Mental strength. It has become an almost overwhelmingly commonplace topic of conversation in the modern setting. Subways, buses, dinner parties, grocery store lineups – everywhere we turn, there always seems to be someone talking about the strength of the human mind. However, for most of us, mental strength, much like American politics and James Bond plot lines, is often just another one of those incomprehensible topics that we don’t actually understand but like to talk about all the same (and pretend we know everything about it).
So let’s cut to the chase – what exactly is mental strength? And why is everyone talking about it?
It’s simple. Mental strength is the ability to overcome psychological challenges, as well as to consciously set meaningful plans and goals into motion. It’s being calm, centered and focused on your goals even amidst overwhelming chaos. It’s having a vision powerful enough to take you through the hardest of days. Above all, it’s creating the best possible life that you can live.
This then leads to the most important and the most obvious question: How do we become mentally stronger?
1. Accept reality.
Hardships and challenges are inevitable parts of our lives – and welcomed by no one. More often than not, when we're struck with bad news, whether it be a failing grade, a breakup or a letter of rejection, we tend to shy far away from it, pretending it never happened and just "getting on with life." In the end, however, all denial will lead to are even more problems and complications that will snowball on top of the original hardships, actually setting you back even further behind than from where you had first started.
Think of it this way: Say you fractured your arm. Because you play competitive tennis, however, you decide to grit your teeth, continue on with the rest of the season as if nothing had happened and hope that, with time, your bone will one day heal itself. Unfortunately, what will most likely result is a combination of bone deformity, permanent nerve damage and muscle and ligament damage. On the other hand, if you had sought out treatment immediately after the injury had happened, okay – you would've been out for a part of the season – but you would have, more importantly, been able to avoid a lifetime's worth of medical complications.
By learning to recognize and accept your reality, you will be able to move on from life's hardships so much faster, by actively seeking out solutions to your problems and constantly striving to improve. You'll also be able to achieve a greater sense of self-acceptance, compassion and fulfilment.
2. Pursue your goals.
Even if you don't achieve all of your goals, even just setting and working to pursue them has numerous positive benefits. For instance, working with a clear goal in mind can provide you with direction, focus, decisiveness, motivation and a sense of purpose and control.
It's important to note, however, that there are no benefits to be gained if you come up with a million different goals, but never actually work to achieve them. Know what keeps you going and helps you push through tough times, whether it be coffee, a bag of candy or even just the end in mind.
As you may easily become lost and overwhelmed trying to pursue a huge goal out of the blue, it's crucial to take some time to break it down into multiple manageable steps. For instance, if you wanted to achieve an A in your anatomy class, you may want to first break this down into several smaller and clearer goals, such as getting an A on your assignments, quizzes and tests, then work from here to set up a plan, such as following a study schedule and regularly going to office hours, to successfully realize these three individual goals.
It's also a good idea to keep track of the progress that you're making as well. This will give you a realistic picture of your current situation, in addition to boosting your confidence and encouraging you to stick with your plan and not give up. You'll also be able to get a clearer picture of the methods that seem to work and those that only seem to be holding you back.
Of course, there are so many different ways you can keep track of your progress – a to-do list, a bullet journal, a mindmap, a sketchbook, a wall of sticky-notes – whatever works for you! Personally, I like to keep an extensive to-do list in a notebook (there's something just so satisfying about crossing things off with a huge marker!).
3. Give up one bad habit.
Working to give up just one bad habit (and sticking with it) will help you become mentally stronger by allowing you to practice self-control, determination, perseverance and focus.
Some of the worst habits to ditch include thinking negatively, procrastinating, expecting perfection on the first try, multitasking, fearing failure and breaking promises. If you can identify with one or more of these bad habits, set one of your goals as losing them, and follow the steps outlined above!
4. Keep a gratitude journal.
According to the authors of The Power of Thanks, gratitude promotes mental strength and well-being because "authentic appreciation creates perspective, literally stepping back from the distractions of the moment and affirming something more lasting than passing circumstance."
Furthermore, according to more than two decades of global research, there are numerous scientifically proven beneficial effects of gratitude. For instance, research has revealed that gratitude can lead to increased energy, determination, enthusiasm, resiliency and academic achievement, as well as better sleeping patterns, relationships, social commitments and emotional well-being.
There are so many things that we can be grateful for every day – a meaningful conversation, a hug, a new dress, a nice dinner or a new book that you read. To get the maximum potential out of keeping a gratitude journal, remember to go for depth over breadth. Elaborating on a single thing for which you're grateful will be more beneficial than a superficial grocery list. Take your time – there's no need to rush!
Contrary to common belief, research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests that it's better to write in a gratitude journal only once or twice a week, rather than every single day. For instance, in her study, people who wrote in their gratitude journals once a week for six weeks reported higher boosts in happiness than the people who wrote three times per week.
This is because it's extremely easy for the human mind to adapt to regular sources of positivity. By reserving our gratitude journals for only once or twice a week, we'll be able to feel truly thankful, as if we were receiving a surprise gift each time (and who doesn't like presents?). After all, gratitude is really about forcing ourselves to pay attention to the good things in life we’d otherwise take for granted.
Personally, I went out and bought a five-year journal to write down the things I'm grateful for in, just because I thought it'd be a cool idea to be able to look back and read what I felt grateful for on a certain day this year compared to that date last year, or two years ago, etc.
The link between physical and mental health is indisputably clear. As advocated by the Mental Health Foundation, while poor mental health can negatively impact one's physical health, poor physical health can similarly lead to an increased risk of developing certain mental health problems. For instance, depression has been connected to a 67% increased risk of death from heart disease and a 50% increased risk of death from cancer, while schizophrenia is associated with a doubled risk of death from heart disease and a tripled risk of death from respiratory diseases.
To keep ourselves physically healthy, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends, for the average adult, a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity) every week, as well as strength-training exercises for all major muscle groups on at least two days per week.
According to the Mayo Clinic, "Moderate aerobic exercise includes activities such as brisk walking, swimming and mowing the lawn. Vigorous aerobic exercise includes activities such as running and aerobic dancing. Strength training can include use of weight machines, your own body weight, resistance tubing, resistance paddles in the water or activities such as rock climbing."
It's important to keep in mind, however, that the key here is to make exercise part of our daily routine. Rather than cramming a 150-minute swim into one day, it's more beneficial to break that down into smaller chunks over seven days. As a general rule of thumb, we should be aiming for about 30 minutes of physical activity every day.
6. Eat well.
The second key component to maintaining our physical health is consuming a balanced diet, which consists of a variety of foods that are low in unnecessary fats and sugars, but high in vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients. It's important that we're consuming the majority of our daily calories (about 2000 for women and 2500 for men, but more or less, depending on your lifestyle and body type) in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins.
Fruits: For the freshest options (fresh foods are always a healthier option than dried foods), research which local fruits are currently in season in your area, and make an effort to seek those out. In addition, if you're looking for fruits that are lower in sugar (but remember that the sugars contained in fruits are natural, not processed, and are in fact healthy for you when taken in moderation!), you may want to try reaching for some grapefruits, avocados, raspberries, strawberries, oranges, peaches, watermelon, cantaloupes, kiwis or lemons.
Vegetables: Dark leafy greens, such as kale, spinach, green beans, collard greens and broccoli, are reported to contain the highest amounts of essential vitamins and minerals. Grab some hummus and try snacking on green beans, broccoli, baby carrots and cucumber slices throughout the day and set aside those pretzels and goldfish crackers!
Whole grains: When buying grain products, such as bread, pasta or crackers, make sure that you're picking up whole grains instead of refined ones. Refined grains have poor nutritional value because their hulls (outer shells), which is where the majority of the grain's nutrition is stored, are removed during the refining process.
Lean proteins: In general, aim to consume more chicken and fish rather than red meats, such as beef, pork and lamb, which contain more cholesterol and saturated fats. In addition, keep on eye out for the words "round," "sirloin" or "loin" on the packaging, as these are lean meats with a relatively lower content of fat. For all the vegetarians and vegans out there, beans are a fantastic alternative to meat, and unlike animal products, they don't contain any cholesterol! Plus there are so many different varieties that you can choose from – lentils, pinto, kidney, garbanzo, soybeans, etc., etc.
7. Take 10 minutes every day to reflect.
This can be done in many different ways, of which some of the most popular ones include writing in a diary, blogging, audio recording or even just quietly meditating. Whichever one you decide to choose, however, make sure you’re in an environment that will allow you to truly think deeply and carefully for at least 10 minutes. Then ask yourself:
What are your hopes, your goals? Are you making any progress towards achieving them? What seems to be working? What doesn't seem to be working?
What are your fears, your concerns? What are the things that are keeping you up at night? Is there anything you can do to change this? Is there someone or someplace you can go to for help?
Are you remembering to take care of yourself? Are you too hard on yourself? Are you too lenient on yourself?
Who are you? Who do you want to become? What are some of the things that are holding you back? Who will you be without these limitations?
How can you be the best possible person that you can be?
In the end, however, the pursuit of mental strength will be a different journey for everyone. Some may find that all of the above-mentioned methods work equally well, while others may discover that they seem to respond best to only a select few steps. And that’s completely fine – after all, we are all beautiful, unique individuals, capable of so much, determined to see things through, and above all, strong – and willing to become stronger.