Your Knowledge

Take Your Coaching and Training Online [live panel discussion]

Using Emotional Intelligence to Best Serve Your Clients [blog]

Positive Psychology During COVID-19 [blog]