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a holding a poloriod picture that says "and breathe"
by
Mary Elisabeth Lemmer
,
December 15, 2021

Two Surprisingly Simple Ways to Improve Resiliency

Physical and psychological resiliency are certainly linked. To be truly resilient we need both.

Because we can breathe through the chaos. We can breathe through the crisis. Just like I breathed through my body’s chaos.

Inspired by a #TogetherInBusiness chat on LinkedIn, which included discussions around building resiliency during times of crisis, I wrote this two-part piece about resiliency to share a bit about how leaders can improve resiliency, using the techniques we use at Improve to help leaders improve adaptability, awareness, communication, creativity, collaboration, inclusion, and other important leadership skills — techniques inspired by improv comedy, high performance coaching, and other research- and experience-backed methods. In simpler words, I’m going to share some tips for making it easier to bounce back from whatever else 2022 has in store for us 😂

The definition of resiliency in the Merriam Webster dictionary is “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to adversity or change.”

I’m going to break down resiliency even further into physical resiliency and psychological resiliency.

Physical Resiliency

Physical resiliency is interlinked with immunity. When we have strong immunity we bounce back from illness. We can improve this immunity, or this physical resiliency, by providing our body with opportunities to build physical immunity. We can take Vitamin D, exercise, drink plenty of water, and get enough sleep.

There’s another way to build immunity, that isn’t always talked about as much, though I’m sure you have heard of it. Let me ask you…

What’s something you do every day, without thinking, and has the potential to destroy you?

No, not scrolling Instagram!

Breathing!

An underrated way to build immunity is by breathing. Yes, breathing. Something we do every day, hopefully many times a day, and the way in which we do it can make a significant impact on our health. A 2005 study showed that performing regular breathing exercises could help boost immune cells, another study published in the Public Library of Science found that controlled deep belly breathing strengthens immunity by changing the gene expression of certain immune cells, and this study by the Norwegian University of Science & Technology, shows that breath-holding increases the amount of white blood cells in the body available to help fight illnesses.

In addition to the research backing this all up, I’ve personally experienced the benefits of breathwork. For over a year now I’ve been practicing breathing. It sounds funny to say (or type), to practice something that we do so unconsciously every day. I’ll tell you though, practicing breathwork has made a significant improvement to my immunity and physical resiliency.

Every day I breathe, consciously. For at least 10 minutes and up to an hour. In particular, there’s a sequence of breathwork I do a few times a week, that I learned doing a pranayama training at The Studio in NYC, which is designed to build immunity in all our organs and glands. The sequence essentially runs my body through a fever state and then brings it back into calm. It’s building resiliency, so that when I actually get sick or have a fever, my body is prepared to calm itself and cool itself down. The pranayama breathwork practice is creating a safe space, a practice space, where the stakes are low, to practice and build the resiliency muscle, so that when I’m out in the wild, my body is more prepared. The breath is super powerful in our own healing. And it works. I do a pulse oximeter reading (measuring the oxygen levels in my red blood cells) before and after I do the breathwork. Usually I start at a 98 or 99 and after the breathwork I go up to 99 or 100. For anyone who wants to build immunity during the pandemic, this is a straightforward and effective way to improve the oxygen levels in our red blood cells. It’s like having our red blood cells go for training runs, so that they’re prepared for the marathon.

So this practice of breathing consciously, simulating illness, so that we’re actually ill our body is ready to go, it’s kind of like practicing for a sporting event. You don’t just show up at the basketball game. You practice. So that you’re ready to shoot those free throws under higher stakes and more pressure. The muscle memory comes with practice, and we can practice physical resiliency and immunity by practicing bouncing back after fever or illness.

Over a year into my breathwork practice, I experienced an opportunity to shoot some free throws, so to speak. Early in quarantine I passed out and had a seizure in my home. It wasn’t my first fainting episode or seizure, but it was the first time I’d experienced something like this during a global pandemic. My most recent episode before this one was back in November in NYC, alone in my apartment. After I came back conscious I, white as a ghost and with blood on my face from the fall, crawled down to my doorman, who requested I call 9–1–1. I spent the night at the NYC Emergency Room (a story for another day). Now, this episode during the pandemic, calling 9–1–1 and going to the Emergency Room didn’t seem like a great option. I opted for staying home and, with the help of my family, providing my body what it needed to heal itself. I drank water with lemon and salt to replace my electrolytes (mimicking the hospital’s IV) and covered myself in blankets because I was freezing as my body shook to get back to calm after experiencing that traumatic event. I had never experienced so much shaking, and all I could do was acknowledge the reality of the scene I was in (say “yes”) “and” breath. I focused on my breath, breathing through the crisis my body was going through. Breathing life and new air into my body to give it what it needed to get through.

I share all this because this is physical resiliency in action. And it was something I’ve practiced before this event actually happened. I practiced the free throws, so that when I was on the line in the final minutes of the game, I could hit those game winning shots.

Because we can breathe through the chaos. We can breathe through the crisis. Just like I breathed through my body’s chaos.

We can practice physical resiliency. We can practice it with as little as 10 minutes a day from the comfort of our own quarantines. It doesn’t require jumping through tires or swimming in rough ocean currents or even throwing heavy weights around. It’s as simple as breathing.

Psychological Resiliency

Psychological resiliency “is the ability to mentally or emotionally cope with a crisis or to return to pre-crisis status quickly.” How do we bounce back? How do we cope with a challenging situation? How long does it take us to move through our emotions when coping with a crisis?

Just like pranayama breathwork helps build physical resiliency and immunity, improv helps build psychological resiliency and immunity. Because in improv, we’re practicing resiliency. We’re putting ourselves in a psychologically safe environment, low stakes environment, and practicing how we show up, so that when we’re in a higher stakes environment, we have the muscle, mental, and emotional memory to show up as we practiced.

Just like we do when we physically practice and prepare, building our physical resiliency.

Again, we practice the free throws during practice, so that when we get to the championship and we’re down by one point with 10 seconds left in the game, we can make those two free throws.

We practice the courageous conversations, so that when we are faced with them “in the wild” we can handle them with poise, patience, and courage.

We practice apologizing, so that when someone tells us about their pain, we are prepared to apologize in the moment.

We practice speaking up for ourselves, so that when we get into a moment in the real world when we need to speak up, we can.

We practice communicating clearly, so that we can communicate clearly with people in our lives offstage.

We practice listening to the other people in a scene with us so that we listen to people in our lives offstage.

We practice exercising creativity, so that we are more creative in our work and lives.

We practice adapting to unexpected situations, so that we’re ready to adapt in the real world when I don’t know, there’s a pandemic.

We practice all this in improv.

Physical and psychological resiliency are certainly linked. To be truly resilient we need both.

I can look at your feet and tell you how resilient you are. Because our body knows and shows what’s going on psychologically too. I can observe your core character in an improv scene and offer simple suggestions to improve so that you achieve your desired outcome (whether it’s laughter, closing a sale, or connecting more with the other person in the scene).

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smiling woman with brown hair

Mary is a multi-hyphenate of sorts - an entrepreneur, writer, improviser, comedian, philanthropist, startup advisor, leadership and team expert, recovering venture capitalist, and illustrator of food puns.

She is the founder of Improve, a company that improves leadership skills, team collaboration, and wellness using improv comedy techniques backed by research. You can learn more by listening to herTED talk “How improv can improve your leadership and life”.

Mary started her first company at age 14, did early stage investing, was a Director at a Silicon Valley unicorn, wrote a book and has performed on the same stages as comedy legends. She graduated from the University of Michigan and studied improv and comedy writing at The Second City, Upright Citizen’s Brigade, The Groundlings, among other improv theatres.
She is the creator and host of Startup Late Night, and has performed improv and comedy all over the country, including at Gilda Radner’s Laughfest, The Punch Line in San Francisco, and the Lady Laughs Comedy Festival.

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