How to Train Your Brain and Build Mental Toughness

Just like an athlete trains for an endurance event, you can learn how to train your brain and build psychological endurance. An expert from Harbor Oaks Hospital shares how.

Think about the last time you faced extreme stress. (If you’re like most busy parents, it was probably just five minutes ago.) Were you able to take the stress in stride and move forward, or did it stop you in your tracks? There’s a way you can learn to better manage your response to stress, and it’s worth learning how to train your brain, says Christina Burnett, Director of Clinical Services at New Baltimore’s Harbor Oaks Hospital, the treatment center for individuals coping with addiction, psychiatric and behavioral disorders.

By building what mental health experts call psychological endurance, you are able to better cope with stress — from disappointment to catastrophe. It’s similar to a technique that endurance athletes use to help themselves overcome self-doubt and learn to perform better when times get tough.

“Psychological endurance is a borrowed term from sports psychology and it refers to a person’s ability to cope with or manage stress levels in the face of adversity or trauma,” Burnett says, adding that some people refer to psychological endurance as “mental toughness.”

When you learn how to train your brain, you build mental toughness or resilience to help you better weather the difficulties and challenges of everyday life. “Similar to chronic pain that can lead to more serious issues when ignored, over time, persistent stressors — like a pandemic that seems to have no end in sight — can be draining,” says Burnett.

In time, these stressors can accumulate and cause long-standing anxiety, depression, hopelessness or a negative outlook. They can also manifest physically, causing sleep trouble, stomach aches, headaches, bad dreams and irritability.

“The longer you let it fester, the more it will worsen,” she says. “Building psychological endurance would theoretically prevent it from worsening and help you toughen up mentally so that things don’t affect you so adversely.”

How to train your brain

There’s no mental gym you can join, but there are ways to adjust your way of thinking to combat stress and, in time, these new thought patterns will become automatic.

Here, Burnett offers some practical tips for building psychological endurance.

  • Take stock of your own value. “The No.1 thing that people forget to do is check in with their own sense of self-worth,” Burnett says. It’s easy to self-blame and have negative self-talk, which can spiral into feelings of worthlessness.
  • Build yourself up. What do you need to do to bolster your sense of self and remain objective, instead of blaming yourself when things go wrong?
  • Separate situations from your responses. “How much of what you’re dealing with is related to the environment we are living in right now? Is it really you, or is it the environment we are all in together?” asks Burnett. “The better you are able to preserve your self-confidence, the better off you will be in the long run.”
  • Pay attention to anticipated obstacles. If you get wind of a return to virtual school for your kids, for example, picture how you will respond. “Assess the challenges and figure out how you will react. You are training your brain to go to these options first, rather than being overwhelmed,” Burnett says. “How will you handle the situation if you and your partner both need to be in a meeting at the same time and can’t be home? What will you do when your child has a meltdown because Zoom won’t work? Practice talking to yourself so you can manage your stress reaction to all of that.”
  • Keep perspective. “Very little has to be a catastrophe. Is it an annoyance? Heck, yes. Can you handle it? Probably. Knowing that you can do this and get through it is empowering,” she adds.
  • Set realistic expectations. Even outside of a seemingly never-ending pandemic, things won’t go smoothly. But it will be OK. Burnett suggests breaking things down into manageable steps and asking for help when you need it.
  • Guard your physical health. A healthy diet, appropriate intake of fluids and consistent, solid sleep go a long way to bolstering our emotional well-being. “Part of it is our culture. We run on empty and work ourselves hard. We put our mental health on the back-burner, but our brains need a break. That’s how they rejuvenate,” Burnett says.

Finally, stick with it. Just like building a new habit or learning a new skill, mental toughness takes time and practice. “That’s the beauty of it,” Burnett adds. “You can choose to learn this new habit and when you don’t overreact when your car breaks down or your basement floods, you are modeling resilience for your children. Model good self-regulation, take things in your stride and maintain confidence and you are showing your kids psychological endurance. It feeds into their brain pathway.”

Learn more about the many services offered at Harbor Oaks Hospital by visiting harboroaks.com.

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