A recent study published in the journal Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology examined the positive impact of psychological skills training (PST) on mental toughness.
Experts have described mental toughness as a critical factor in predicting success in high pressure environments. When faced with adversity, mental toughness can help you sustain high levels of performance, cope effectively and maintain control. But what happens if mental toughness isn’t your default psychological state? Is there a way to achieve your goals in the face of ongoing stress?
This led researchers to question whether mental toughness is something that can be trained. They hypothesized that certain psychological strategies aimed at building resilience are effective for helping people perform well under pressure.
Uncovering mental toughness in high pressure environments
Working daily under stressful conditions is not an easy task. You are expected to be fast, efficient, and to outshine your competition. It’s understandable how a person can go from excelling in their profession to feeling overworked, exhausted, and on the brink of burnout.
That said, there some people who are able to withstand the onslaught of mounting pressures. They recognize that, although there may be little they can do to change the (stressful) environment, they can change their response to it. This captures the dual nature of stress: the external pressures of the situation, plus the internal response from the person to react accordingly. People who are more mentally tough focus on the adaptability of their internal response and what they can change about it.
Research indicates that mental toughness is characterized by traits such as determination, focus, confidence, perseverance, positive attitude, emotional regulation, and desire for success. In many ways, it differentiates those who crack under pressure from those who thrive off it.
Try the following tactics to develop mental toughness so that you can have greater resilience in response to stress.
Control your state of arousal
According to the classic Yerkes-Dodson law, there’s an optimal level of emotional arousal that facilitates effective performance. With too little or too much arousal, our performance begins to suffer. Like Goldilocks, you want the level to be “just right.”
The first step is identifying which side of the curve you’re on. Are you experiencing too much anxiety, or not enough? The next step is to make adjustments. If your arousal level is too high and you need to turn it down, try tactic 1. If your arousal level is too low and you need to turn it up, try tactic 2. After you’ve been doing these tactics for a while, calibrate and check in to see that you’re still in that just-right sweet spot.
- Tactic 1 (turn it down): Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is a technique that allows you to cope with high levels of stress and anxiety. Studies show that regularly performing PMR can reduce test anxiety, regulate mood, treat insomnia, and combat cancer-related symptoms.
- Begin performing this technique by sitting or lying down. Then inhale while contracting a specific muscle (e.g. your calf) for 6 seconds. Then abruptly release the tension in that muscle.
- Take a 10 second break then move onto the next muscle.
- Direct your attention to the feeling that accompanies your muscles when they relax. Think of the stressors in your life disappearing as you release the tension in your body.
- Continue doing this for the next 10 to 20 minutes, working your way up from your toes to your nose.
- Tactic 2 (turn it up): Being physically active is one of the best ways to raise your arousal level. When you’re exercising, your muscles are working overtime. This means they’re producing more carbon dioxide and using up more oxygen than they normally would. To compensate for this oxygen shortage, your rate of breathing increases and your circulatory system kicks in. Together, this puts you in a heightened state of arousal. The following exercises can be done in your office easily without running off to the gym:
- Chair squat: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your toes pointed slightly outwards. Then bend your knees and squat as if you were sitting in a chair.
- Tricep Dips: While sitting, place your hands at the edge of your seat, shoulder-width apart. Then slide your body off the seat and lower yourself to the ground while keeping your hands in the same position. Then raise your body using your arms. You can either bend your knees or keep them straight. Repeat this for 5 minutes.
Do self-talk, but separate yourself from the negative
Thinking positively can be tough. After all, the mind is innately biased towards negativity. However, numerous studies have shown that positive self-talk can help optimize a person’s performance.
Try the following steps to reap the benefits of positive self talk:
- Imagine yourself in a situation where you’re in need of a pep talk
- Write down a few phrases you’d say to yourself
- For every first person pronoun you wrote down, replace it with a third person pronoun
- Turn these phrases into your new mantra and say them to yourself whenever you need encouragement
A study at the University of Michigan found that using first-person pronouns (e.g. I, we, us) could serve as a hindrance to a person’s goal-directed behavior. In a series of experiments, researchers found that individuals who refrain from using first-person pronouns in self-talk display less distress, engage in less maladaptive post-event processing, and view stress as a challenge instead of a threat.
Pro tip: Also try talking to yourself in the third person. Related research has shown that doing so facilitates emotional regulation and enhances self-control. It’s as simple as writing down your usual self-talk and replacing all the personal pronouns with your own name, as if someone else was speaking about you. It helps inject a bit of psychological distance into a situation, so that you’re able to relate to the stress in a way that feels less personal.
Engage in effective goal-setting and goal-striving
Being overly positive about attaining your goals may be your downfall to actually achieving them.
The key is, once you’ve set a particular goal, try not to fantasize about achieving it. A study at the University of Hamburg showed that when participants were blindly optimistic about reaching their goals, they were less likely to achieve them in reality.
Thinking positively tricks your mind into thinking you’ve already accomplished your goal. This produces a physiological response that allows you to relax and puts you into a state of complacency. That is to say, the pleasant feeling of goal optimism will fool you into thinking that you’re closer to the ideal outcome than is actually the case.
Here’s a few tips to check your optimism bias and keep you striving towards your goal:
- Be realistic about where you stand currently and where you want to be, and visualize that distance (between the actual vs. the ideal). Set your ideal to be really ambitious and far in the distance.
- Check your optimism bias by asking how likely you think you are to achieve that goal, and then cross-referencing it by asking others what they think the likelihood of you achieving the goal. Is there a discrepancy? If yes, that suggests you have some work to do.
The study: Psychological skills training for mental toughness
The team of researchers hypothesized that undergoing psychological skills training (PST) can enhance mental toughness, helping those in high pressure environments be more resilient.
To test their hypothesis, the researchers examined 254 male participants who were in the midst of para basic training with the British Armed Forces. Para training is widely regarded as the most physically and mentally demanding UK-based infantry regiment. Platoon sizes can decrease up to 60% which is often attributed to poor performance, injury, and voluntary discharge.
In the study, each participant was assigned to either the experimental group (who underwent PST for 3 weeks) or the control group (who weren’t exposed to any treatment). The PST targeted goal setting, arousal regulation, self-talk strategies, and imagery rehearsal.
In the first session, participants were taught how to use progressive muscle relaxation and simple breathing exercises to modify their arousal levels. During the second session, the use of effective goal setting strategies (identifying personal outcome, performance, and process goals) were taught. The third session consisted of participants being educated on techniques for controlling personal self-talk, including thought stopping, reframing, and countering. The fourth session involved imagery exercises that encouraged participants to incorporate their senses into their experiences.
Once the participants were taught these four basic psychological skills, their performance was examined during a task called the log race. This is a team event where eight members carry a 132-pound utility pole for 1.9 miles. Points are awarded for leadership, determination, and aggression.
Although this task may seem to rely solely on the recruits’ fitness level, their mental state is just as important. After a period of time, this task begins to take a heavy toll on the body and mind. Candidates are often faced with the dilemma to quit.
The prediction was that mental toughness via PST would allow the recruits to maintain their focus and performance by helping them cope with the continued physical and mental strain.
The results of this study supported the hypothesis. First, during the log race, the participants who had undergone PST were significantly more likely to engage in goal-setting, relaxation techniques, self-talk strategies and imagery.
And second, the participants in the experimental (PST) group scored much higher on an observer-rated measure of mental toughness. As a result, their performance was superior to the recruits in the control group.
Recap on the benefits of mental toughness
When you’re placed in a stressful environment, you can either allow yourself to succumb to the pressure or you can be resilient and bounce back from difficulty. As this study shows, resilience and mental toughness are necessary for lasting success. Whether you’re joining the military or doing your job day-to-day, mental toughness is required to help you achieve your goals in the face of failure and unending difficulty.