How to become mentally strong
And stay that way even when your strength is being tested.
I have actively tried to build up my mental strength for about a year and a half now. In my mind, I have come a long way in that time. But what if I only feel mentally strong in my perfect bubble of exact routines and daily practices?
It’s like telling yourself you would be a perfect partner while you are still single. You may believe that you have grown and learned so much since your last relationship, but without actually getting into a new one there is no way to tell. If you slip back into old habits the moment you go on a date, your theories and insights didn’t really mean that much.
It’s the same for any mental or behavioral change you want to achieve. It’s easy to start a daily meditation practice when you are sitting at home alone in your pajamas on a comfortable cushion with a mug of hot herbal tea in your hands listening to the birds chirping outside. When on an eleven-hour flight in the wrong time zone and with a baby screaming next to you, it’s an entirely different ball game.
I am super sensitive when it comes to sleep and food and these are often the first two things that go out the window when I am travelling. Even with extra mental strength, I am useless when jetlagged and hungry.
I recently went on a week-long business trip abroad and this was a real chance to test if my mental strength could withstand the challenges and breaks from my normal routines. I didn’t expect miracles, but I wanted to see if anything had changed and improved lately in my own reactions, emotions and behavior when I put myself through this kind of test.
The first thing I noticed was that I managed to stay in a good mood much longer even when I was tired, my patience was tested and the environment was uncomfortable and noisy. I also noticed that even if I did feel annoyed or impatient, I managed to quickly step back and change my perspective of the situation. I felt happier and more relaxed than I have done on previous work trips.
I started to think about what it was that was different and I realized that the main factor was that I had learned to look at myself from the outside. I can now observe myself and see when the storm is about to hit me, instead of just being completely swept away by it. And this makes all the difference.
I still have a long way to go. Being mentally strong is definitely not an end point, but rather a daily practice. And my practice has only just started. I am still figuring it out. But I will share some of the things that have gotten me this far:
Meditation — So far I only do five minutes a day. I figured it was better to do that, rather than to try to commit to twenty minutes and only get it done every now and then. Five minutes at least gives me a chance to take a few deep breaths, focus and clear my mind. It has helped me to calm down and to quiet the internal chatter. It has helped me to not panic during stressful moments during my day. I am planning on adding on a few more minutes to this daily routine soon.
Intention — Setting a clear intention with the things I do has been extremely helpful. I have a vision board on my phone, as well as a short text describing the life I want to have two years from now. I look at the board and read the text every morning and every evening. This helps me to stay clear about the direction I am heading. It helps me to focus on what I want to get done and more importantly WHY I want to get it done. And it’s not just about things I want to achieve, but also who I want to be.
Relaxation — I allow myself more time to just enjoy the moment, to take deep breaths, go on walks in nature, read a book, have a cup of coffee or watch a good movie. And I do it with the same intention as the work I need to get done. I don’t watch TV mindlessly at all any more. I make time to relax very deliberately and decide when I am taking time off to just rest. This allows my body to relax and my mind to take a break. And as we all know, the best ideas come to us when we are relaxing and doing something completely different than working.
Inspiration — I actively look for inspiration everywhere. I read more, watch educational videos and listen to podcasts with inspiring people every day. I try to find positive messages from several different sources every day. I also actively try to think differently about things around me and to come up with new ideas just to train my brain. Whenever I start feeling bored, restless or notice that negative thoughts are taking over my brain space, I call a friend or tune in to a podcast that will take me to get my thoughts back on a more helpful track.
Focus — When I work on my creative projects, I try to be engaged in that one task. Of course, I am not always able to stay completely focused, but I do believe that most of us have at least one thing we like to do and that we can concentrate on for hours at a time. For me, it’s working with art projects. Once I immerse myself into that, I am lost for most of the day. Although I am highly concentrated, it is still relaxing for the brain, as I block everything else out and avoid that monkey brain chatter and negative thoughts that otherwise may be jumping around in my head.
Routines and practices — I have set up at least ten new small daily routines, which help me to be efficient and focused on what I want to accomplish. The routines save time and also increase my overall happiness. They give my days some structure. Even on days when I don’t get anything else done, I still feel better about myself, because at least I have stuck to my routines and practices. They include a short exercise (7 minutes, done on the floor at home), meditation (5 minutes), writing a gratitude list, keeping track of my progress with regards to specific goals, checking my vision board and daily walking or cycling. Even when travelling, feeling sick, being stressed out at work or when other things happen that throw me off my regular schedule, I try to do at least the bare minimum of the daily practices and to use the inner strength that I have built up to stay balanced through that time.
Perspective — Writing down things I have accomplished, what I was grateful for during the day and also focusing on my vision helps me to keep things in perspective. These routines force me to step out of myself and observe what I have done and how I felt during the day. This helps me to be able to shift my perspective when I need it the most. When I am stressed out and waiting in line at the airport check-in, I now use that time to do other things (read, listen to a podcast or write down ideas). In the end, waiting a few extra minutes won’t change the direction of my life. Keeping things in perspective also helps me with my control issues. I can be a total control freak sometimes, but realizing that it’s not the end of the world that things don’t always go my way, helps me to relax and let go.
Forgiveness — If I screw up, stress out, feel angry, feel uninspired, bored, lazy or just off balance, I forgive myself and move on. All is not lost just because I had a bad day. I have gotten better at picking myself up, dusting myself off and focusing on the next step.
Brain and body treats — All of the above wouldn’t help much if I didn’t also take care of myself in other ways. To build up strength, I make sure to move my body when I can, to eat well and to surround myself as much as I can with positive messages and people. I treat myself to beautiful environments, good meals and time for reflection. I try to actively think about taking the time to enjoy small moments. After all, it’s in a beautiful sunset, a great cup of coffee, a meal with a friend and in a good book, that our happiness is waiting for us. And feeling happier sure is a great incentive to keep building that brain muscle.
Many of these activities blend into each other and the combination of them has helped me to build up an overall strength and has had many positive side effects. I worry less, I don’t dwell as much on the past, anger about failures or negative comments don’t stick with me for as long as they used to and so on.
I just got home now. I am jetlagged and sick. My body hurts. I have a ton of things to get done. It’s grey and rainy outside. I am certainly not my best self and the circumstances are not ideal.
But guess what? I am still strong, there are still positive choices to be made and I still feel pretty great.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —