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Mental toughness and resilience

We tend to think of toughness in the physical sense — our ability to complete a hike in cold weather or work long hours without breaks. But toughness can apply to what the mind is capable of, too. With a strong, resilient mind, we can better manage our thoughts, emotions, and energy when we’re faced with stress or challenging situations. And ultimately, we gain the ability to remain cool, calm, and collected no matter what we’re up against. Why would anyone not want this kind of mental strength?

While resilience doesn’t happen overnight, mindfulness— specifically meditation — can help us cultivate mental toughness. But like any habit, it takes time and practice. As Headspace co-founder and former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe notes: “As they say, ‘If it was easy, they’d all be doing it.’ Nothing could be truer than that when it comes to meditation: it requires patience to sit with the mind on a regular basis and be present with whatever arises.”

With practice, we learn to sit through any discomfort that difficult thoughts and feelings can create … and let them go. It’s from this space we created to be kind to ourselves that we can build mental toughness and resilience.

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Key takeaways:

  • Mental toughness is our ability to respond better when faced with challenging events

  • Meditation improves our response to stress and increases resilience

  • Try 6 meditations for mental toughness and resilience

What is resilience?

Resilience is our ability to adapt well when faced with significant stressors or difficult events, including health, relationship, or workplace problems. When we’re resilient, we can “bounce back” from challenging events more quickly. Instead of letting them dictate how we feel, we’re able to keep our cool. Feeling confident about what needs to happen next.

Meditation can increase resiliency, making it easier to recover more quickly when anger or strong emotions arise. Even if we wish it could, mindfulness won’t stop our worries and troubles from sneaking up on us — life is full of ups and downs. But it can change our relationship with them.

Meditation helps to strengthen the mind the same way exercise strengthens the body. As Andy says: “We are taking time out to train the mind; we are fundamentally shifting the way we relate to our thoughts and feelings. At first, that can sound a little overwhelming. But the benefits are experienced by repeating this exercise a little or often, slowly but surely, and building a stable sense of awareness that starts to filter through to the rest of our life. The more frequently we practice being aware, the more beneficial meditation becomes.”

Similarly, micromanaging bosses and aggressive drivers in our life don’t go away, but a consistent meditation practice helps us to more effectively relieve stress that these encounters can cause.

What about vulnerability?

Vulnerability might be an experience some of us shy away from. We might associate vulnerability with weakness and suppress how we feel to appear tough. But vulnerability is actually a huge part of mental toughness and resilience.

Let’s go back to physical toughness for a second. What if we thought about physical stress, pain, or discomfort as our body’s vulnerability? Being aware that our legs are on fire as we approach that last mile doesn’t make us weak. Instead, we can check in with ourselves to consider if we should lean into it — to use the sensation as fuel and take the next step. Or we can decide that today’s not the day we finish. Because pushing through no matter what isn’t always mental toughness. Letting it go can be demonstrating toughness, too.

Vulnerability can be harder when we can’t let go of something that’s weighing on us right away. But we can use mindfulness to help us get there. Rather than hiding hurt feelings after our boss called us out and carrying on with the day, we can get curious about why we felt hurt. Being aware of how this made us feel is the first step to letting go. When we can say, “Wow, that really hurt my feelings” or “I’m angry because this now makes my job harder,” we’re one step closer to saying “I’m not going to let this ruin my day.”

There are some experiences or challenges that can make vulnerability harder. When we can’t let go of something that’s really weighing on us right away, we can still use mindfulness as part of being kind to our minds. Sometimes, resilience just takes time. Mental training is an exercise. It’s the run, not the finish line.

How mindfulness can help build mental toughness

Science backs up the benefits of meditation when it comes to mental toughness. One study showed that 30 days of meditating with Headspace resulted in an 11% increase in mental resilience. Another study showed that after 30 days of using Headspace, stress was reduced by a third. And in one small study with participants in perhaps the most taxing of jobs — US Marines — researchers found that those who engaged in “mindfulness-based mind fitness training” displayed significant recovery from stress after completing the course, which was specifically designed to help them increase their resilience and prepare them for stressful situations known to cause PTSD and anxiety.

We don’t need to be a Marine to experience the benefits of a resilient mind. We can all learn to adapt to and recover from life’s challenges. The more we meditate, the better our response, and the stronger our mind. Our mental health benefits as a whole, too. Research shows that interventions like meditation don’t just improve our response to stress, but they can actually “reverse” the DNA that’s linked to depression on a molecular level — a pretty incredible feat.

Try 6 meditations for mental toughness and resilience

Looking for more meditations for strengthening the mind? The Headspace app offers members several courses and single meditations on mental toughness and resilience, including:

  • Letting Go of Stress course. Enjoy a healthier mind by developing your awareness of stress and learning how to reframe negative emotions.

  • Managing Stress in Uncertain Times meditation. Bring a moment of calm and clarity to your day with a body scan meditation for stress relief.

  • Stressed meditation. This exercise teaches you how to notice what you’re holding onto and how to drop the preoccupying storyline, allowing you to reframe stressful situations.

  • Managing Anxious Moments meditation. Learn to be present with the feeling of stress and tension being released.

  • Anger advice. Learn how to approach anger in a constructive way.

  • Losing Your Temper meditation. Take a deep breath and let go of whatever is causing you to feel angry or frustrated.

An important shift to mental toughness is when we move from reaction to response. Instead of instantly reacting to stressors — letting that boss ruin our day or shouting right back at the driver who just cut us off — meditation helps us find the space to choose how we respond, ideally in a way that feels better to us. When we’re able to recognize that we have that choice, and when we can rely on a strong, resilient mind, we’re equipped to approach life in a happier, healthier way.

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