You’re wondering how to be mentally strong… Are you born tough? Is toughness forged over time? The Spartans… they were tough as nails. Children with schizophrenic parents whom did not suffer mental illness are mentally strong. Holocaust survivors are mentally strong. Navy Seals, definitely mentally strong. But what makes you mentally strong?
Unfortunately, there is no formal research examining the mental toughness of the Spartans. To the best of my knowledge! The other examples have been studied. According to a 2002 Harvard Business Review article, most resilience theories share three components. Plus, one more which is hard to disagree with.
“More than education, more than experience, more than training, a person’s level of resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails. That’s true in the cancer ward, it’s true in the Olympics, and it’s true in the boardroom.”Dean Becker, the president and CEO of Adaptiv Learning Systems
How to be mentally strong: mentally strong people share these four common traits:
- Acceptance of reality
- A belief that life is meaningful
- The ability to improvise
- Staying calm under pressure (like a Navy Seal)
1. Breathe Like a Navy Seal
It’s hard to imagine the toughest warriors today focus on breathing! But it makes perfect sense. When under the duress of battle the body’s natural reaction is crank up heart rate and adrenaline. Neither helps decision making or controlling fine motor skills.
Helpful 10,000 years ago when facing down a bear with a sharp stick. Not so helpful for keeping your calm in the chaos of battle. Consider the fine motor skills required to simultaneously: operate a radio; communicate with team members; identify targets; and place accurate shots downrange. All this while maintaining situational awareness.
The key is lower your heart rate by controlling your breathing. According to Mark Divine retired SEAL commander, a good place to start is deep breathing. Some refer to this technique as 4x4x4 breathing. Take a deep breath for four counts, hold it for four counts, then release over four counts. Repeat for four minutes. Practice a few times a week. The deep slow breathing forces your body to relax.
While in battle, SEALs use a 4X4 rhythm. Breathe to a count of four, exhale to a count of four. No need to hold the air in. Use this breathing pattern when under direct duress. The deep slow breathing keeps your heart rate low. In this way, adrenaline levels stay low which keeps your mind sharp and prevents hands from shaking.
To start, go easy. Start by breathing in for a 3 count, hold for free, exhale for a 3 count. Do this for 30 seconds to a minute.
Don’t let your mind turn to its primal state and rob you of your ability to think. Take long deep breaths, slow your heart down, and regain your ability to think under duress.
2. Face Reality, Accept Reality
You typically think that the optimists are the tough ones. That’s true until the point optimism starts distorting reality.
Consider the example of Admiral Jim Stockdale. Stockdale was held prisoner by the Vietcong for eight years. Author Jim Collins while researching his book Good to Great asked Stockdale: “Who didn’t make it out of the camps?”.
Stockdale replied, “Oh, that’s easy. It was the optimists. They were the ones who said we were going to be out by Christmas and then they said we’d be out by Easter and then out by Fourth of July and out by Thanksgiving, and then it was Christmas again.” Then Stockdale turned to Collins and said, “You know, I think they all died of broken hearts.”
Stockdale and other survivors mentally prepared for an extended imprisonment duration. That was their reality. The hope of release is ever present. But in reality, there is no certainty in it.
Facing reality is hard. Brutally hard. But facing down reality allows you to mentally prepare for possible outcomes. More important, by facing down reality, you can start to come to grips with possible outcomes and start planning… What do you have to do to survive the possible outcomes you’ve identified? If a potential outcome does occur, you already know your course of action. It does not catch you by surprise.
3. Believe that Life is Meaningful
Human beings are hardwired to try to make sense of the world. You need to make the world make senses around you. Everything that happens must have some meaning or connection to you. Making sense of the world is how you organize your thoughts and process the events in your life.
When bad things happen to us, it’s tempting to enter the victim mentality. Why me? Why does this always happen to me? Getting stuck in this mindset is not helpful. It prevents you from coping then moving forward. It is not a mentally strong mindset.
Perhaps no event in history tested the human spirit more than the Holocaust. While imprisoned, Viktor E. Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and an Auschwitz survivor invented “meaning therapy” or Logotherapy. This form of therapy helps you make the kinds of decisions that create meaning. Even in the most brutal circumstances.
In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl identifies the moment his idea struck him. He realized that to survive he needed to find meaning. Frankl’s meaning came from imagining himself lecturing on the psychology of the concentration camp after the war. This shift in mindset allowed Frankl to create goals for himself. The creation of meaning helped him survive.
4. Have the Ability to Improvise
Last but not least! How to be mentally strong – step four! Mentally strong people improvise on the fly. When confronted with a problem you have to solve it quickly.
Consider UPS. One day after Hurricane Andrew caused billions of dollars in damage in 1992 UPS was delivering parcels in southeast Florida. People were living out of their cars. But there was UPS, delivering packaged to people’s cars. The UPS team worked together to make decisions to get the job done.
If you do a decent job assessing your reality you should already have a few ideas. Pre-considered options and the pros and cons of each.
Bottom Line – How to be Mentally Strong
The bottom line is that being mentally tough is a state of mind. It’s not something you have. It’s something you develop over time.
1. The good news is that it can be learned. First, in a heated situation slow your breathing down. It’s counterintuitive because your primal brain is telling you to take short shallow breaths. Fight it. Control your breathing. Better yet, practice deep breathing while not under duress!
2. Look at your situation realistically. Plan for potential outcomes. Be prepared to follow through on your plans for those potential outcomes.
3. Try to put your situation in some context. Why is this happening to me? This question is one you should have a good answer to. Shed the victim mentality fast. Try to derive some personal meaning from your hardships.
4. Last but not least… How to be mentally strong. Stay calm under duress (deep breaths!), and improvise. Don’t freeze. Problem solve.