Mental Toughness: How to rebuild resiliency 

Stress affects people in all different ways – or at least, different people respond to it very differently. For some, it rolls off quickly, and they rebound in a reasonable amount of time. For others, it “sticks” and it takes much longer to recover, if ever. This is because people’s mental “resilience” varies enormously, which itself is based on both genes and environment. For people who aren’t so good at coping with stressors, it may be that they’ve never been particularly good at it—or it could be that they were once good, but the losses and blows of life have worn away their resilience over time. Luckily, it’s possible to build that skill back up.

We all experience terrible loss and hurdles at some point in our lives; the death of a loved one, a divorce or painful breakup, being fired from a job, suffering from an illness, or any number of life events that can be overwhelming and terrifying to confront. Some people are better able to bounce back, whereas others struggle longer, with higher incidences of depression, anxiety, and long term effects of stress that take a toll on their lives.

Whatever the reason, the good news is that resilience is in large part learnable. It may take a lot of practice and a number of different strategies (and perhaps work with a psychologist), but it can be improved upon over time. If you’re among the crowd who’s feeling less-than-resilient right now, knowing that you can “grow” your resilience may be the first step in doing so.

1. Stretch your mental muscle

People often have a go-to coping method, which may or may not be effective in every life event. The thing that resilient people know is that different challenges require different strategies. So learning how to pick and choose your response in a given situation is key. People who are resilient have an ability to adapt to all kinds of situations that life throws at us. Flexibility means you approach any given hurdle with a variety of strategies. Sometimes you need to lean on others and get emotional support; other times you need to give yourself space to heal or grieve or let things cool off; and other situations need swift and strong action to advocate for yourself or confront a situation head on. You can practice this by noticing your go-to method of coping, and then deliberately taking a step back. You’re then in a better position to choose how you move forward with a conscious plan of action.

Most people know at least intellectually that first reactions aren’t always the best ones—it usually takes some space to fully digest the situation before you can settle on the best response. Make sure you give yourself adequate time to do this, so that you can come up with the best method, rather than just using the first one that comes to mind.

2. Train your mind to see positive AND negative

Negative things, however small, always grab our attention more than the positive ones—that’s just how we’re built. But when you’ve lost some psychological resilience, you tend to become even more adept at finding the negatives in a situation without even trying. This is natural (and can be helpful), but it needs to be balanced out with some conscious practice at picking out positive elements.

“Research shows that on average, negative events impact people five times as much as positive events do,” says Heidi Reeder, Ph.D., author of Commit To Win: How To Harness the Four Elements of Commitment To Reach Your Goals, and professor at Boise State University. “Resilient people, however, keep the negative from having such a powerful impact by focusing on what’s positive in the situation. Rather than just focusing on the downside (e.g., “I made a fool of myself in front of the whole team”) or just the upside (e.g., “The team got to see that I am human, which will deepen our relationship”) they are able to hold both the positive and negative equally. This kind of emotional balance allows you to move forward with more confidence and less stress.”

You can practice this during calm times (in other words, don’t wait for a crisis) by thinking of events in the past that were hard, and by pulling out some of the elements that turned out to be positive in retrospect. Practicing this will build a kind of reflexive ability to see the next challenge as what it is – a challenge – rather than a catastrophe.

3. Focus on learning

This is an extension of the one above, and requires a bit of a mental shift. When something bad happens that *may* be your fault, try to use it a means to learn what you could do better, rather than proof that you failed. It may sound cheesy, but it’s a key way to get through hard events and disappointments in life. “During tough times and difficult moments,” says Reeder, “you have a fundamental choice to respond with your old-patterns (e.g., defend, protect, attack, hide) or to open yourself to learning. Making the choice to see challenging circumstances as a learning opportunity rather than a time to protect yourself makes a big difference in your level of resiliency.”

For instance, if you failed at a new idea at work or failed to hit that PR see it as a way to do better (and learn what actually went wrong), rather than some sort of confirmation that you’re no good at your job, or unable to reach your goal. “Instead of going into protection mode (e.g., ‘They don’t know what they’re missing, those idiots’), you can go into learning mode (e.g., ‘What can I learn from this that will help me do better next time?’).” You’ll be a lot more resilient if, instead of flinging out anger and blame, you learn to go with it, and use it as a way to step up your game.

4. Become physically tougher

Getting in physical shape can do volumes for your mental well-being, resilience included. Part of being resilient is that you feel, at least to some degree, that you have control over your response to a situation (even if not the situation itself), and that you can problem-solve whatever challenges come up. When you’re out of shape physically, it can feel like you’re not in control of your body, let alone the stressors in your life. So just the act of getting in shape can be extremely empowering. “It may seem counter-intuitive,” says Ben Michaelis, PhD, a psychologist in New York City, “but you can become mentally tougher by becoming physically stronger, through cardiovascular exercise. The data indicating the link between physical and emotional health is airtight at this point. This is why I often suggest that people who want to build their emotional resilience begin by strengthening their endurance either through running, which I personally believe (and there is data to support me on this) is the most natural form of exercise for human beings, swimming or cycling.”

5. Keep some fuel in the tank 

This is a tough one because life can be incredibly exhausting, especially if you’re dealing with a series of stressors, and it’s very easy to put your other commitments ahead of yourself. Work, spouse, kids, family all tend to get the better part of your energy. But taking care of yourself in a day-to-day way replenishes your mental energy stores so you can deal with stressful times better. “It’s difficult to be resilient to personal and professional challenges if you are already drained,” says Reeder. “Some people don’t decide to take care of themselves—in terms of sleep, good food, fresh air, and time to just reflect—until they are well into a difficult time. Resilient people know that you need to keep a little fuel in the tank at all times. They know this isn’t being selfish or lazy, but is a strong choice to put yourself in the best physical and emotional state for when inevitable challenges arise.”

So take care of yourself, even if you find it hard to do at first: Exercise, do yoga, meditate, listen to music – whatever you feel builds up your mental/emotional stores, do it.

6. Stay social, always

The research over the past several years on the importance of social interactions for our mental and physical health is incredibly convincing. And social ties are clearly key in staying a sane and resilient person. Open up and depend on others more emotionally, sharing vulnerable feelings, like sadness or fear or loneliness, and trust that the people we care about will be there for us. People who share in this way come to see themselves, and the world, in a better light—and it makes them stronger.

It’s easy to isolate during tough times, by the logic that you’ll just plow ahead and deal with things by yourself. But this really doesn’t work. Much healthier is keeping in close touch with friends and family—it helps get your mind off things, but even more critical is that it can help you trouble-shoot more effectively. There’s something intrinsic about talking things out, vs. just thinking about them, that helps us work though problems and come up with solutions. And the social contact itself will make you realize that you’re not in it alone.

7. Write about yourself

This is always a hard one, since it can feel weird to write about yourself, but studies keep showing that it’s extremely good for mental health. “Those who see themselves in a positive light tend to be more resilient than their more self-effacing peers,” says Malkin. “They even recover from tragedy and loss more quickly….. you can increase your resilience by boosting your ego in direct ways. In one study, researchers simply asked people to record in detail, over the course of a week, what they’d done to express the traits that they most value—say, being honest and patient; after just one week of this, people not only felt better about themselves than they did at the start of the study; they had a greater sense of well-being—one important indicator of increased resilience.”

8. A word about highly sensitive people

Highly sensitive people often seem to have a harder time bouncing back from stressors, which makes sense, since the impact of certain events tend to be magnified for them. But there’s good news for the highly sensitive among us: They also tend to be very good learners when it comes to coping strategies. So they may ultimately have a leg up with resilience, once they learn exactly how to deal with it.
“Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) tend to be both more negatively impacted by stress,” says Michaelis, “and yet, when they are given the right degree of support, in my experience, they can be extremely effective at mastering their anxiety and are actually unusually resilient. It just seems to take them a little longer to get comfortable with stressors.”

Regaining your psychological resilience can be challenging, but it’s worth trying some of these strategies, since resilience is an important trait to have at any point in life. If there are any strategies that weren’t mentioned here, please feel free to comment below.

 

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