Monday, 31 July 2023 18:16

The learning curve of coping

Interview with the Director of Wastewater Operations and twelve times powerlifting champion. Interview with the Director of Wastewater Operations and twelve times powerlifting champion. Photo by Victor Varela

A heart attack halted Greg Eyerly’s disciplined exercise regimen, but coping skills helped him refocus and rebalance his life

Multidisciplinary athlete Greg Eyerly is an example of discipline and determination for whom rules have changed due to an unexpected turn of life that made him shift and start again.

Adaptive mechanisms like Eyerly embraced can help people cope with issues they may be struggling with, as well as improve health and give a feeling of accomplishment. It’s hard for us to let them go, and why would we? If there’s nothing wrong with it — nothing, that is, until life takes an unexpected turn and suddenly you lose what’s been helping you cope, and it becomes another loss you must grieve.

Eyerly is Houston Public Works’ director of Wastewater Operations. He oversees 39 wastewater plants all over the city, making sure their processes protect the environment and human health, as well as improve the wastewater system for generations to come.


But apart from his service for the City of Houston, Eyerly has found success in every sport he tries: running, cycling, ultrarunning, and most recently powerlifting, where he has been champion 12 times in the state, national and world competitions since he started at age 54.

Eyerly enjoys exercising — a lot. “The more you can weave fitness into your life the better,” he said. Three to four times a week he takes his lunch break to lift some weights, and later in the evening he goes to the gym with his wife. He appreciates the benefits it brings to his life by helping him stay active and resetting his mind.

When people ask Eyerly where he finds time to work out, he says: “If you are looking to find the time, you will never find it, you have to make the time, and you have to put a block on your calendar.”


Learning to cope

Another benefit Eyerly found in competitive sports is coping. He started powerlifting as an adaptive coping mechanism when he was going through a divorce from his previous wife.

“It’s a grieving process in whichever end you are,” he said. And in that rough time of his life, he said to himself, “I don’t have to live the same way for the rest of my life.”


The National Institutes of Health defines coping mechanisms as the thoughts and behaviors we consciously and voluntarily do to manage internal and external stressful situations. These are different from defense mechanisms — a subconscious or unconscious adaptive response — even though both intend to reduce or tolerate stress. Coping mechanisms can prevent stress or can be a reaction after the stressor.

Through our life experiences, and mostly in our childhood, we develop mechanisms that feel like natural responses to different situations. It's also possible to develop and improve coping skills later in life that empower us to change stressful situations or adjust our emotional responses. Those can include deep breathing, meditating, journaling and exercising, to mention a few. But sometimes they can also present as maladaptive coping mechanisms such as alcohol and drug abuse, angry outbursts, self-harm, isolation and more. Those temporary distracters can lead to avoidance and eventually physical and emotional harm.

Going through the process of turning something negative into a positive, Eyerly coached himself and won multiple state powerlifting titles in Oregon. Encouraged to take it further, he started training with a professional coach and a couple of months later won the National Bench Press Championship and then gold at the World Powerlifting Championships. This was just the beginning of a new passion.


The rules have changed


With the help of his professional coaches, Eyerly was training for a powerlifting competition this summer. Close to age 60 and a few weeks away from the competition, he suffered a heart attack at home with his wife. Even for the doctors it was a surprise, since there were no indicators and Eyerly follows a healthy lifestyle. He had to have surgery due to coronary artery block causing low blood flow from the heart to the rest of the body.

“The rules have changed completely for me now, whether I power lift again or not”, Eyerly said as he remembered he has been in a similar situation. “This is another opportunity for me to rethink how I do stuff.”

Grief is the natural response to loss, a hard-to-navigate rollercoaster of emotions that — following the stages of grief — can go from shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance and hope. It’s a moment of vulnerability when coping skills help to deal with emotions as best as we can.

Having experienced grief before — even if it was in a different instance — can help create resilience and view the situation from a different perspective, one with more positive outcomes.

Eyerly started participating in competitive sports at the age of 12, and through the years he has shown an impressive capability to adapt to the physical requirements of each sport, making him an example of discipline and determination. He has run an ultramarathon — 100 miles in 23 hours — and was featured in multiple cycling magazines. One year he ran 146 races. He also broke the Oregon state record and became a World Champion in powerlifting.


The curve

Greg Eyerly a multidisciplinary competitive athlete

Focusing on his health and using his grieving and coping experience to move forward, Eyerly knows he doesn’t need to run 100 miles again or win another powerlifting championship to validate himself. “It’s taking care of who you are; you don’t need to do more than that,” he says.

Learning from the curve after an unexpected turn in life, he looks back at all his achievements with pride and is ready to let go and shift all that energy toward the people he loves.

“Being present, being there for your wife, being there for your co-workers, that’s enough and that’s what you need to focus on,” he said.

Now with a healthy diet, steady exercise, and a little bit of strength training, Eyerly is taking this experience as a mind shift. He looks at the situation as an opportunity to refocus his energy on what matters the most and in general to be present.

Photos courtesy of Greg Eyerly

We grieve every loss — even the smaller ones — but we don't always give ourselves the space, recognition or validation to fully cope with the loss. If you or a co-worker is going through a grieving process, contact EAP for support.

Interna EAP: 832-393-6510
External EAP: 855-378-7485
Through the City of Houston EAP’s external provider, ComPsych/GuidanceResources, employees and their immediate family members can receive eight free grief support/counseling sessions. For long-term support, reach out to your medical insurance provider at the number on the back of your insurance card.


Victor Varela
Senior Communications Specialist
Human Resources | Communications Division | City of Houston


Read 1876 times Last modified on Tuesday, 01 August 2023 12:10