Have a system in place of non-negotiables that you do no matter what is going on in your life. My system is that I wake up at 5:15am, workout, take a cold shower, then accomplish at least one thing on my list before my kids wake up. At night, I write down in a journal three things I am grateful for, a positive moment in the day, and read at least ten pages in a personal development book. My days are book-ended in a way that is predictable and serves to regulate my nervous system and cultivate resilience.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Kelly Kessler.
Dr. Kelly Kessler, PT, DPT, MS, CSCS is a physical therapist, wellness coach, the host of the podcast Rewiring Health, and the owner of Optimal You Health and Wellness, LLC. She helps individuals with a history of eating disorders achieve relief from chronic pain by harnessing the power of the nervous system through her signature program Eating Disorder Pain Solutions. Inspired by her own struggles with an eating disorder and chronic back pain, she teaches ways to self-regulate and improve resilience against life stressors by combining the science of the human body with an integrative approach toward healing. Optimal You Health and Wellness, LLC
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
Some of the biggest struggles in my life have paved the way for my life’s mission and purpose. I struggled with an eating disorder for six years. It consumed my every thought and took over my life. I was in a tough place in my life and it was an uphill battle to recover. To make my situation more complex, I also had chronic back pain secondary to my eating disorder. I was in my twenties at the time, and feeling so restricted physically led me to feel fearful of my future. I was determined to change my reality. I dove head-first into learning everything I could and transforming my mindset to one that served me and my future. Cultivating an understanding of myself, how to heal, and how to move myself in a direction of growth has been my greatest gift to myself. I write this today with no back pain, no longer tethered by an eating disorder, and enjoying all the rich opportunities life is presenting me.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
One of the stories that stands out in my career is that of a woman I worked with. After meeting her, I learned she had several autoimmune conditions, lived in chronic pain for years, and had undergone several surgeries and procedures without any lasting relief. She was skeptical of anything helping and was living day in and day out perceiving her body as her enemy. Every day, her goal was just to survive another day of pain to get to the next. While I was there to help and teach her, she ended up teaching me far more. There were so many takeaways from working with her, but by far the greatest is understanding that the mind and body will not be able to receive messages or heal when they are stuck in survival mode. It was only when she learned to trust herself, the messages her body was giving her, and began to feel safe that she was receptive to opening herself up to opportunities for change and growth. Harboring an environment of safety, support, connection, and community is what I carry forward with everyone I work with. Nothing will change until your system is in a place to receive it.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
My mission is centered around understanding your barriers that stand between where you are and where you want to be. Having gone through complex struggles in my life and helping many others, I understand no program is one-size fits all, however there are patterns I have recognized after treating many people which complex conditions that provide clarity in creating a roadmap to healing. A common trait I see with many people and I even experienced myself is significant doubt in the ability to ever get better or live without pain. I understand this because this is a limiting belief I carried for many years. Overcoming it has opened the door to so many opportunities and this is something my program guides others to do as well. So much focus especially around chronic pain is around healing from the outside-in with medication, procedures, and other modalities, however my program focuses on healing from the inside-out. No matter how many things you “try”, nothing will work when your system is in survival mode.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have really come to understand the importance of having a mentor along the way. One thing that has really stuck out to me is this message: If you can do it by yourself, you are not dreaming big enough. I decided to go all-in and hired my coach, Greg Todd. I had been following him online for a while and listening to his content. I will admit, in the beginning of following him, I was not in the right mindset to receive his messages. In hindsight, I know now that I had to evolve myself to be in a place where I could benefit from his help. However, once I did my own work to open my mind to other possibilities, it was game-on. His program helped me dream bigger, believe in myself, and made me think differently to a point where I cannot go back to who I was prior and I do not want to. I am grateful the systems I have in place to prioritize my personal development and serve others.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Resilience to me is the ability to maintain inner harmony and balance mentally, physically, emotionally, and in the nervous system regardless of the external environment. This does not mean a person is always calm or happy. Resilience is about the ability to buffer what is going on outside of you quicker to the point that it does not impact you as significantly. For example, if you set your refrigerator to 40 degrees, it will adjust appropriately regardless of it being 90 degrees or 10 degrees in the external environment.
One characteristic of resilient people is being flexible. Flexible in this sense means they do not get derailed when the unexpected occurs. They recognize it and can make the appropriate adjustments to handle it without being thrown off-course. Resilient people have a set routine for themselves. They have a framework of what their day looks like and have a self-care routine to fall back on when things they cannot control go awry.
Resilient people seek out what is uncomfortable because they know they can handle it and they know discomfort is the only path to growth and maintaining their resilience. Resilience is also the ability to maintain rational thoughts and problem-solve when everything is crashing down around you. Superheros are a great example of this. Superman can do the job no matter how many obstacles he faces, and so did Scully (a real-life superhero) who landed the plane safely in the Hudson.
Resilience is created not by living an easy life or avoiding tough situations. It is created by taking risks, failing, and learning from them. It is also about taking care of yourself to a point that you have the energy and resources to jump into the fire for others.
Resilience is not just about survival but what must be cultivated for us to thrive.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different from resilience?
Courage is not about being fearless, but rather it is about recognizing what you are fearful of and facing it. Courage is about leaning into discomfort, taking action even when it is difficult to do, and overcoming your own limiting beliefs.
Resilience is your ability to go through difficult times, circumstances, and/or challenges and to withstand them and adapt. It is about your ability to make the proper adjustments, forge forward despite set-backs, and become stronger when faced with adversity.
Courage is similar to resilience in that it takes grit, discipline, and a belief in yourself. However, courage is different from resilience in that courage describes more of the actions you take, while resilience describes who you become. Resilience is the mental, emotional, and physical capacity to withstand hardship and utilize the hardship to facilitate growth.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
One person who stands out when I think of resilience is Thomas Edison, a man known for his 1,000 patents and most famously for his invention of the light bulb. Edison was not afraid of failure, in fact, he welcomed it and learned from it. A quote by Edison highlights his mindset around life perfectly: “I have not failed 10,000 times- I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” This shift in mindset can make all the difference in embracing adversity and rising stronger rather than letting it keep you down. One thing that is inevitable is that life will be full of challenges. We cannot always control circumstances; however, we always have the power to change our perspectives. There is a lot to learn from how Edison lived his life.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
Yes, when I was in my mid-twenties, I was mostly recovered from an eating disorder, however I was experiencing chronic back pain from what I went through physically, mentally, and emotionally from the eating disorder. At the time, the back pain made bending over to tie my shoes difficult, getting dressed and standing at work were a struggle, and finding a comfortable sleeping position was near impossible. I tried many things to relieve the pain, but nothing seemed to help. I was not one to seek medical attention, but I could not tolerate the pain any longer. I went a practitioner and they took x-rays of my back and told me my L4-L5 disc height was half of what it should be for a 25-year-old. I asked if this could ever get better and the practitioner told me, no that it would only progress and I would just be managing my pain and would likely never be free of pain. At the time, I felt fearful of the future and how young I was to be in this much pain. I worried about things only getting worse. I also regretted everything I put my body through and now was paying the price.
Fast-forward many years, I now live most of my days with no back pain. I have returned to doing all the things I enjoy including skiing, running, biking, hiking, and playing with my children. The only time I have any remanence of my back pain is when I am incredibly stressed, however I have the tools to regulate myself and get back to pain-free quickly. I spent a significant amount of time learning about pain, and I understand after doing so, that nothing I did in my twenties would have helped. No amount, of heat, E-stim, adjustments, or going through the motions of exercises mattered because none of them addressed the dysregulation that the eating disorder caused in my nervous system. Taking a different approach and healing from the inside-out has been a momentous change for me and I am so grateful that I did not let the words I heard when I was 25 hold me down forever.
Did you have a time in your life when you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
One of the toughest times for me was a perfect-storm of stressors. My husband and I bought property and decided to build a house. We moved in with my parents temporarily with our three dogs. Right after we moved, I also found out I was pregnant. Additionally, my husband and I were both traveling an hour each way for work and then coordinating everything for the house since we were also the general contractor for the project. What could go wrong with the house seemed to go wrong. Our excavator dug the hole for the septic the day before a torrential downpour leaving us with a muddy Olympic-sized swimming pool in our front yard. Another rain storm flooded our basement with a foot of muddy water, contractors were not showing up to finish work, and we just watched increasingly more money dump out of our pockets. My husband and my family were there every night doing work. We would get home after working ten hours then head to the property to work and this went on for months. It was not the smartest thing, but at eight months pregnant, my husband and I were moving logs from the 16 trees we had to take down. Between the stress and the pregnancy, I had a huge set-back in pain. This was a wake-up call to me because I had not had pain in years.
I gave birth to my son and in most cases, this would be a time to spend just enjoying him. However, I was in survival mode and we had a house to build. I spent every day of my maternity time on the construction site taking care of a newborn while also working on the house. Self-care took a major back seat and my stress was compounded by my guilt of not feeling fully present with my son. This went on for months and we eventually finished the house and moved in. It seemed like this was going to be our fresh start; however, we were wrong. Three months after moving in, my dog who was with me for every big life event passed away unexpectedly. A month after that, the pandemic started and my husband and I were both furloughed from our jobs with a freshly signed mortgage.
The combination of what was going on could have easily taken me down, but this was not the first time I experienced adversity and I always considered myself to be head-strong and resilient. I poured my time into getting back into my self-care routine, enjoying the time with my son, and starting my business. What I went through sucked in every way, but it has made me stronger than ever. It has provided me clarity in why personal development and self-care must be non-negotiables.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
One experience that comes to mind actually occurred after my childhood. I decided to move from New York to Texas for grad school. I did not know anyone in Texas, but I felt the need at the time to challenge myself and venture out on my own. I moved down with just two suitcases and no car. Campus was a mile and a half from my apartment, so I walked each day in the Texas heat to go to class. I also walked over a mile each direction to get to the grocery store and the store that I went to had everything written in Spanish, which I did not speak at all. I remember one time I was walking home and I had a gallon of milk and several other heavy items and the bag broke. It became a frustrating process just to do daily tasks. At the same time, I also started working as a teaching fellow at the University which was also a new role for me. There were so many changes and unknowns at the time that it was challenging for me and I had a difficult time adjusting. There were many times I questioned my choices and just wanted to head back home. I am not a person who quits anything, so through all the difficulties, I gradually adjusted and figured out a system to make it work. Moving to Texas forced me to get out of my comfort zone and figure it out. As challenging as it was, I am grateful for the experience. I now feel that I have the capacity to adapt and overcome any obstacle. Whenever things become difficulty, I can always go back to the stories I have of when I overcame tough situations in the past.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Have a system in place of non-negotiables that you do no matter what is going on in your life. My system is that I wake up at 5:15am, workout, take a cold shower, then accomplish at least one thing on my list before my kids wake up. At night, I write down in a journal three things I am grateful for, a positive moment in the day, and read at least ten pages in a personal development book. My days are book-ended in a way that is predictable and serves to regulate my nervous system and cultivate resilience.
- Respect your time and energy. There will always be something in life that attempts to drain both of your most precious assets. You need to first respect your time and energy if you expect others to. I learned this the hard way. I stayed at jobs that had me traveling all over the place and did respect my time. Subsequently, I became drained and burnt out. I always thought that “I’m just paying my dues, and then it will get better.” It only got worse. Once I started to respect my time and energy, I became much better at setting healthy boundaries.
- Expect failure and welcome it. I spent years avoiding failure and strived for “perfection” in everything I did. However, failure is inevitable in life. Embracing failure rather than fearing it gives you a great deal of mental fortitude and as cliché as it may sound, in the words of Kelly Clarkson “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
- Learn from the best. Even if you are not a history buff, there is a great deal to learn from those who have gone through tough circumstances and prevailed. I love reading about others’ hardships and how they overcame them because those stories stick with me when I am also going through tough times. Resilient people have some amazing strategies for overcoming adversity because in many cases, they were forced to.
- Have a support system. Being resilient does not mean you have to overcome struggles by yourself. After going through an eating disorder where I have little support by choice, I did not become resilient, I just became more vulnerable. However, having a support system now for other challenges helps me rise to the occasion, keeps me open to challenges, and encourages me to continually step outside my comfort zone.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
A movement that would be beneficial to so many would be “Share your failures” movement. There is so much to learn from our own failures as well as others’. However, many do not readily open-up about failures because it requires vulnerability. I have been a perfectionist for much of my life and I avoided failure at all costs. However, my perspective has completely changed on failure and I can say that I have learned far more from failure than I ever did from trying to be perfect. If more people were open about their failures, as a society we could move forward stronger and quicker because we could all learn from each other. Additionally, cultivating a mindset early on in life where failure is viewed as a lesson would serve people to give themselves some grace when things do not work out. So much of our lives we are critiqued on the things we got wrong from school to work, but there is a huge missing piece in the emphasis of growing and learning how to pivot.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
Someone I would love to have breakfast or lunch with would be Rob Dyrdek. I’ve listened to him on the Ed Mylett podcast and so much of what he says resonates with me. I love his mindset on time and how to maximize our most precious asset. I also love that he seems to do such an amazing job at balancing family time with his multiple entrepreneurial pursuits. One thing that really stuck with me after listening to him is his profound ability to continually adapt, cultivate efficiency, implement systems, and lead in a compelling manner. Aside from his business mentality, he also has a magnetic personality in the shows he is a part of. Being able to take on so many roles behind the scenes as well as in front of the camera and do them all so well is so impressive and inspiring.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!