MENTAL TOUGHNESS: HOW RESILIENCE CAN HELP YOU STAY WELL, IN MIND AND BODY
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Stress, tension, and anxiety are a problem for many people, which can be both reassuring and concerning – if you sometimes find it hard to cope, you’re not alone. A recent survey by mental health charity Mind found that around 40% of GP appointments are for concerns about mental health problems.
The links between mental and physical health are well known, and it’s no secret that stress and anxiety can form part of a complicated feedback loop of physical and emotional causes and symptoms.
Mental illness has historically been a taboo subject, but campaigns promoting openness and acceptance of mental health problems have helped to reduce the stigma that used to accompany and exacerbate times of anxiety and stress. An open, honest approach to mental health means that people can get the help they need, and that new types of management for problems can be found.
People who’ve struggled with any form of mental illness may have heard some form of well-meaning – or not so well-meaning – advice to ‘toughen up’. This kind of attitude is now, thankfully, considered outmoded and unhelpful; episodes of anxiety or depression are not a sign of weakness.
It’s also clear, however, that some people are more resilient to certain stressors than others, and this has been a subject of interest among mental health practitioners and researchers – adversity often cannot be avoided, but the way people adapt and respond to that adversity can mean the difference between coping well or becoming seriously unwell.
‘Mental toughness’ is a phrase that’s been around in the world of sports psychology for many years now and which describes the kind of outlook required to cope with intense periods of high physical and mental demands. Elite athletes are expected to either innately know or be able to learn how to perform well, even best, under the most stressful and high-pressure conditions. But how can this help the rest of us? Can mental toughness and emotional resilience be learned?
As occupational and public health trends focus increasingly on mental and emotional wellness, forms of resilience training have become a common offering from employers and healthcare providers. The techniques have been honed over time from experience and clinical evidence. Resilience training is often provided for frontline emergency workers and those in the armed forces, and has been found to be incredibly helpful for people subject to occupational trauma.
Resilience training goes hand in hand with other forms of practical-focus cognitive therapies such as mindfulness training, cognitive bias therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. The idea – in a nutshell – is that even when a situation cannot be changed, a shift in the way you think about that situation can make a difference to how you feel, which in turn can affect your mental and physical health.
Some resilience strategies include:
- Prioritizing wellness: another aspect of emotional well-being that has gained notice over recent years is the concept of ‘self-care’. It means different things to different people, but it’s a simple idea, and one that focuses on things that you can control. Self-care is understanding that exercise, nutrition, hygiene, healthy sleeping patterns, and a safe, comfortable home environment make you more able to cope with adversity.
- Building connections: giving priority to relationships, workplace and friendship groups can breed strength. Having a place and worth within a community is incredibly important for confidence, self-esteem, and motivation.
- Making practical changes: if you can define the things that are concerning you, you can then consider the things that you have control over, and if you have control then you can make positive changes. Simply focusing on what you can control can make a huge difference, both in practical and emotional terms.
- Knowing your limits: again, a frank assessment of your concerns – some people make lists – can help you realize that there are some things that you can’t change. If something is out of your control, you can’t be at fault. Even if something is upsetting, if you can’t change it then resignation is a step towards being at peace with it.
- ‘Counting your blessings’: this means actually taking the time, even when it feels like an emotional effort, to consider the good things in life. Considering the things to feel thankful for can help put problems in perspective or at least take the focus off the negative, even if just for a short while.
- Seeking help: the social groups and communities we have around us are incredibly important, and just some solidarity, camaraderie, or a shoulder to lean on can make all the difference. It may also be that professional help is needed through difficult times. Healthcare professionals are there to help when you need them, and it’s okay to need help. There are also numerous courses, resources, and taught sessions available both online and face-to-face, making emotional resilience training accessible to all.
Staying Well in a Pandemic
Covid-19, the recent global crisis threatening the health and well-being of the world’s population, has magnified the need for emotional strength. This is a time when many people have been isolated from other human contact for months, unable to leave their homes with constant threat of contracting or spreading disease. Humans are naturally social animals, and this kind of near-total solitary confinement is torturous for many.
The long-term effects of the social and societal aspects of the pandemic are as yet to be seen. The recent widespread interest in the philosophies behind mental toughness and emotional resilience couldn’t have come at a better time – a time when people need practical coping strategies more than ever, and when they need techniques that can be learned remotely or independently.
It may be that Covid has forced the people of the world into developing, learning and sharing the kind of coping strategies known only to people who have lived through times of great change and trauma. The children who’ve lived through the pandemic may have more in common with the children of The Blitz than any generation in between. If mental toughness can be learned, then Covid might have just put us all through a fast track program.
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For more mental health tips on surviving the Covid 19 lockdowns, please read the following article. /blog/8-mental-health-tips-for-surviving-the-covid-19-lockdown
- Van Breda, A.D., 2018. A critical review of resilience theory and its relevance for social work. Social Work, 54(1), pp.1-18. http://dx.doi.org/10.15270/54-1-611
- Jones, G., 2002. What is this thing called mental toughness? An investigation of elite sport performers. Journal of applied sport psychology, 14(3), pp.205-218. https://doi.org/10.1080/10413200290103509
- Forbes, S. and Fikretoglu, D., 2018. Building resilience: The conceptual basis and research evidence for resilience training programs. Review of General Psychology, 22(4), pp.452-468. https://doi.org/10.1037%2Fgpr0000152
- Joyce S, Shand F, Tighe J, et al Road to resilience: a systematic review and meta-analysis of resilience training programmes and interventions BMJ Open 2018;8:e017858. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2017-017858
- Masten, A.S. (2018), Resilience Theory and Research on Children and Families: Past, Present, and Promise. J Fam Theory Rev, 10: 12-31. https://doi.org/10.1111/jftr.12255
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