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This is how to become mentally tough in a crisis

2020 is a year that has shaken most of us to our core. It’s also a year of opportunity -- an opportunity to develop mental toughnes.

8 min read


This is how to become mentally tough in a crisis


How the mighty have fallen. Where once our lofty thoughts turned to ways we could save the world, now we’re in a scramble to save ourselves from a deadly virus.

We used to live at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where we could sit and contemplate the meaning of life; now we’re on the streets with a roll of toilet paper in one hand and a face mask in another to protect us from the great unclean.

Gone are the days when mental toughness was something only athletes needed to earn millions of dollars a year. Now we all find ourselves in need of ways to become mentally tough in a crisis that affects each one of us.

2020 is a year that has shaken most of us to our core. It’s also a time when most of us have realized we need to develop the skills to cope with the challenges — and opportunities — that have become part of our new normal.

Mental toughness is believing that you will prevail in your circumstances rather than believing that your circumstances will change. You must manage your thoughts, emotions, and behavior in ways that will set you up for success.

Let’s look at ways we can become mentally tough in a crisis:

1. Shift your thinking

In the past, psychologists believed that it was the amount of stress that was bad for a person’s health. Recent studies show that the amount of stress is a poor predictor of whether it will leave you better, or worse, off.

Shawn Achor, author of “The Happiness Advantage,” reveals that people can be divided into two groups:

  1. Those who believe that stress is debilitating
  2. Those who believe that stress is enhancing.

Achor’s findings suggest that we need to shift our thinking about stress. Stress is killing us if we believe it is. Studies confirm that many people who die from stress do not die from the stress itself. They die from the belief that stress was bad for them. Those who do not believe it is harmful, experience no negative side effects on their health.

A study cited in a Harvard Business Review article also found that people who had stress-is-enhancing mindsets reported having better health. They also experience greater life satisfaction and superior work performance. Stress produces a hormone called cortisol — too much or too little cortisol released in response to a stressor can have negative physiological consequences.

How to make it work for you: This is a time of uncertainty for everyone and it’s tempting to give in to a pity party. Instead, try this:

  • Ask yourself how realistic are your worries? Are they a result of the panic and fear you see and hear in the news cycle? If so, this might be the time to forget about partisan politics and focus on how the situation specifically applies to you. Also, limit the time you spend on social media.
  • Set aside “worry time” every day. Jot down specific bad news or worries that pop up during the day and wait until that specific time to wallow in your misery.
  • Focus on what is going right in your life.

2. Push through limits

World-class experts fail a lot. They like to play at things that are too hard for them and accept challenges that are too big. But this is key: In the process, they’re always getting valuable feedback.

Mentally tough people know that to reach their potential, they need to get comfortable being uncomfortable. You cannot be mentally tough if you cry like a baby because it’s scary when left in the dark. Guess what? Life frequently throws a wad of darkness into our midst, even when we aren’t expecting it or don’t want it.

Mental toughness requires us to push through the limits we’ve imposed on ourselves or have been imposed upon us by family, teachers or society. We need to practice moving into our discomfort zone — frequently. Each time we fail, we need to stop and analyze what we learned from the experience. With these experiences comes the confidence that we won’t break like a china doll.

We cannot grow if we don’t move out of the center where it is safe and well-lit.

How to make it work for you: To find your center, you must move to the edge. When you break new frontiers, become comfortable with new challenges and embrace the hard things in life, you are building mental toughness.

3. Confront the beast

There are a few times when the avoidance theory has merit, but as a general rule, we will need to face the beast at some point. The reason is simple: if we don’t face our fears, they will control us.

Trauma and abuse often require enormous mental resilience, but this doesn’t mean we all need to take the Rambo approach and become warriors. Yale psychologist Andy Morgan believes that two factors influence how we develop the mental toughness to survive a crisis:

1. Training. Special Forces training creates the same fear they would experience in capture, interrogation and torture. The fear produced by these exercises causes the cortisol to spike about as much as in a patient undergoing heart surgery — about 20 times the normal rate.

Morgan’s research has shown that those who successfully finish the training had elevated levels of another hormone, called neuropeptide Y, which is believed to be a natural relaxant.

Morgan found that how we talk to ourselves about stress and threatening situations influences our neurobiological response to it. Once you express fear to yourself — “Oh my God, this is awful” — you release more cortisol. When you say “I know what to do here,” this turns into a positive response and produces more neuropeptide Y.

2. Childhood. Yale psychiatrists asked soldiers to fill out a questionnaire about childhood trauma. Among regular soldiers, people who reported trauma and abuse were more likely to be upset by survival tests during training.

The situation became reversed among Special Forces. Those who grew up with trauma and abuse were more resilient. Morgan speculates the story we tell ourselves about our stress, trauma and abuse predicts our future. If we see ourselves as the victim, we become more sensitive to future threats. If, however, we feel tougher because we survived it, we have the mental toughness to survive anything life can throw at us.

How to make it work for you: In his excellent article “The Age of Coddling Is Over,” David Brooks discusses how our efforts to eliminate stress or hardship a child might encounter have backfired. Our overprotection doesn’t shelter people from fear; it makes them unprepared to deal with the fear that inevitably comes.

Instead, train children to master hardship, endure suffering, and build something from the wreckage.

4. Pursue personal growth

If you are seriously interested in sharpening your mental toughness, you need to read. Books. Articles. Blogs. I have never met a mentally strong person who was not a voracious reader.

The reason?

The mentally tough are learners who understand that the world is not made of up of winners or losers; instead, the world comprises learners or non-learners. If you have mental toughness, you learn new skills and expand your horizons, study to become more intelligent, and make yourself more likable and attractive.

If we were born smart and talented, we seldom have to work hard at something because it all comes naturally to us. So when times get tough, we give up.

Mentally tough people are scrappy folks who know that just because they may have started out the smartest, it doesn’t mean they’ll will end up the smartest. They always look for ways to learn, improve themselves, and grow their mental strength.

How to make it work for you: People who are mentally tough will tell you that the will to succeed has to come from within. You must must pursue work that provides both value and meaning. Be on the continual lookout for opportunities to learn and grow in areas that are both engaging and meaningful.


Are you mentally tough? Take this free assessment.

LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the US government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Quy is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.

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