Throughout life, people face challenges of all kinds. While some will inevitably suffer more than others, everyone has a choice in how they respond to adversity. Either they can allow adversity to defeat them, or they can look at whether it offers them an opportunity for growth.
That’s not to say that bouncing back from a difficult situation is easy. But the good news for those who struggle with mental resilience is that it can be developed. It simply takes the right will, determination, and effort.
Have you been told that you’re too sensitive and that you let things get to you too much? And do small setbacks send you into a negative, downward spiral? If so, then this article is for you. In this article, we’ll teach you what it means to be mentally tough, as well as offer some practical tips to help you build emotional strength.
At the moment, there is no single definition for mental toughness. However, the general consensus is that it refers to a set of positive mental qualities that some people possess. These qualities help those who have them to respond to adversity in a positive way.
Is mental toughness the same as resilience?
The term “mental toughness” is often used incorrectly as a synonym for resilience. But mental toughness and resilience are not one and the same.
While mental resilience refers to coping well with adverse situations, mental toughness takes this a step further. Not only do people who are mentally tough cope well with challenges, they actually view challenges in a positive light. They also show confidence in their abilities to overcome challenges and achieve what they set out to do. Resiliency without mental toughness means people may be more vulnerable to the negative impact of repeated setbacks.
Since resiliency is part of mental toughness, we are going to focus specifically on building mental toughness in the next section.
The great thing about mental toughness is that it can be learned. There are four main skills that you’ll need to master to forge mental strength. The first is finding effective ways to cope with stress. The second is committing to persevere in the face of challenges. The third is seeing threats as opportunities. And the fourth is building belief in yourself.
Here are 19 ways you can start building mental toughness:
1. Try out a flexible mindset
Imagine you’re asked to complete a project at work, but it’s something you’ve never done before. If your thinking is rigid, you may have thoughts like, “Why did they choose me! I’m going to mess this up and lose my job.” Notice how this thinking style can easily lead to feeling overwhelmed and defeated.
Flexible thinking considers the greater perspective. For example, “I’ve never done this before, but I was chosen because they believe I’m competent. I’m going to give this my best and learn as much as I can.” Re-framing negative thoughts and considering other angles allows you to take on challenges with confidence.
2. Acknowledge your strengths
Sometimes people doubt their ability to overcome and adapt to difficult situations. When this happens, it can help to remember when you conquered similar problems in the past.
Say that you just broke up with a long-term partner. It may feel like you’ll never get over the break-up and that you’ll never be happy again. Are there any experiences from your past where you felt a similar way yet were able to move forward? What strengths helped you to do that?
Perhaps you moved cities when you were young, and you were separated from your best friend. You felt low initially, but you were able to distract yourself by getting involved in activities that you enjoyed. This brought you joy, and over time, you made new friends!
3. Manage your emotions
Keeping your emotions in check will help you cope better with stressful situations. The first step to managing your emotions is to become more aware of them. Research shows that labeling emotions reduces their power over you and has a calming effect. When strong emotions have subsided, you can explore them more objectively.
The next time you feel a strong emotion, try this:
- Name your emotion: e.g., “humiliated”
- State what event triggered your emotion: e.g., “Criticized by my manager.”
- Ask yourself if your interpretation of the event is factual: e.g., “Actually, my manager wasn’t very harsh.”
- Come up with a more balanced view: e.g., “My manager gave me honest feedback on my work because she cares about my growth.”
If there is no other way to interpret the event—say your manager was very harsh or even rude—then you may want to consider coming up with a solution. We will show you how to do this in the following tip.
4. Be solution-focused
People who lack mental strength can become overwhelmed by things that they can’t control. Excessive worrying only feeds into anxiety and does not do anything to help the situation. Problem-solving, if solutions to a problem exist, is a much more effective approach.
The next time you experience a problem, ask yourself if it’s important and if it’s within your control. If the answer is “yes” to both, then follow these steps to come up with a solution:
- Write out the problem.
- Write out at least 3 potential solutions.
- Consider the advantages and disadvantages of each solution.
- Choose the best solution or the “least bad” one.
- Come up with a plan to implement your solution.
5. Stay grounded in your values
Establishing firm values and principles can help guide you in how to act in situations that demand mental strength.
If you get easily stressed out over small things, knowing your values can help you focus your energy on the things that matter. Say you asked for Friday off work so that you could go on vacation with your family. You might start worrying about the impact of missing work. If family life was one of your core values, reminding yourself of this could ease your internal conflict.
Values can also help you set boundaries when doing so is difficult. If you were asked to take on extra work, but work-life balance is important to you, you could draw strength from this value to say no.
6. Embrace change
Change is an inevitable part of life, and people who are mentally strong recognize this. Instead of resisting or avoiding change, you can build mental strength by embracing it. Instead of seeing change as a threat, try to view it as an opportunity. When you do this, you will notice areas for learning and growth.
Say you received the news that your company is downsizing. You’ve been told you’ll be moved to a new department and that you’ll have a slightly different role. This may seem scary at first since it’s the “unknown.” But you could view it as an opportunity to expand your existing skill set. This is something that would be a bonus in the future—having a diverse skill set makes you more competitive in the job market!
7. Leave your comfort zone
Facing your fears head-on is another way to build mental strength. Research shows that directly facing whatever it is that makes you anxious is one way to overcome it. The key is to start approaching your fears slowly, one step at a time.
Here’s an example. Say that you struggle to be assertive. It’s difficult for you to say “no” to people or to say how you really feel. Starting small could look like trying to say “no” to close family and friends. Once you feel comfortable with that, then you could try it with people at work. Always start with what makes you the least comfortable, and once you’ve mastered that, continue pushing yourself to move to the next level.
8. Set attainable goals
People who are mentally tough are confident in their ability to achieve what they set out to do. Setting small, attainable goals and following through with them is one way to build this same self-trust. 
Say you had the goal, “I want to improve my health.” Breaking this down into a series of smaller goals will help you see progress quicker and keep you motivated to succeed. To improve your health, you may decide to add a new healthy habit into your life weekly. In week one, you could start drinking 1l of water every day. In week two, you could start taking the stairs at work instead of the elevator. In week three, you could start switching out unhealthy foods for more wholesome ones, and so on.
9. Use visualization
Visualization can be used to build mental toughness outside of sports, too. The next time you are met with a challenge, give visualization a try.
Say you have a speech coming up, and you dread public speaking. Instead of imagining what could go wrong, imagine things going right and how that feels and looks. See the speech going smoothly. Visualize yourself as an interesting and engaging speaker. See the audience clapping for you at the end, and imagine yourself feeling proud.
10. Build healthy habits
It is much easier to function at your mental best when you are taking good care of your physical health.
Here’s how to take care of your physical health:
- Get at least 7-9 hours of sleep every night.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
- Do at least 150-300 minutes of moderate exercise a week.
- Drink at least 2.7 – 3.7 liters of water a day.
Leading an unhealthy lifestyle has been associated with mental health problems like anxiety and depression. Since mental and physical health are so closely related, if you want to develop mental toughness, you’ll need to prioritize your physical health.
11. Make self-care a priority
If you take good care of your personal needs, you’ll find it much easier to be mentally tough. When your personal needs are met, you’ll feel better overall. And if you generally feel good, then when you encounter difficulties, you’ll be able to respond to them better.
Self-care activities can meet physical, emotional, spiritual, practical, mental, and social needs. Here are some examples of things you can do to meet each:
- Physical: exercise, eat healthily and get enough sleep.
- Emotional: write in a journal, create art, see a therapist.
- Spiritual: spend time in nature, go to a place of worship, meditate.
- Practical: clear out your closet, and clean your home.
- Mental: read a book, write a blog.
- Social: call a friend, go on a date.
12. Train your attention
People who are mentally strong do not live in the past, nor do they spend too much time thinking about the future. They focus on the here and now. This allows them to use their energy much more productively. Training yourself to be more present-focused is easier than you think. One way is by practicing mindfulness, which is the act of being more aware from moment to moment.
What’s great about mindfulness is that you can practice it anytime, anywhere. Here’s how to practice mindful walking:
- As you walk, focus on each step you take.
- Feel each movement and muscle.
- Pay attention to your surroundings: what can you see, hear, and smell?
- If your mind starts to drift, focus on your breath.
- Then, start again.
13. Practice a positive attitude
Cultivating a positive mindset will protect you from giving up when you face obstacles of all types. Positivity is what sets apart those who give up too soon from those who persevere.
To start building a positive attitude, develop a habit of noticing the good things that happen from one day to the next. Start a journal where, at the end of each day, you write down three things you are proud of or grateful for that day. Engaging in a practice like this will train your brain to think more positively, and a positive mind is better equipped to deal with stressors.
If you struggle to see the positive side of things, you might like this article on how to be more positive.
14. Speak kindly to yourself
Being mentally tough means that you can be exposed to things like criticism, failure, and rejection without taking it personally. A mentally strong person can withstand these things because they have built unshakable self-confidence. You can enhance your self-confidence by talking kindly to yourself.
Every time you start to talk negatively about yourself, try replacing negative inner thoughts with positive ones. For example, say you got rejected for a job and had the thought, “I’m so awkward, no wonder they didn’t hire me.” You could try to replace it with a positive thought, like, “It was my first interview, so I was a bit rusty. But it was great practice for next time!”
You might find this article on how to stop negative self-talk helpful.
15. Identify areas for growth
People become mentally strong when they are faced with new experiences that help them grow in one way or another. Instead of waiting for challenges to arise, why not take the initiative and work on areas in your life that you can improve on?
Here are some ideas:
- If there’s a topic you’re curious about, find a book on it and read it.
- If there’s a skill that impresses you, try to learn it.
You never know when learning a new skill or gaining new knowledge might come in handy in the future.
16. Allow yourself to fail
If you avoid certain situations because you believe you will fail, you’ll never gain mental strength. People become mentally strong when they pick themselves up after failing—time and time again.
The next time there’s an opportunity to try something new where you might fail, go for it anyway. If you fail, try to change how you view failure. Adopt the mindset of a mentally strong person, which is to view failure as a learning curve and as feedback for what to do better next time.
17. Work on your spiritual side
Research shows that having some religious or spiritual connection can enhance a person’s stress tolerance. So getting more in touch with your spiritual side—whatever that means to you personally—could boost your resilience.
For some people, spirituality means going to church. For others, it could be doing yoga or meditation. It could even be spending time in nature.
18. Take advantage of your support system
Being mentally resilient doesn’t mean that you have to face all of your battles alone. Emotionally strong people know when to turn to others for extra support.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it, whether you’re seeking practical help, advice, or just someone to lend you an ear. Asking for help does not make a person weak. It makes them resourceful—a quality that mentally strong people possess.
19. Seek therapy
If you have tried to apply the tips in this article, but nothing has worked for you, then perhaps consider seeing a therapist. If you have underlying mental health problems, you may find it difficult to be mentally strong.
We recommend BetterHelp for online therapy, since they offer unlimited messaging and a weekly session, and are cheaper than going to a therapist's office.
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