I often associate mental strength with athletes. Athletes develop disciplined minds to push their bodies to perform at high levels. But what if being mentally strong could help the average person in their everyday life? What is mental strength? How can you develop it for yourself? What practical, everyday things can we do to enhance our mental strength?
Mental strength can be defined as the capacity that an individual has to deal effectively with “stressors, challenges, and pressure to present their best performance in spite of their circumstances”.1 It is similar to building physical strength—repeated usage can make you stronger. But, whereas in physical strengthening you use your muscles to become strong, developing mental strength includes these three steps:2
- Regulate your thoughts. Improving our self-talk is the key to thought regulation. Rather than condemn yourself when you make a mistake, constructive self-talk points our thinking in a healthy direction. You can actually “coach” yourself. Imagine what words a kind friend would say and repeat them to yourself, e.g. “You did your best” or “You’ll do better next time.”
- Manage your emotions. Recent studies have shown that we can actually interfere with the emotional process during what is known as the “emotional generation timeline.”3 We can choose how we deal with our emotions. This step means you embrace both positive and negative emotions, then decide what to do next.4 It is proactive rather than reactive.
- Behave productively. Mentally strong people don’t act out negatively, no matter what they might think or feel. They choose actions that will improve their lives. Mentally strong people wisely put off momentary gratification, in spite of not always feeling motivated, if it means a better outcome further down the road.5
Moving from general steps to more specific, what are the everyday things that can increase our mental strength?6
- Evaluate your values. Values drive behavior, and it’s important to uproot and redirect unhealthy values. For example, be collaborative rather than competitive, generous rather than materialistic, and so on.
- Don’t waste mental energy. The Serenity Prayer’s advice is solid: you use your energy wisely when you only act on what you can control and let go of the rest.
- Replace negative thoughts. Positive thinking is constructive. To move from “I’m a failure” to “Everyone makes mistakes sometimes” is called “reframing.” When you reframe your actions in a positive light, it helps you become stronger mentally and provides opportunity for growth.7
- Step out of your comfort zone. Mentally strong people accept negative feelings but aren’t controlled by them. I can live with uncomfortable feelings for a time if it will help me achieve a positive goal.
- Reflect. Take time every day to evaluate what you are doing to become mentally strong. As you see mental strength developing in yourself, it will inspire you to continue.
Mental strength can be developed just like physical strength. By moving from general to more specific steps, you can develop characteristics that will make you mentally strong.
1. Peter Clough and Keith Earle, “Mental toughness: The concept and its measurement,” January 2002, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313119986_Mental_toughness_The_concept_and_its_measurement
2. Amy Morian, “What’s the difference between mental strength and emotional intelligence?” April 19, 2017, https://www.inc.com/amy-morin/whats-the-difference-between-mental-strength-and-emotional-intelligence.html
3. Marianne Pogosyan, Ph.D., “3 Ways to Regulate Your Emotions,” Sept. 14, 2017, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/between-cultures/201709/3-ways-regulate-your-emotions
4. Ibid, Morian
5. Amy Morian, “5 Powerful Exercises to Increase your Mental Strength,” December 3, 2013, https://www.forbes.com/sites/groupthink/2013/12/03/5-powerful-exercises-to-increase-your-mental-strength/#28204f054cd
6. Ibid, Morian
7. Ibid, Morian
Eileen Nielsen is the Member Care Facilitator for TEAM Japan and a counselor at Tokyo Mental Health Clinic. She leads seminars on using MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) for team building, conflict resolution, and personal development.