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Dossier: Strong mind

Fall down, get up, carry on

Our psyche needs good defences, too. Jacqueline Schürer has experienced first-hand what it means when your defences are down. And she learnt how to build them up again through targeted resilience training.

Text: Katharina Rilling; photo: Désirée Good

Jacqueline Schürer (47) is on her bike, the wind is in her hair, the sun is shining on her face – it’s a perfect late summer day. A to-do list is constantly running through her head. Perhaps she does have time to make a few quick calls after all. Schürer stops, gets off her bike, takes four steps, and then collapses on the ground. “The floor just gave way under my feet”, she says. “I just collapsed. I lay on the street and couldn’t get up.” She underwent examinations, also with a neurosurgeon, who diagnosed: a lack of nerve activity in the right half of the body, torn intervertebral discs, a squeezed nerve canal. And Schürer felt nothing. Her right side was basically paralysed. “As a career woman who did a lot of sport, I couldn’t believe it. Suddenly I was helpless.” The fact that no one could tell her for sure whether she would ever be able to get up and walk again – that changed something in her.

The psyche’s immune system

And today? Jacqueline Schürer is cycling, running and hiking again. But otherwise, her life is totally different. She moved from Lenzburg to the countryside of Upper Engadine. She left her job in sales and completely re-evaluated her life. “A lack of balance between my professional and private life, too much stress and not enough rest and recovery made me sick,” she concludes. She sought support to deal with the crisis. And today she offers support herself. As a coach, Jacqueline Schürer primarily helps women strengthen their resilience, i.e. their psychological resistance. “However, it’s very important that you don’t push your strength too far,” says Mario Grossenbacher, director of Resilienz Zentrum Schweiz. “It’s not about endurance. It’s OK if we reach our limits. It’s about what we need to pick ourselves up again. Resilience is an uplifting force.”

“If you constantly speed down the motorway at 150 miles an hour, you don’t have time to notice what’s happening around you.”

Where do we get our resilience?

But what is it that made Jacqueline Schürer get up again – in the truest sense of the word? And why are some people better at it than others? “Researchers have identified important factors for resilient behaviour,” says Grossenbacher. “Genetic factors certainly play a role: some people are simply born with more resilience than others. It has also been found that prenatal and early childhood stress can have a negative impact on resilience in adulthood. The parental home and school education are also important. For example, close and stable relationships with adults and individually appropriate performance requirements are considered protective factors. We can influence many things even in adulthood. Maybe the next crisis won’t last as long or we won’t fall as far.”

A good social network, for example, is an important factor. As are practising acceptance and accepting responsibility. A positive attitude can also help to actively shape your life and find solutions. Makes sense, but how does it work? Schürer gives two examples: “If something unpleasant happens, some people take refuge in action and just work on autopilot. In such cases it is important to take breaks and leave room for creativity. If you push yourself too hard, it is hard to overcome challenging situations.” Other people freeze up when faced with stress. “To get yourself back in the game, it can help to focus on what you can do instead of losing yourself in things you cannot change. If you focus on the things you can do, you will become more active again.” This positive attitude can be trained.

Check-in, check-out

The easiest way to start resilience training is with simple rituals to get to know yourself better. It’s true that adopting a healthy lifestyle that you enjoy makes you stronger. Jacqueline Schürer describes the process like this: “If you speed down the motorway at 100 miles an hour every day, you don’t have time to notice what’s happening around you. You function on auto pilot.” Schürer slowed the pace of her own life and asked herself: What do I really need? Grossenbacher also emphasizes the importance of mindfulness training: “The simplest exercise is the check-in. It’s about starting the day consciously. I clean my teeth and ask myself: How am I? What’s on my mind? How much energy do I need today, how much do I have left?” Many people have forgotten how to observe and understand. “When the car’s low-fuel warning light comes on, we leave the motorway and get petrol – no matter what it costs. But when our energy levels drop, we often don’t notice it, notice it too late, or are too stingy to do anything about it.” Grossenbacher uses a traffic light system to help. If he’s in the red zone for several days, he takes action: he asks for help or says “no” more often. Or does something to recharge his batteries. We all know that jogging twice a year is not enough. And it’s the same with our mental fitness. That’s why Grossenbacher and his team founded Switzerland’s first studio for mental fitness. Instead of lifting weights, work-in courses are used to exchange ideas, discuss topics in groups, do mindfulness exercises and thus strengthen resilience. “There are many kinds of therapies, burn-out treatment, etc. available on the market today. Our aim was to create something we could work on together on an ongoing basis,” he says. “Otherwise life tends to get in the way again.”