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When tough isn't enough, build mental strength. Here's how

June 2, 2022 - 16 min read

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What is mental strength?

The importance of being mentally strong

7 ways to develop mental strength and build resilience

There are times when we feel like we can handle anything life throws at us. And then there are days where even the smallest setback feels overwhelming. What makes the difference?

It’s not really the circumstances we face. Many of us know what it’s like to be upset by something that wouldn’t ordinarily bother us. We often can then turn around and brush off major setbacks as just being part of life.

The difference isn’t what’s happening: it’s our mental strength. Our mental strength helps us to resist being derailed by negative thoughts. It helps us get back into the ups and downs of life day after day. And — just like physical strength — it’s a kind of mental muscle that we can develop to improve our overall well-being.

What is mental strength?

Mental strength doesn’t mean that you never cry, complain, or express doubt. And it’s not mutually exclusive to mental illness. In fact, because they’ve had to work so hard to develop coping mechanisms, many of those with ADHD, depression, and other mental health conditions are incredibly mentally strong people.

Instead of having one static idea of what it means to be mentally fit, mental strength looks at these questions: How do you respond to negative emotions or setbacks? Do you start thinking of solutions, whine about your bad luck, or let them roll off your back?

We can use the metaphor of physical health to understand mental strength. Just as physical strength is a component of physical fitness, mental strength is a part of mental fitness. 

Mental fitness is the complete set of practices that enable you to maintain and improve your mental state. Mental toughness helps you stay focused in crucial moments — for example, the athlete who needs to drown out the crowd to score a winning goal. Even though mental toughness helps you perform under pressure, it’s often not sustainable. Even in Olympic athletes, this kind of extreme pressure can damage mental health.

On the other hand, mental strength balances the extreme. It’s our ability to function effectively and sustainably in the face of challenges and stress — without sacrificing our own health, sense of self, and mental well-being. It’s closely related to resilience. And in fact, Olympic silver medal winners actually tend to be more resilient than gold medal winners

To summarize, resilience, mental strength, and mental toughness are all components of mental fitness. Mental toughness helps you tune out distractions and negative self-talk. Resilience helps you recover from setbacks. Mental strength helps us to persevere, and mental fitness builds all of these practices.

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What is an example of mental strength in practice?

You’re excited about a presentation that you’ll be giving soon to the leaders of your company. You’re rehearsing your slides, and your friend points out a flaw in your strategy. You’re completely thrown off, and you’ve put weeks of hard work into preparing for this. Do you have time to rethink your entire presentation?

All isn’t lost — in fact, hearing the potential pitfalls can help you prepare a more well-rounded presentation. BetterUp found that the one exercise that made more of a difference than any other for developing future-minded leaders was imagining the worst-case scenario. But getting into that solution-focused mindset — instead of panicking — requires mental strength.

Instead of throwing the whole presentation away or calling out sick, you decide to add another slide with your friend’s concerns. You use it as a jumping off point to open the conversation for questions and feedback. The leaders are impressed not only with your hard work, but your authenticity and foresight. Your mental strength enabled you to push past your insecurities and find the silver lining.

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The importance of being mentally strong

In many ways, mental strength — and future-mindedness — is the other side of anxiety in action.

When you think about what anxiety is and why it exists, those uncomfortable emotions do serve a purpose. Anxiety is designed to alert us to potential threats so we can find ways to overcome them. But it becomes maladaptive (unhelpful) when the feelings of fear paralyze us.

Mental strength helps us resist paralysis and push back against the forces of fear and anxiety. When we build mental strength, we’re better able to reframe the anxiety and hear what it’s trying to tell us. What outcomes do we need to think through? What’s the worst-case scenario? And how can we prepare for it to maximize our chances of success?

Mental strength affects us in other important ways, too. Here are 5 benefits of developing mental strength:

1. Less stress 

When you’re mentally strong, you’re less stressed by the things that happen in life — large or small. You see adversity as an opportunity to grow. Even when big things happen, you’re able to reframe them and trust that you’ll get through them. After all, you’ve gotten through big things before.

Managing your stress is one of the most effective ways to improve your overall well-being. Lower stress levels are associated with lower risk of depression, anxiety, and several physical health conditions.

2. Motivation

Poor mental strength saps our energy and motivation. We feel like no matter what we try to do, bad things happen and nothing ever works out. 

On the other hand, people who are mentally strong have a high internal locus of control. That means that they believe that they have control over their circumstances. That sense of control motivates them to keep trying, growing, and looking for solutions. Resilient people don’t give up easily. 

Mental strength also brings the discipline and intrinsic motivation needed to prevent procrastinating. People that are mentally tough have an easier time getting started and completing tasks.

3. Discretion

Part of being successful in life is knowing what to listen to — and what not to listen to. It’s easy to get thrown off by both internal and external criticism. When you develop mental toughness, it becomes much easier to stay focused, even when people disagree with you or you feel scared.

Discretion is also key to developing self-awareness, and in turn, emotional regulation skills. As you learn to sit with your negative emotions, you’ll develop a greater tolerance for them. Over time, you’ll learn which emotions are worth engaging with and which ones to just let go of.

4. Courage 

When we feel mentally strong, we’re less afraid of failure. Even if we’re worried about the potential outcome, it’s easier for us to shift into problem-solving mode. Our self-belief is higher, so we feel more confident about our ability to find solutions. More importantly, we feel certain that we can survive the worst-case scenario (if it does come to pass).

5. Adaptability

Developing our ability to look for solutions makes us more agile and adaptable. We spend less time dwelling on what’s not going well and more time focused on how we can achieve the desired outcome. We’re also open to the idea that there might be more than one path, solution, or result that indicates success. We don’t get attached to having everything go exactly our way, because we’re not afraid of change.

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7 ways to develop mental strength and build resilience

There are several similarities between physical exercise and mental fitness — not the least of which is the importance of your daily habits. These daily habits will pay off in key moments when your mental toughness is needed, too.

Developing mental strength means cultivating practices in each of these 7 areas:

1. Mindfulness

When you practice mindfulness, you improve your ability to respond instead of react. It empowers you to slow down the stimulus-reaction loop so you can choose a response that works for you. Over time, this skill will come in handy when you least expect it — but most need it. You might notice yourself less anxious when talking to your manager, or less likely to pick fights with your partner.

There are many kinds of mindfulness practices, so pick whichever one you enjoy and fits your lifestyle. Try mindful breathing, walking meditation, or joining a virtual yoga class.

2. Work with a professional

Working with a mental health professional or coach can be really helpful in developing mental strength. After all, the battle you’re most often fighting happens in your head. Coaches and therapists are both highly skilled at teaching you to challenge negative thought patterns so that they don’t unconsciously run your behavior. 

Psychotherapists often do this by using CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy. This technique is especially helpful for mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. Coaches, on the other hand, can help provide accountability as you work towards your goals. They can help reframe setbacks, prevent you from slipping into bad habits, and keep you motivated.

3. Keep a journal

If you want to check in with your mental strength on a regular basis, keeping a journal is a great idea. It can help you keep tabs on your personal growth over time, which is great for building your self-esteem. 

There’s no rules for what you put in your journal. Try free-writing for several minutes, goal-setting, or making notes of any stressors that seem particularly overwhelming. Sometimes, the act of writing things down helps our brains begin to work through our challenges. It’s a small step away from being overwhelmed and towards feeling in control.

4. Practice self-compassion

Many of us think that we’ll somehow be more productive if we beat ourselves up, but that’s absolutely not the case. Building self-compassion actually helps us build resilience. Focusing on what we do well — instead of all of our failures — keeps us in a growth mindset while avoiding the downward spiral. It helps us say, “That didn’t go so well, but here’s what I learned — and how I can do better next time.”

5. Get out of your comfort zone

Want to know if you’ve developed the core skills of mental toughness? Throw yourself in the deep end! Like many skills, mental strength can’t be mastered without practice. At some point, you might have to do something new, unfamiliar, or scary — and that’s a good thing.

Start small or start big — it doesn’t matter. Sign up for a class, grab coffee with someone who intimidates you, or apply for your dream job on LinkedIn. Whatever it is, pay attention to how you respond when the scary feelings come up. Write them down in your journal, and then respond to them as you would to a good friend. You’ll learn that you are capable of doing hard things — and you might even enjoy them.

6. Develop a daily routine

If you were building physical strength, you’d do reps at the gym. To build mental strength, you have to build daily routines that reinforce the new skills that you’re practicing. 

Journaling, practicing mindfulness, and connecting with a coach can all be part of this routine. You want to prioritize anything that encourages you to stop, reflect, and question. Choose thoughts and behaviors that make you feel confident.

Be sure that your daily routine also includes self-care practices. Often, when people are on the “personal development band-wagon,” they feel that every area of their life needs to be “optimized.” Start small and build up. Prioritize basic wellness, like getting enough rest, watching for the signs of physical and mental fatigue, and being mindful about what you eat.

7. Keep your connections strong

One of the strongest predictors of life satisfaction is our relationships with others. Don’t try to do it all alone. We need to have loved ones close to us — to celebrate our wins, push us forward, and comfort us in tough times.

Your support system is your therapist and your coach, but it’s also your friends and family. Don’t forget to enjoy yourself. Have fun, spend time with the people you love, and do things that make you happy. Joy insulates us against stress and keeps us going when we want to give up the fight.

Mental strength isn’t just about pushing forward, just as physical strength isn’t about working out all the time. It’s about knowing how to find balance — to both work and play, to love and lose, to push and praise, with equal ease and grace.

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Published June 2, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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