5 tactics to get mentally tough and tackle the biggest challenges

By now, most everyone knows that regular physical activity, eating well, connecting with nature, and avoiding stressful people or situations provide a solid foundation for a long, health life. But what if those aren’t totally getting the job done? Some life situations may require a more down and dirty, guerrilla-style mental toughness to achieve balanced physical and mental health.

Maybe one or more of these five tactics provides the key to getting ahead of your challenges:

1) Set a very clear goal. Sometimes the only true obstacle to achieving health and happiness is knowing exactly what you want. For instance, instead of saying “I want to be happier”, try “I want be comfortable with my body size and shape” or “I want to be less stressed when I come home from work”. Being specific with a goal makes it easier to outline an action plan that contains relative small, achievable steps from your current state to where you want to be.

2) Stop avoiding pain and discomfort. Many people avoid setting goals and making life changes because it can be hard work, especially if it requires challenging our mental limits. Many of humanity’s greatest achievements result from breaking out of the comfort zone. One way to shrug off pain and discomfort involves tapping the power of the vagus nerve.

This nerve is a superhighway between your brain and major organs. It also houses the parasympathetic nervous system which has the power to slow heart rate and blood pressure. In times of stress and strain, by focusing on the goal at hand, visualizing calmness, and breathing deep, the vagus nerve is stimulated to pump out neurotransmitters which then travel the superhighway to the brain and effectively “talk it down” from backing away from the unpleasantness.

3) Embrace competition. No, not competition with others. Competition with yourself. Sometimes gamifying goals and action plans adds zing and motivates, especially if we break things into small, achievable chunks. For example, if your goal is to be more patient with others, start with a minor situation that repeats frequently in your life.

Maybe the daily trip to the neighborhood bagel shop drives you crazy because the clerk never gets your order right the first time. Gamify the interaction by trying a tactic to solve the problem and diffuse your annoyance. You could try making a personal connection with him/her so they are more likely to listen closely and care about your service. If that doesn’t work, try another tactic like speak one order instruction at a time, pausing between each. “I’d like a plain bagel. [pause] Sliced. [pause]. Toasted. [pause] With cream cheese.” And so on. Once you win that situation, target another.

4) Practice positive self-instruction. Our internal dialogue, whether positive or negative, can really influence our state of mind and actions. A number of studies examining self-talk and sports performance demonstrate actively engaging in positive commentary helps maintain our focus and drive. This holds true for non-sport goals and challenges.

This goes beyond saying things like “Good job!” and “Looking good, keep it up!” though. The best internal dialogue is instructional, something along the lines of: “Wow, taking the time to learn that clerk’s name and sincerely asking how he’s doing really made a difference in his actions toward me. Now, let’s brainstorm the best strategy to get the woman at the gym check-in desk to pronounce my name correctly.”

5) Visualize success. Like harnessing the power of the vagus nerve, visualization involves a bit of mind-body trickery. When establishing a goal, the simple act of taking time to close your eyes and envision the outcome, greatly increases the chances of success. When we experience success, our brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine. This biochemical outcome feels great, stimulates creativity, and powerfully motivates us to achieve more success. But the really cool thing is that even visualizing success release dopamine and by doing so, you kick start your action plan.

Visualization also helps us avoid choking in stressful situations. When you visualize how to navigate a particular situation or perform certain functions, when it comes time to physically do so, you are more likely to be focused and jump right in because you’ve already seen the path through and what success looks like.

These five tactics all involve rewiring the brain and body to think and perform differently, both separately and in unison. Different actions will yield different outcomes and with proper planning and practice, will make your goals a reality. Remember, large goals can require big changes and seem impossible, but creating an action plan with small steps whittles it down to achievable steps. Theodore Roosevelt had many profound quotes, including “Nothing in the world is worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…”

— Embrace hope.

Which of these tactics speaks loudest to you? What internal or external challenge are you facing?

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Rebounz: a start-up with a mission to instill hope in people experiencing mental health struggles around self-worth, grief or uncertainty. www.rebounz.com Want to receive updates? Join our mailing list.