Navigating life’s true challenges doesn’t require being “tough.” It requires awareness, finesse, and knowing your own mind. We got experts to answer the questions we hear most about building mental strength. Use their strategies to level up your grit game. Not a single answer tells you to “man up.”
1) Can you get physically stronger without leaving your mental comfort zone?
“The body can only adapt if it faces something new, and new challenges won’t always be comfortable,” says MH fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. So basically, no. Your mind will adapt to the discomfort, too, and you’ll boost both your mental and physical strength. The secret: Start small. “Every week, add one to whatever goal you’re chasing,” says Samuel, “whether that means doing one more pushup rep every set, adding one more minute to your morning run, or holding a plank for one more second.”
2) I hate failing. Is there any way to stop obsessing about what went wrong?
Start thinking like Michael Jordan. He’s considered himself a failure: By his count, he’s missed more than 9,000 shots. “Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game- winning shot and missed,” he’s said. “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.” How did he move on? He moved forward. “Making a mistake is just a source of feedback informing you that you are off course,” says Lisa Stephen, Ph.D., a career, personal, and sports performance coach and the owner of Ignite Peak Performance in Vermont. “Use that data to focus on what to do next. Then forget the mistake. You can visualize yourself flushing it down the toilet or releasing it in a balloon. The point is to leave the mistake behind and build on what you’ve learned. You cannot perform at your best by focusing on your worst.”
3) Can I let go of negativity without writing a damn gratitude list?
Yes, by doing something for someone else. “An active approach to purging jealousy and negativity is to practice acts of kindness,” says psychiatrist Tracey Marks, M.D., of Marks Psychiatry in Georgia. Start by giving compliments and positive feedback to others. If you’re feeling especially generous, pay it forward at a coffee shop or drive-through. There’s some evidence that acts of generosity are linked to activity in brain regions responsible for happiness.
Still, if giving makes you frustrated (like, what about my needs?), try gratitude without the list, Dr. Marks says. Just spend a moment every morning thinking about what you’re grateful for.
4) My workload is ridiculous. How do I avoid burnout without dropping down the office pecking order?
Learning to deploy the word ‘no’ comes naturally to some of us but slowly to others. Many people don’t use it because they fear that they’ll lose opportunities or be seen as unwilling by employers or clients. In reality, the opposite can be true. “My experience has been that when I say no, my value increases,” says Elizabeth Day, creator of the How to Fail podcast and author of Failosophy. “When you respect yourself, others respect you more, too.” At any rate, “I can’t handle any other project” is an easier conversation to have than “I can’t handle this job anymore.”
5) I’m a hopeless procrastinator. How do I work up more get-up-and-go?
Let go of the concept of creative inspiration or having to be “in the zone” to do what needs to be done. There will never be a right time to get the work done, and if you’re waiting for the mood to strike, you’ll be waiting a long while. James Clear, author of the best seller Atomic Habits, advocates committing to a schedule rather than to a deadline. If life gets in the way of what you need to do, cut down the size of the task—spend ten minutes on it instead of the 30 you’d intended—but always stick to the schedule. Just don’t give yourself the option to skip it.
6. I’m struggling with the loss of a loved one, but I need to be strong for my family. What can I do?
Being “strong” doesn’t mean holding back emotions and tears. “The way to show strength is not to be afraid to reveal your hurt,” says Dr. Marks. “When everyone is hurting, the people who depend on you will look to you as a model for how to handle themselves.” If you’re holding everything back, you may be telegraphing that grief is shameful. To be strong, show how you feel.
7. Reading the news often upsets and angers me. How do I reset?
That’s understandable; the news causes stress because of the sense of hopelessness and feelings of injustice it can evoke. To process difficult news, try creating boundaries around how you’re getting it and find people to have meaningful conversations about it with, recommends psychiatrist and MH mental-health advisor Gregory Scott Brown, M.D. Since distressing news can put your natural fight-or-flight response into overdrive, do something to cool it off, like meditation or at least watching an enjoyable non-news, nondramatic show.
Another solution: Trade passive news consumption for active discussion. Taking the Black Lives Matter movement as an example, Eugene Ellis, the founder and director of the Black, African, and Asian Therapy Network, points to the mental-health benefits of talking with others. This can also help you know what actions to take. “It’s an antidote to the feelings of powerlessness that many of us experience. When you start to engage, you discover that below the hopelessness is connection. And when you find connection, it’s easier to know what to do.”
8. I’m doing an ultramarathon. Is it true it’s mind over muscle?
“Ultras are probably 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical,” says Michael Wardian, a professional endurance runner who’s one of only three people to complete the Leadville 100-mile/Pikes Peak marathon combo (and who also won the 2020 Backyard Ultra, an intense race mentally and physically). To get through an ultra or any endurance feat, “you need to have a big why. Not just running for social media but for your kids or to prove something to yourself,” he says. Also helpful: Rely on “chunking”—setting small goals like reaching the next mailbox or aid station. You don’t always have to be running to build your mental strength. “Get used to doing stuff that makes you uncomfortable,” he says. Set your alarm for 4:00 a.m.—or just do the dang dishes
9. I don’t have the patience for meditation. Can I lower my stress another way?
“Yoga is an excellent way to de-stress, and it’s good for the person who can’t sit long enough to meditate,” says Dr. Marks. It also brings you stress-reduction benefits from two directions: As with meditation, you focus on breathing, which can help relax the body. “And by stretching tight muscles, you relieve tension,” she explains. You don’t have to be flexible to do yoga, and these days there are tons of virtual options for practicing it. Two of our favorites are Alo Moves and Apple Fitness+. Both offer a wide range of classes, from hour-long stress busters to ten-minute yoga snacks. (A side note: Meditation really is worth persevering with, so keep at it. Try an app like Calm, Headspace, or Ten Percent Happier to make it less boring.)
10) What should I say to someone who tells me to “man up”?
Here, read this article.
This story originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Men’s Health.
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