Lessons in mental fortitude

November 19, 2016

Before we started our “common prayer in silence” time (join us online or by phone if you want, currently at 4 pm Eastern US/8 am AUS) this past week, Phillipa Gregory, just returned from Marrakech said she felt it was particularly important to come together in hope, prayer, and to sustain each other, as the world may be going through a difficult time.  Later, I saw a piece on mental fortitude, which I forwarded to my son.  It may relate to Phillipa’s point and the big jobs/challenges before us as people of faith standing up for all life and changing our systems to protect life and care for our common home…

Cross-posted 6 Secrets of Mental Toughness from Navy SEALs

Winston Churchill famously advised, “If you are going through hell, keep going.”  

Technique #1: Eat the Elephant

How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.

You’ll see many ultra-marathoners and triathletes doing this. They focus on the next immediate objective — the next point in the horizon .

Break down any daunting ask into immediate, bite-sized objectives. Ideally, they should fit into a 24-hour window. Focus only on completing one at a time.

Technique #2: Visualize Success

This one startled me.

In a certain study, basketball players improved their free throw accuracy by 23% from just visualizing the free throws. Players who practiced actual free throws only improved by 24%. That’s a mere 1% difference. Wow.

Good visualizations have the following qualities:

  • Vivid and detailed.Engage all the senses. Imagine the particulars. Make it as real as possible.
  • Run the play-by-play over and over in your head. Make it automatic.
  • Positive Imagery.Do not envision yourself failing. Instead, repeatedly envision yourself in a state of effortless success.
  • Imagine Consequences.If your fortitude wanes, imagines the consequences of failure. See the faces of your friends and family when they hear the news. Envision the pain of personal embarrassment.

Application: The next time you have a big, stressful event coming up, use visualizations to imagine yourself succeeding.

Technique #3: Emotional Control

In times of great stress, a rush of our body’s main stress hormones — adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine — can give us a boost of energy and focus.

However, when these hormones stay elevated for long periods, we cannot switch to relaxation mode. We have trouble sleeping, motivation tumbles and immune function takes a serious hit.

The SEALs simple solution is something called the 4 by 4 for 4:

  1. Breathe in for 4 seconds
  2. Breathe out for 4 seconds
  3. Repeat for 4 minutes

Look familiar? This is the same kind of thing yogis have been doing for thousands of years. Our brain affects our body, and the reverse is true as well.

Use simple breathing exercises to switch off your stress hormones and prep the body for relaxation.

Technique #4: Nonreactivity

“Men are disturbed not by things, but the view they take of them.”Epictetus

We have more control than we think.

We can’t control what happens in our outside world, but we can control our interpretation of it.  In his book, Breaking BUD/S: How Regular Guys Can Become Navy SEALs, D.H. Xavier recalls his own “Hell Week” experience — “They were kicking me while I was way, way down. My belief could have been that they truly didn’t want me there; the consequence of that belief would have been me quitting. Instead, my belief was that I didn’t care what they said. I believed I was capable of succeeding…” Xavier implements something called reframing. He takes one possible belief or worldview, discards it, and selects another one. What could have been interpreted as a negative event suddenly becomes a positive one.

echnique #5: Small Victories

What to do when morale is low? You lost your wallet, it’s raining, AND your wife just left you in the same day. What to do when nothing is going right and everything is going wrong?

Try to think smaller.  Every day, I write three things in my journal that I am grateful for.  Today I wrote:

  1. The cool, refreshing air following a long rain.
  2. The smoky satisfaction of iced coffee.
  3. A smile with the barista at my local cafe.

Small victories keep morale high. And high morale feeds forward into more high morale. It creates a virtuous circle of positivity for doing good work.

Give it a shot if you haven’t tried this. It matters a lot more than you might think.

Technique #6: Find Your Tribe (and Necessity)

In his book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger writes:

Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.”

Junger is onto something here. We’ve all seen the tales of immense human performance in times of great need. It’s the classic “mind over body” of a mother lifting up a car to rescue her child.

We humans are social creatures. And we crave meaning in a world that sometimes seems all too meaningless.

Find both — close friends and close principles — and you have a hotbed for mental resilience.

Application: Spend some time thinking about what brings meaning to your life. That’s the first step to finding your tribe — your group of people that share similar vision and values.

That’s it. Six simple techniques. You’ve got the tools. All that’s left is to apply.