Mental toughness is always important. It helps ensure that we don’t fly off the handle when things don’t go our way, that we don’t shy away from physically and emotionally challenging situations, that we don’t continue to escape into behaviors because we can’t handle facing our emotions. In short, mental toughness is the ability to endure difficult situations and there are plenty of exercises you can do to strengthen it.
“Increasing mental toughness is possible by doing resilience training,” says Jenny Arrington, a yoga teacher and co-founder of the health and wellness organization Rebel Human. Resilience is the capacity to bounce back from stress and adversity. It is marked by grit, high tolerance for uncertainty, and the ability to choose courage over comfort. Says Arrington, “it is a protective factor and is positively related to many well-being dimensions, including positive affect, optimism, life satisfaction, and physical health.”
In the military, new soldiers develop mental toughness through suffering. “We’d be in frozen lakes of water, stay outdoors getting drenched — there are some pretty interesting ways the military breaks down the individual,” says Thierry Chiapello, a former Marine who teaches yoga to veterans. “We had to figure out how to deal with uncomfortable situations that were foisted upon us by drill instructors.”
While, yes, some mental toughness training pushes you to the absolute limit, there are plenty of ways to build your mental toughness — from taking cold showers to admitting mistakes — that you can every day in a spare few minutes. While they don’t require much time, they will, with practice, condition you to be more resilient in the face of trying circumstances.
Mental Toughness Exercise #1: Take Cold Showers
Each of the experts we spoke to correlated mental toughness with the ability to tolerate being uncomfortable, whether mentally or physically. Starting or ending every day with a cold shower is a simple — though not an easy — way to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable.
“When we take cold showers, we boost our endocrine function, lymph circulation which boosts immune system, and blood circulation,” Arrington says. “In the yogic tradition, the cold shower is a recommended part of one’s daily morning ritual. It brings blood to the capillaries, strengthens the nervous system, and builds mental toughness.”
Arrington admits it’s not easy to step into an ice-cold shower. But for those up for the challenge, it will not only provide ongoing physical and mental resilience training, but will give you a boost of endorphins and energy for the day.
Want to ease into it? Arrington recommends using the handheld shower head, holding it over one arm at a time, then one leg at a time, working your way up to the whole body (except the head).
Mental Toughness Exercise #2: Wait a Few Minutes to Eat When You’re Hungry
Another simple tactic to build tolerance for being uncomfortable (and impulse control) is to allow yourself to feel hunger pangs without grabbing a snack.
“Tolerating an extra five-to-10 minutes of hunger builds patience,” says Chicago-based psychologist Paul Losoff. “You can accept that it’s okay to wait, to be hungry — you know you’re going to eat. But rather than rushing in to fix it, you sit with it.” This ups your tolerance for being uncomfortable. ” If you’re able to do that,” Losoff adds, “you’ll be able to tolerate more difficult challenges.”
Mental Toughness Exercise #3: Do the Thing You Don’t Want to Do (For 10 Minutes)
When there’s something you really don’t want to do — say, a workout or a boring report — tell yourself you only have to do it for 10 minutes. When the 10-minute mark rolls around, permit yourself to quit if you want to. (You’re likely to keep going — starting is usually the hardest part.)
“Starting something you don’t want to do trains your brain to know that you don’t have to respond to how you feel,” says psychotherapist and editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind Amy Morin. “Just because you don’t feel like doing it doesn’t mean you can’t do it. You’re stronger than you think — you can take action even when you’re not motivated, too.”
This applies to taking on more significant challenges, too. When your brain tries to talk you out of doing something (like giving a presentation or trying a new hobby), respond with, “Challenge accepted.”
“Your brain underestimates you,” Morin says. “But every time you do something that you thought you couldn’t do, you challenge your brain to start seeing you as more capable and competent than it gives you credit for.”
Mental Toughness Exercise #4: Work Out Without Music Or TV
Working out is obviously a great way to boost your physical and mental strength. But when you’re doing it while listening to music or watching TV, you’re distracting yourself and limiting your opportunity to experience and build tolerance for being uncomfortable. Be present with your discomfort by switching off the iPhone or tablet and paying closer attention to your breath and physical sensations, advises Arrington.
“Working out with distraction maximizes your ability to increase your grit,” she says. If you already work out without distractions, take it a step further by adding a mantra to your reps, steps, or breaths. “Some people feel more comfortable with something like, ‘Let go,’ or, ‘Thank you.’”
Mental Toughness Exercise #5: Sit With Your Feelings
The next time you start to feel lonely, mad, anxious, sad, scared, or jealous, pause for a moment. Notice if you were about to grab your phone to scroll through Instagram or check your email, or about to turn on the XBox or grab a beer. Fight the urge and instead, sit down or lay down (face down is helpful) and close your eyes. See if you can locate a physical sensation in your body. Do you feel a tightness in your chest? In your gut? Butterflies in your chest? Tightness in your throat? Is your jaw clenched?
Whatever sensation you find, really go into that sensation. Forget the thoughts swirling around and don’t try figure out what emotions you’re having if they are unclear. Just go into the physical sensation and really feel it. Stay with the physical feeling for a few minutes. Then ask it what it’s trying to tell you.
“It may sound strange,” Arrington says. “But this is a practice used both in somatic-based psychology and in ancient yogic practices. You’ll be surprised at how much insight you get from this and you will probably prevent yourself from doing the harming habit that you usually do to ignore your feelings.”
Sitting with our emotions may be one of the most difficult things we’ll ever do. For some people, it’s easier to go into battle than to feel feelings. But the hardest things often have the best outcomes. And this exercise, per Arrington, will not only build mental toughness, but it will also “improve your relationships, help heal old traumas, allow you to break free of bad habits, and get you to your next level of personal development.”
Mental Toughness Exercise #6: Name Your Feelings
It’s sometimes hard to put a name to your feelings. It might even be tough to admit to yourself when you’re nervous or sad. But research shows labeling your emotions takes a lot of the sting out of them. So check in with yourself a few times a day and ask yourself how you’re feeling: set alarms on your phone for morning, afternoon, and evening.
“If you can put a name to the emotion or the mix of emotions, you’ll feel stronger,” Morin says. “It could be as simple as stopping and taking a second to name your feelings to yourself.”
Take notes on your phone or write them out with pen and paper. You can use an emotions word list to help you identify what you’re feeling, too. “It’s important to connect with how you feel, or you won’t know how your feelings affect your decisions. When you’re angry or embarrassed, you may take big risks you don’t need to.”
Mental Toughness Exercise #7: Breathe Deeply
Whether as part of formal meditation or on an as-needed basis, deep breathing is essential for developing mental toughness. It allows you to better regulate your thoughts, feelings, and, well, breathing through situations when the going gets rough.
“Deep breathing helps reduces cortisol levels in the brain and body that are blocking your cognition, allowing you to decompress,” says Caroline Leaf, a cognitive neuroscientist and host of the Cleaning Up The Mental Mess podcast.
“Hyperventilating can make you feel worse, while deep slow breathing calms you down, reducing your adrenaline and cortisol,” she adds. “It helps your stress reaction work for you and not against you, preparing you for positive action.”
Leaf suggests two breathing techniques: the 10-second pause, where you breathe in for three seconds and out for seven seconds; and the box breathing method, where you breathe in deeply for four seconds, hold for four seconds, and breathe out for four seconds. You can also breathe in one side of your nose and out the other side. “The oxygen flow from deep breathing helps reset the deepest parts if your brain and biochemistry,” Leaf says.
Mental Toughness Exercise #8: Talk To Someone
There’s a big difference between “being strong” and “acting tough.” Acting tough is about pretending you don’t have any problems. Being strong is about admitting you don’t have all the answers. While it might feel uncomfortable, talking to someone can help you develop mental toughness and become better.
So, make a concerted effort to reach out and talk to your friends and family regularly. “A close friend or family member can give you a different perspective on what you’re experiencing,” Morin says. “But be open to professional help. Start with talking to your doctor to rule out physical health problems and then get a referral to a mental health professional. These days you can text, video chat, or chat on the phone with a therapist.”
Mental Toughness Exercise #9: Practice Gratitude
“Studies show grateful people enjoy a host of benefits, such as a boost in immunity, better quality sleep, and more mental strength,” Morin says. “Look for things you can be thankful for every day and you’ll boost your mental muscle.” Make thinking about what you appreciate a habit — either do it before you get out of bed in the morning or before going to sleep. Finding the silver lining shapes how we think about the world — a big part of becoming more mentally tough.
Mental Toughness Exercise #10: Admit Mistakes
Mentally tough people never try to pretend their mistakes didn’t happen — the default stance people take when they know they’ve done something wrong. Instead of just owning their error, many people attempt (unsuccessfully) to defend their position. This only digs the hole further and leads to lost trust and deterioration of relationships. Instead of being too proud to say they’re wrong, mentally tough people accept full responsibility for their actions. “Admitting your mistakes frees you from guilt,” says Eric Rittmeyer, a former Marine and author of the The Emotional Marine – 68 Mental Toughness and Emotional Intelligence Secrets to Make Anyone Instantly Like You. “By not admitting you’re wrong, you allow the guilt to sit and rot in your stomach.”
Admitting mistakes also sets a good example for your kids. “As parents, we often feel guilty for making mistakes in front of our children,” Leaf says. “But we shouldn’t try cover up our faults or let our shame and guilt control us. Rather, we should reconceptualize our mistakes as valuable teaching opportunities that will help prepare our children to successfully navigate the hard parts of life. We need to be brave enough to admit we are wrong, and strong enough to fix the mistake and move on. We need to teach our children to be vulnerable, open and honest, and teach them how to turn a mistake into an opportunity for growth.”
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