7 Resolutions to Build Your Mental Toughness by Rachael Schultz
Sure, you can make the same old resolutions to make this the year of getting fit, getting promoted, being a better boyfriend, or being less stressed. But rather than trying to develop one specific thing, you could also try focusing on improving your mental moxie—and see improvements across every aspect of your life.
“Mental toughness is about having the psychological edge that enables you to both generally cope well with the many demands—be it competition, training, work, general life—that are placed on you as a performer, as well as to specifically remain determined, focused, confident, resilient, and in control under pressure,” says Greg Chertok, sport psychologist at Telos Sport Psychology Coaching in New York.
Psychological strength is just like physical strength: Some people are born with mental toughness, and others have to develop it. Either way, the more you test your mental muscles, the more your mental fortitude will grow.
Here are seven New Year’s resolutions to improve your mental toughness. Focus on these and you’ll notice stress roll off without a sweat, it’ll keep your focus during one-rep-max deadlift day, and help you make smarter long-term decisions in the new year.
1. Force yourself to feel discomfort daily
“We all understand the benefits of discomfort when it comes to working out—no pain, no gain—but if you really want to make yourself mentally tougher, you need to step it up,” says Chris Friesen, Ph.D., an Ontario-based sport and performance neuropsychologist and author of ACHIEVE: Find Out Who You Are, What You Really Want, And How To Make It Happen. Trade the weight room for a yoga class, sit in the sauna if you hate being hot, sign up to tackle a public speech at this year’s alumni event.
Of course, your brain will inevitably start kicking and screaming in resistance. “Psychologists call this ‘Fortune Telling’—our predictions about how bad things are going to be or how hard things will be are often distorted or exaggerated,” he explains. Our brains evolve to avoid pain, but the built-in protection works so well that it sometimes causes us to think and act irrationally, he explains. “The best ‘cure’ for this type of distorted thinking is to say, ‘Thanks for doing what you were programmed to do, brain,’ and do it anyway. It builds self-confidence and self-efficacy, and serves to reduce the power your negative predictions and thoughts have over you,” he adds. By doing hard things every day, you will repeatedly show yourself that you are more than your momentary thoughts and feelings.
Friesen’s favorite way to get uncomfortable: take cold showers. It’s a super-easy way to force yourself into discomfort, and a guarantee scenario for your resistance to rear its head. Turn the water cold for the last 60 seconds of your daily wash or run the whole thing cold, but do the same thing every day for a week. The point is to push your threshold from wherever it’s at now in a controlled, measurable way. You’ll see that after a few days it gets easier.
2. Laugh every day
“Humor adds perspective and reduces emotional distress,” says Steven M. Sultanoff, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Irvine, CA. Watching funny videos helps improve levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and even improves short-term memory, according to a study out of Loma Linda University. Listen to a comedy podcast on your morning commute or rope in your best bro to exchange funny memes every morning. “Recalling a humorous life moment is emotionally uplifting, and sharing that with another person is bonding, which can be healing,” he adds. You can even ask Amazon Echo for a joke now, he adds.
3. Start journaling
No, you don’t have to record all your thoughts and feelings. But building self-awareness and being reminded of your motivations and goals are two of the best ways to build mental toughness, says Chris Carr, Ph.D., sport and performance psychologist at St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indiana. You probably already track your weights, reps, and sets, so just use the same notebook and start working in the following:
Every day, take a few minutes to list two to three things you’re grateful for. (You can also record it in an app like Grateful.) “One of the most potent de-stressors is to remind oneself of what one feels grateful for. It can also increase one’s energy, one’s capacity for forgiveness, reduce negative thinking, reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, and increase overall well-being,” says Sultanoff. It can be as simple as being grateful for a really good protein bar or someone holding the door for you, or as big as being thankful for your wife, a good friend, or a childhood coach.
Twice a week, write positive self-statements: “I am a determined powerlifter,” “I am a loving husband,” “I can speak well in front of my peers and boss.” It’ll help improve your self-awareness, which enhances growth and change, and, thus, self-confidence, Carr says. Statements should be specific (“I have great daily commitment to change.”), challenging (“I ran for 20 minutes yesterday. Today I can crush 40 minutes.”), and realistic (“OK, today I can crush 25 minutes.”) to recognize the abilities you have now and the room you have for growth.
Once a week, write down your motivation and goals for the next seven days, Carr suggests. Regular evaluation not only helps keep your eye on the ball, but also allows you to reflect on where your energy is coming from. One tip from Carr: Keep your motivation on feelings of self-satisfaction rather than gaining reward, because research shows that internal motivators—“I want to be stronger,” “I want to feel more confident at my job”—are more powerful than external, “I want girls to look at me more,” “I want to impress my boss”.
4. Spend 10 minutes being mindful
“Practicing mindfulness helps us put distance between us and our unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and circumstances,” Friesen explains. “It strengthens what we call our ‘observing self,’ which helps you be less influenced by your circumstances, urges, moods, pains, and thoughts, and have more space between stimulus and response.” And in the short-term, taking the time to be mindful can help you reset, re-establish goals, and re-energize for positive performance, Carr adds.
You can do it one of two ways: Carr suggests completely unplugging, closing your eyes, and focusing on deep breathing and a calming cue word (e.g., “relax,” “exhale”) for 5-10 minutes. Another route is to choose one activity you can do with no distractions—drinking your morning cup of coffee at home, or taking a shower. Close your eyes and focus on nothing more than your breath and your senses for 5-10 minutes, Friesen suggests.
Carr recommends aiming for practicing intentional relaxation 3-4 times a week for the first three months to help establish regular and consistent practice. That regular practice will start to infiltrate your everyday routine, and eventually teach you to be more mindful in stressful situations. Follow these cues: noticing, unhooking, accepting, and refocusing, Friesen adds.
5. Give yourself 3 outs a week
We spend a lot of time worrying about what we “should be” or “must” do. “When it’s in sync with what you want, there’s no stress,” Sultanoff says. “But most often, these demands are in conflict with what we actually want. It’s typically on an autopilot level, though, so people aren’t even aware of the conflict and stress it causes.” Looking at whether you actually want to and need to do something is an easy way to remove a massive pile of energy-sucking tasks from your mind.
Try this: Give yourself three or so outs a week (more if you’re a chronic people-pleaser, less if you’re pretty good at saying no). When something unexciting is on your to-do list or calendar, ask why you don’t want to do it. Driving across town to help your ungrateful brother-in-law clean out his basement is a pretty clear “should” versus “need.” But if you don’t want to work out today because you’re exhausted, is it because you lazed around all day unnecessarily, or because you’re depleted from a super-stressful day?
Then, consider what happens if you take the out. “In the scope of your life, missing one workout is insignificant, especially if it’s for self-nurture,” Sultanoff explains. But if you know you won’t be able to make it to the gym for the next two days, skipping today’s workout has weightier consequences—so balance those “outs” with your long-term goals, too.
6. Trade “annoyances” for “challenges”
Getting stuck in traffic was frustrating AF last year. This year, though, consider it a test of your patience—one that gives you a chance to grow. “We need tough tasks in order to become mentally tougher,” Friesen says. Resisting challenges is like sticking with your one rep-max from six months ago. Accepting situations that make you want to pull your hair out—obnoxious store clerks, braggy co-workers, newborns that just won’t stop crying—helps build your mental muscle.
Luckily, challenges are all around us, Friesen adds. Try this: Wrap a piece of string around your wrist. When you feel your heart rate skyrocket over a situation over which you have no control, look at the bracelet and use it as a cue to take a breath and let go of the frustration. Your mindfulness training will help once it becomes second nature, but until then, switch your focus—take deep breaths, listen to a podcast, call a relative, enjoy the music, Friesen suggests.
7. Schedule breaks at work
“We have to respect the oscillation of the stress and recovery cycle,” says Friesen. The best way for your mind to be ready for—and bounce back from—stressful meetings and long days is to take intermittent breaks at work, he adds. Set an alarm to remind you once an hour.
Physical breaks are ideal—take a walk outside, swing by your work wife’s desk for a quick chat—but shutting your office door and sitting in silence for five minutes works too.