How to Increase Your Mental Toughness: 5 Science-Backed Strategies
A chaotic world demands a strong mind. Here's how to develop one.
It's clearly a crazy and chaotic world out there, so it's no wonder that mental toughness(or grit, or whatever you want to call this sort of resilience) is having a bit of a moment. Posts by my colleagues and me on signs of mental toughness, habits of mental toughness, even destroyers of mental toughness all garner tons of reader interest.
But what I've always wanted to know, and never found a 100 percent satisfactory answer for until now, is how do you develop this quality? It's great to know what mentally tough people do or think, but if those thoughts or actions don't come easily to you, is there anything specifically you can do to change that?
Apparently, there is. And that's not just your local self-help guru talking. It's the experts at the Greater Good Science Center, who recently rounded up several scientifically validated suggestions for developing greater mental toughness. The full post offers a lot of detail and background on the studies behind these recommendations and is well worth a read, but here they are in brief:
1. Write it out.
Playing bad events and worries over and over in your head (what scientists call rumination) accomplishes nothing but making you more miserable. But when you're worried and stressed, what's the alternative? Greater Good suggests you get writing.
"The practice of Expressive Writing can move us forward by helping us gain new insights on the challenges in our lives. It involves free writing continuously for 20 minutes about an issue, exploring your deepest thoughts and feelings around it. The goal is to get something down on paper, not to create a memoir-like masterpiece," explains the post.
2. Face your fears.
Are your best attempts at mental toughness undone by a specific fear, such as public speaking or social rejection? Then try exposure therapy. "Slowly, and repeatedly, expose yourself to the thing that scares you--in small doses. For example, people with a fear of public speaking might try talking more in meetings, then perhaps giving a toast at a small wedding. Over time, you can incrementally increase the challenge until you're ready to nail that big speech or TV interview," instructs Greater Good.
3. Be nice to yourself.
Beating yourself up won't give you a thicker skin; in fact, it might make you more battle-shy. Instead, try self-compassion, which the post defines as "confronting our own suffering with an attitude of warmth and kindness, without judgment."
How exactly do you learn to stop mentally beating yourself up? Greater Good has a bunch of practical suggestions, including an exercise called How Would You Treat a Friend? In it, "you compare how you respond to your own struggles--and the tone you use--with how you respond to a friend's," according to the post.
Yes, it's this advice again. But there's a reason you keep hearing it. The complete post outlines a ton of research showing huge mental benefits to a regular meditation practice, including increased mental toughness. And, no, it doesn't take a humongous time commitment, nor do you have to do anything all woo-woo and hippy-dippy (in case that's really not your style).
Research shows that holding a grudge (no matter how well deserved) saps your mental resources and basically makes you miserable. No wonder Greater Good advises forgiving your adversaries, not for their sake, but for the sake of your own mental toughness.
How? The post suggests you try Letting Go of Anger Through Compassion. It's "a five-minute forgiveness exercise that could help you get unstuck. Here, you spend a few minutes generating feelings of compassion toward your offender; she, too, is a human being who makes mistakes; he, too, has room for growth and healing. Be mindfully aware of your thoughts and feelings during this process, and notice any areas of resistance."