Building Mental Resilience

A three-pronged daily approach to building mental resilience

Mindset is an integral part of healthy living. So much of positive behavior change involves accepting that change needs to happen and then deciding to make it happen, one step at a time. Taking that concept a little further, let’s consider what happens to a healthy mindset when faced with challenges. Life can sometimes throw us curve balls, and it’s how we respond and are able to persevere that makes up the fabric of our mental resilience.

Even tragedy, adversity, and loss are not show-stoppers for the mind that is resilient. Build mental resiliency with a proactive, three-pronged approach that addresses the physical and psychological needs of the human brain.

Nutrition and hydration help support the brain’s physical structure and reduce stress through hormone regulation. A candy bar might not be the best fuel option when you’re “hangry,” but a handful of walnuts, lean protein or other mood-boosting food could do the trick to pull you out of an afternoon slump.

Water is also essential for optimal brain function. The human body requires 0.5-1 ounce of water per pound of body weight daily to avoid dehydration. Even mild dehydration can affect our ability to understand and problem-solve and can lead to irritability.

Stress inoculation involves exposing yourself to mild stressors to help the body deal more positively with stress hormones while in a controlled setting. Physical exercise can trigger the sympathetic nervous system to release low levels of the stress hormone cortisol while also boosting mood with the release of feel-good endorphins.

Another tactic for building mental resiliency is engaging in public speaking. Recent statistics show that more than 73% of us profess a fear of speaking in front of others, a condition known as glossophobia. It’s more prevalent in our species than the other top fears: death, heights, and spiders. Researchers attribute this inordinate fear of public speaking to a fear of societal rejection, which would be a death knell for the survival of primitive man. The anxiety we experience when speaking in front of others initiates the body’s fight-or-flight response: sweaty palms, increased heart rate, dry mouth and a loss of the advanced brain function we need in order to remember talking points. Practicing the retention of higher brain function while in a stressed state helps us overcome the physical fear response, inoculating the body and brain and providing a sense of accomplishment when we succeed and learn this new skill.

Even in the face of what feels like paralyzing anxiety, people who engage in public speaking and other skills that require higher brain function report almost universally that visualization is the key to mental resiliency. While we fear the unknown, if we visualize ourselves overcoming fear and anxiety and meeting a goal, then we take away the element of unknown outcomes. We know we can prevail because we’ve seen the proof in our own visualizations.

Using visualization can help you build resiliency by essentially “flipping the switch” to turn off anxiety and fear of the unknown. Then use a similar technique to envision your own success in whatever situation might produce stress. Whether it’s public speaking, social situations, work projects or other scenarios that might require that you overcome physical and mental stress, use visualization to shut down the uncontrolled response and set yourself up for success.

Learning how to mentally bounce back from things that we can’t control and succeed in situations that cause anxiety is the process of building mental resilience. Stress isn’t always negative. In fact, we can harness the body’s physical flight-or-fight response to improve our own mental acuity and physical performance if we don’t allow fear to freeze us into inaction. Acting with the intention to build our own mental resiliency is the best way to ensure that everyday stressors and life’s big hurdles won’t get the best of us. The task ahead might not be easy, but whatever it is, we’ll face it knowing that we can overcome and emerge stronger than ever.

In partnership with EXOS, a world leader in human performance and the management company for CU Anschutz Health and Wellness Center.