Much like our aerobic capacity or maximal strength, our mental strength is a capacity that we can develop and use to overcome distress, adversity and challenge.

Mental strength, resilience, grit, and fortitude, however, you define it, is basically our mental ability to overcome difficulty, but the real question is how do we really develop these characteristics or abilities? One easy way to think about it is in the same way you would think about developing an energy system or increasing muscle strength, through an individually appropriate exposure to challenge or stress that progressively increases in volume and intensity with adequate time to recover. 

So how does this work?

Think back to the first time you walked into a gym, learnt a new exercise or did anything new. You were likely pretty nervous, and the threat response part of your mind was focusing on not looking like a fool, making an error, embarrassing yourself or any number of other external or internal threats. One of the main factors here is that you’re not familiar with the environment, the indicators for performance or the ability to predict or forecast how it is going to go. After some time though, you become familiar with the environment, the movement, the opportunities and the threats and can accurately predict how things are going to go. As you, progress and familiarity grows your performance starts to improve and you increase both the intensity and volume of exposure to the environment or exercise building your tolerance to adversity within that environment.

Although there is an element of specificity or the benefits are somewhat context-dependent, there is some transfer across varying domains. This is where tactics like cold water exposure can have benefits. In much the same fashion, the first exposure is likely nerve-racking due to an element of unfamiliarity and not knowing what to expect. Very soon though you become familiar and much like your energy system or strength, you start to adapt and can increase the time or decrease the temperature. The benefit here is the ability to regulate the initial shock or stress response, which improves your ability to regulate your response in other situations in which there is an acute stress response.

The most important thing to understand is to not shield yourself or avoid confronting a challenge or distressing activity. Avoiding something is much like having a fear of water so you avoid learning to swim. Sooner or later though, you are going to find yourself in deep water and unable to cope. Where if you learnt to swim in a pool where you could stand, using some extra resources as needed, you would build confidence. Once you were familiar you would move into a deeper pool, then unsupervised on your own and eventually into open water. Which opens up a whole range of other activities that swimming can transfer to. 

It’s much better to learn to swim within your initial ability than to avoid it and find yourself in deep water at some point.

This article is presented by 98 Training.

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