Adversity Training, Part 1 — You

We are a bunch of softies. Yeah, I’m talking to you. But present company included too, as in, me.

What am I talking about? Oh, just how we are far less resilient, adaptable, and mentally tough than we were just a few generations ago.

Road endsThis phenomenon, this softening of the human creature, is at the root of every gripe about the younger generations. Take, for example, those “Millenials” we like to harp on these days. In general, if media is to be believed, they don’t like to work very hard or actually earn anything, which is strange since they also seem to exhibit a startling amount of entitlement for material things and status. To me, this is just another reaction to the environment around us, a symptom and not the disease. But I think we can say that in our pursuit for creature comforts and unprecedented control over our environment, our ability to cope with adverse conditions has been lost and continues to ebb away. That means it’s all part of this evolutionary mismatch that is at the heart of everything ancestral health.

Since beginning my journey into a more intimate relationship with nature two years ago, I feel like I’m making some progress into toughening myself. MovNat has been an immensely useful method into this pursuit, since it gives me tools for my “toolbox” out there. For example, we practice climbing and getting on top of a bar. Bars are great! They’re smooth, firm, stable, steady, predictable.

Guess what isn’t? A tree branch.

When I practice my climbing techniques on a tree, the game is very different. The width of the branch varies from tree to tree. The bark is rough, and chances are, my body will be scratched up somewhere: my belly, my arms, my hands, the front of my thighs. The branch bends with my weight and sways in the breeze. The surface below me may be grass or rocks or decomposed granite soils or a creek, but sure as heck, it ain’t a mat or even that smooth, tough black gym floor surface. One of my next goals is to make a safe depth jump from the top of a bar or branch to the ground because that is the logical next step in my training. But I get up there and my brain freaks the eff out.

But my solution to that freak-out isn’t to stop there. I don’t whimper and whine and ask for my participant’s ribbon. I stay on my perch and I mentally run through what it might look like to perform the jump successfully: pulling my hanging leg through the space between my arm and supporting leg, falling about 6 feet through space, preparing my body for the impact so I can stay safe, landing first on my toes then absorbing the shock through my feet, bending my knees deeply into a squat, engaging all the muscles of my lower body to keep my joints intact. I try to even out my breathing and relax, even though the very thought of it frightens me. And someday, probably in the next 6 months, I will have that depth jump and I’ll be moving on to the next milestone.

barbellThe connection between physical challenges and mental toughness is not new or unknown to most of us. But how many of us are aware of it in our daily lives?

I was first introduced to this concept in yoga. My favorite teacher had an awesome habit of holding us in a challenging pose and then talking us through it. She had an uncanny way of knowing exactly what my brain was trying to do to talk me out of the challenge, and she would point it out with her catchphrases:

  • “Drop the story.” My mind was telling me about how hard the pose was, how much it hurt, how weak I was, how much I wanted to move on to the next thing.
  • “If you’re bored, you’re probably not paying enough attention.” For those gentle times, when you’re wondering why the heck you’re still sitting there, thinking perhaps the teacher has dozed off.
  • “Show up for yourself.” How true it is that all day we can’t wait to get to yoga class, and then we get there and can’t wait to get out of a pose!

You get the gist. And this can apply for whatever challenges you’re facing, physical or not. It applies for CrossFit, running, hiking, cycling, swimming, trapeze flying. Also, your job and relationships. Also: driving, standing in line, dealing with crowds or traffic, uncomfortable interpersonal interactions, something embarrassing, the aftermath of a crime, your favorite cupcake not being at the bakery. Pretty much any adversity, big or small, that you face in life is another opportunity to train yourself out of the lie of constant comfort and accommodation.

I know it’s possible, because I prepared for an unmedicated birth via nothing but yoga with my teacher. These were the thoughts that got me through, and connecting the thoughts to the physical challenges was absolutely key. In order to prepare ourselves (and our brains), we must practice skills in a safe environment for application when we have no control over the conditions we’re facing.

This world was not built for you, but you were built for this world. No matter how hard we humans try to perfect the formula of control over our world, we will fail. There are always earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, blizzards, tsunamis, and duststorms to prove us wrong. Be ready for them. Deal with what is in front of you, not a wished-for fantasy.

Gravel PathSome suggestions to get you started:

  • Go barefoot. Everywhere. Try different terrain and activities. Last summer, at the end of a sweaty, hot, intense hike in Hawaii, my minimal sandals began to chafe on my feet, so I finished the rest of the journey barefoot—a totally different experience! Grass is lovely, but consider wood chips, gravel, and snow.
  • Wear as little as you can stand during outdoor workouts. Easy in summer, not so easy in winter. Invite those scratches, bruises, and scrapes. I don’t even notice them now—I often wonder how I got them.
  • Try different temperatures. Strangely enough, I am much better at adapting to cold than heat, it might be reverse for you. But don’t give in to your brain’s messages to keep you comfortable. Get out there!
  • Say “Yes”. Even (especially!) when it’s challenging, uncomfortable, or unplanned. This simple word unravels our mind’s death-grip and opens up new options.
  • Work on your weaknesses. This is where pursuits like CrossFit and MovNat are really helpful. They require facing several competencies, so eventually you’ll find something you need to try over and over again.
  • Find a spirit guide. Or coach or trainer. Someone who can help you safely navigate the new territory and get you out of your head enough to push your boundaries.
  • Try a standing desk. Healthier for you than a chair, and you’ll find yourself struggling with it in the beginning until it becomes second nature.

I don’t do resolutions, but this is my continuing focus for the foreseeable future. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll also find myself yelling at bad drivers a little less. I guarantee the effects will spill over into every facet of your life if you let it. Resilience comes from challenge.

In Part 2, I’ll explain how Adversity Training isn’t just for adults. In fact, I’ll argue that it’s necessary to raise healthy, happy children.

More related reading material for extra credit:


10 Responses to “Adversity Training, Part 1 — You”

  1. A stand desk would absolutely kill me and annoy me haha. But I definitely see the value in that. Nice take on getting more primal thanks for the read.

    • Ha! You might be surprised at what you hear when you listen to your inner dialogue. For me, it was interesting because as writer, my brain associated sitting with writing/typing. Breaking this habit was tougher than I expected. In addition, the brain will try to talk you into being comfortable (My feet hurt. I’m tired. Etc.), but as one of my teachers says, “Your mind will give out long before your body.” ;)

  2. I love that my new job has a standing desk. It is even height adjustable which is nice since I am about 4 inches taller than many of the staff.
    Half the day is spent standing at the front helping people. You should have seen the weird look I got when I asked if there was work I could do rather than standing there doing nothing.
    It amazes me that there are staff there who refuse to be “in charge” in any way whatso ever. I have been doing this job for 9 months and have more ” in charge” experience then someone who has been there 25 yrs. I don’t get how people can settle.

  3. This is great and so true. I’m really appreciative that my parents taught me a lot of these things – a little tough love/life isn’t fair truths to be told.

    However even though I know better, my mind often talks me out of much physical activity and I find a million reasons why I can’t rather than can. Thanks for the refresher and perspective on it.

  4. PaleoCastle Mark Reply 05/25/2014 at 4:54 am

    I’ve taken a lot of this on board and I feel brilliant for it. Nothing wakes you up like a cold shower in the morning! I’d love to try Movnat, I’m not sure if they have a UK equivalent though :(. Great read :).


  1. Adversity Training, Part 1 — You | Paleo Digest - 01/06/2014

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    […] The following is a repost from Karen Phelps’ Paleo Periodical. You can read the original here. […]

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