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Mental Toughness and Resilience

mental toughness

In his book Memory: Renew Your Memory, Frank Knoll wrote, "The brain needs to be regularly challenged in order to attain its uttermost performance." 

Within the context of the book, Knoll is speaking specifically about maintaining mental acuity by regularly challenging yourself to think through complex situations, problems, and challenges. While that is certainly the case, we're also faced with regular challenges that give us an opportunity to train our brains in another way– mental toughness. 

What is Mental Toughness?

In the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, Graham Jones outlines mental toughness by saying,

Mental toughness is having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to: •

  • Generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer. •
  • Specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure.

To put it more simply, mental toughness describes our ability to handle high-pressure situations. In spite of the demands placed upon them, someone who is mentally tough is able to remain determined, focused, confident, and in control. 

This attribute was originally discussed within the context of athletes and sport. Researchers could observe that some athletes maintained controlled focus in high-stakes matches whereas others became more frantic and desperate, and they wanted to understand why some people were better able to maintain their composure. 

How Does Mental Toughness Help Me?

Since then, our understanding of mental toughness has extended beyond the world of sport. We now understand that the same attributes which allow elite athletes to keep it together on the field also influence the rest of us. Mental toughness affects our ability to: 

  • Maintain our composure and confidence while giving a presentation or doing public speaking. 
  • Stay focused on the task at hand, even when having to confront complex and ambiguous challenges.
  • Overcome periods of difficulty, slowness, or unexpected changes.
  • Continue to pursue a goal even when the odds aren't in your favor.

and so on.  

How to Develop Mental Toughness

As beneficial as it is to develop a sense of mental toughness, you may be wondering what you can do to become more mentally tough. 

Spoiler... it isn't easy. But, in some ways, that's the point. Since mental toughness is centered upon rising up to challenges, it makes sense that honing your sense of mental toughness would be challenging in itself. 

Stress Utilization

Responding the stress is one of the key elements of mental toughness. Stress, fear, and other high-adrenaline sensations tend to engage our fight, flight, or freeze responses. Mental toughness encourages us to use these situations to create a fourth response: focus. 

Learning how to identify your stress signals and actively choose to not allow them to dictate your reaction is a skill that most of us don't have. We, instead, are conditioned to minimize and avoid stress. 

Getting practice at utilizing the surge of energy that comes with stressful situations takes a lot of practice. We can get added practice by engaging in controlled behaviors that induce stress. For example, participating in competitions, volunteering for public speaking engagements at work, or regularly participating in other events which you find stressful all give you exposure to elevated levels of stress. 

In these situations, you have a chance to learn how you best respond to stress. Being intentional in how you think about things like managing your breathing, keeping your end goal in mind, and assessing your situation as opposed to avoiding it are all necessary components of honing your mental toughness.

Maintaining Focus

Another key component to developing mental toughness is honing your ability to focus and keep your attention on a single issue. 

Culturally, we've become programmed to think in terms of multi-tasking. Social media, smartphones, and the incalculable other distractions of the Internet pose threats to our attention. 

Often, it's easy to think of distractedness as fairly harmless. Most of us got into habits of listening to music while studying in school, for example, or turning to our phones as a source of entertainment during boring periods of waiting in the doctor's office or in line at the grocery store. 

And yet, one of the risks that we face with this distraction-by-default approach is that we become conditioned to look for easy outs. It's something I've noticed in my own life. When I'm working on a complex project at work, I often reach for my phone and scroll TikTok on autopilot when I feel stuck or don't immediately know how to solve a problem. 

Being able to keep our attention on a single issue, sometimes reevaluating it and asking ourselves questions as we do so, is a trait of the mentally tough. You're able to stay focused in order to achieve a goal. 

Maintaining this type of intentional intention (heh... wordplay) isn't easy. Honing this skill in an effort to become more mentally tough often requires:

  1. Goal orientation
  2. Practiced mindfulness

Goal orientation is all about the ability to understand what your goal is, why it matters, and what you are able to do to pursue that goal. It's a matter of framing things so that your actions and ownership in an outcome are centered, and you are positioned as an active figure in the attainment of those goals. 

Practiced mindfulness refers to the intentional pursuit of learning to be present with your thoughts and have the ability to resist the natural tendency to let your thoughts drift. Journaling and meditation are generally the two exercises folks recommend for developing a greater sense of mindfulness. 

Avoiding Acclimation

Finally, a core trait of the mentally tough is that they love being challenged. Mentally tough people view challenges as an opportunity to overcome a hurdle– they may view themselves as an underdog, but it works to their advantage because it gives them the sense that they have something to improve.

If you avoid pushing yourself past your comfort zone, you run the risk of getting too settled and stuck in a rut. Here, we should note that this isn't to say that you should never allow yourself to be comfortable or confident at being adequate. Often, it can be very liberating to give yourself periods of grace and recognize that you're good enough at something as is. 

Instead, when it comes to mental toughness, you can seek out opportunities that make you a more well-rounded individual. Additionally, periodically exposing yourself to new challenges is a way of keeping you on your toes and sustaining your mental toughness. Traits like mental toughness aren't skills that you unlock once and keep around forever. It's more accurate to think of it as training a muscle. If you go a long time without training or utilizing a muscle, it will atrophy. You have to use it to keep it active and honed– the same is true for mental toughness.

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