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Mental Strength Series | Chapter 1

In the quest for emotional resilience, the concept of mental strength emerges as a pivotal determinant. Instead of succumbing to the torrents of self-criticism and shame, mental fortitude empowers all of us to recalibrate our focus towards things that are less detrimental.


Here in Eureka Springs, I have encountered a number of people and situations that have given me pause. These people and situations have inspired me to tap into this blog-post and dive into the depths of this as it relates to human connection and our ability to cultivate community.


In this day and age, the subject of mental health has surfaced a lot, and this is long-overdue. In coming to a more solid understanding of this, let's first note that mental strength and mental health are closely related but refer to different aspects of psychological well-being with mental strength being the ability to control your mind instead of being controlled by it.

For example:

  • Partner: Instead of hastily retaliating to your partner's sarcastic remark with one of your own, you can demonstrate restraint and either choose silence or calmly communicate that you find sarcasm unappreciated.

  • Working Mom: Instead of becoming trapped in cycles of self-criticism and shame, mental resilience empowers you to shift your focus elsewhere, such as engaging in a meaningful conversation with your child or working on that pending report.

  • *Powerlifter: Instead of thinking, "wow, this is a lot of weight, I'm not sure I can lift this" you visualize yourself already successfully lifting it and being congratulated by your personal trainer, before you've even attempted or tried.


Sometimes, certain aspects of our minds are beyond our direct control—like when a particular memory unexpectedly surfaces or when we feel fear in a potentially dangerous situation, such as almost being hit by a car.


Bottom line, achieving mental strength doesn't imply having absolute dominion over every thought or feeling. Instead, it involves recognizing which parts of our minds we can influence and effectively managing them when it counts.

For example:

  • While you might not have control over the sudden appearance of a worrisome thought, you do have the power to decide whether you continue dwelling on it.

  • When faced with someone's insensitive remarks, remember that you can't dictate what others say to you. However, you do have control over how you choose to respond to them.


If you want to be emotionally resilient, you must train yourself to be mentally strong. And like any kind of training, building mental strength requires a commitment to good habits and practices over time.


Consider these three straightforward habits often found in mentally resilient people:


1. Be honest about how you feel emotionally

Imagine there's a little habit, so simple that it's easy to overlook. You might think, "I'm pretty honest about my feelings." But let's dig deeper. Are you truly honest about all your emotions, especially the tough ones?


For instance, let's say you had a big argument with your spouse last night. Now, you're at work, and a coworker asks how you're doing. Without much thought, you reply, "I'm good. How about you?" This might seem harmless, but it's actually being emotionally dishonest.


Now, you might argue, "I know I'm not feeling great because of the argument, but it's not appropriate to share personal stuff at work." Fair point. But here's the question: Do you really understand your emotions? You might say you feel upset, but what specific emotions are you experiencing?


  • For example, are you feeling angry? If so, what type of anger — frustrated, mad, irritated?

  • Or maybe you’re feeling hurt… But what type of hurt? Do you feel sad or disappointed? Regretful or ashamed?

  • Or maybe — and much more likely — you’re feeling some combination of emotions… Mostly disappointed, but also a bit mad and anxious as well.


Unless you managed to fit in a therapy session before work or spent some quality time journaling before bed, I doubt you truly grasp the nuances of your emotions.

Just because it's not suitable to delve into your marital issues at work doesn't mean you can't express how you're feeling at all.

For example, in response to your coworker’s question, you could have said:

  • I’m doing okay but I had kind of a stressful day yesterday.

  • Not too bad but Dave and I had a tough conversation last night and I’m still trying to make sense of it all.

Here’s why this matters…


  • Even if you understand on an intellectual level that you're not feeling alright, by avoiding those emotions, you're essentially training your brain to perceive them as negative or threatening. (After all, when we avoid something, our brain naturally assumes it could be harmful.)

  • Moreover, if you consistently shy away from discussing your emotions, you're reinforcing to your brain that unpleasant feelings are something to steer clear of and dread.


When you condition your brain to dread your own emotions, it sets the stage for emotional vulnerability and suffering. Fortunately, you can counteract this by teaching your brain a different lesson — that even though they may be uncomfortable, emotions that challenge you aren't harmful. This doesn't require pouring out your heart to everyone you meet; simply taking a moment to honestly acknowledge your feelings instead of avoiding them can significantly strengthen your mental fortitude and emotional resilience in the long run.

2. Resist unnecessary mental time travel  

Most emotional distress arises from excessive mental time-traveling. But what does that mean? It's our remarkable capacity as humans to project into the future with our imagination or revisit past events through memory. Whether it's planning for the future or remembering what's on our grocery list, our ability to mentally journey through time is crucial. However, like any skill, mental time-traveling can be employed wisely or unwisely.


Think about it…

  • Auto jumper cables are a really good tool for getting a car started when the battery needs a boost, but you probably wouldn’t want to use those cables to start your barbeque grill.

  • Hedge clippers are really good for trimming the hedges along your fence, but you probably would want to use those clippers to split firewood.


Success hinges on selecting the appropriate tool for the task.


Regrettably, it's common to fall into the trap of using a tool that works well in many situations for every situation. For instance, while you might excel at crafting financial models and recipe catalogs in Excel, attempting to write your novel in the same software will likely lead to unnecessary stress and frustration.


Likewise, while your knack for anticipating future problems serves you well in your role as a risk auditor, lying awake at 2:00 am pondering all the potential pitfalls of a restless night's sleep isn't the most effective strategy for reducing anxiety and promoting sleep.

So, despite all your success using mental time travel well in certain aspects of your life, you can’t presume that it will help you in all areas of your life. A few examples:


  • Anxiety Most anxiety stems from unproductive thoughts about the future. While contemplating negative scenarios can be beneficial in certain situations, it can also be counterproductive in others. Therefore, effectively reducing anxiety entails being discerning about when to employ the tool of envisioning future problems.

  • Shame Numerous cases of depression and diminished self-esteem stem from entrenched mental patterns of self-criticism and self-judgment. While reflecting on past errors can sometimes offer valuable insights, albeit with some discomfort, this same tendency can spiral into harmful territory if left unchecked.

  • Aggression and resentment In the same way that introspection can morph into harmful self-criticism, fixating on others' mistakes and shortcomings can swiftly escalate into heightened anger, resentment, aggression, and discord.


As an antidote to destructive mental time travel, cultivate the ability to hold your attention in the present moment:


  • When you’re stopped at a stoplight for 30 seconds, just keep your attention on the song on the radio instead of replaying that argument with your partner last night.

  • When you’re going for a run, practice keeping your attention on what it’s like to run and be outdoors instead of worrying about how badly your work presentation might go tomorrow.


Remember: The ability to mentally time travel is a tool. Don't use it mindlessly, use it mindfully (as in the *Powerlifter example above.)


3. Distinguish between wants versus values

A big part of mental strength is the ability to resist those unhelpful impulses:

  • You’ve committed to working out five days a week, but this evening, you’re feeling lazy and want to just chill on the couch and watch TV.

  • A coworker says something rude to you and you feel the impulse to say something snarky and mean right back at them.

  • There's been an uncomfortable conversation looming that you need to have with your spouse, but you’re afraid of how they’ll take it and so it feels easier just putting it off. But are you really making things easier in the long run?

Frequently, our well-meaning intentions are derailed by impulsive reactions, cravings, and fears instigated by our minds. However, it's challenging to merely suppress an unproductive impulse. For instance, if you're tempted to indulge in a second helping of dessert, continually telling yourself "Don't eat the dessert" might not be particularly effective — primarily because your attention remains fixated on the craving and the dessert itself.


The better way to resist unhealthy impulses and cravings is to shift your focus onto your values. 


Unhealthy impulses have some kind of motivational pull. Whether it’s the craving for cake or the ego boost that may follow after criticizing someone, there’s always some reason why we’re pulled in unhealthy directions. But you can outcompete the motivational pull of momentary impulses by identifying and clarifying your values — what you want, your ideals.


Ultimately, enduring values and principles hold far greater sway than fleeting whims or impulses. However, the challenge lies in seldom reminding ourselves of our values and failing to articulate them in a way that resonates deeply. Much of our mental resilience stems from cultivating the habit of discerning momentary desires from authentic values.


With consistent practice, you'll discover it becomes simpler to resist undesired temptations and pursue actions aligned with your true aspirations.

Summary


Mental strength is the ability to control your mind instead of being controlled by it. And it’s a skill anyone can improve with practice.


Use these three small habits and over time, you WILL build mental strength:

  1. Be honest about how you feel emotionally

  2. Resist unnecessary mental time travel

  3. Distinguish wants vs values

❤️

 

"The Mental Strength Series" is a blog-series that features viewpoints from the personal opinion of John-Michael Scurio, local resident and blogger here in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and creator/owner of this blog - www.iloveureka.com. In this LIVING WELL blog-series we uncover the depths of mental strength and how we all have the ability to see gains in our own mental strength with practice. Mental strength is the ability to control your mind instead of being controlled by it. Please enjoy!

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