What if I told you that mental fitness is something you can develop in the same way you build your physical fitness?
We hear a lot these days about mental fitness in politics and leadership. When we do, the conversation often focuses on avoiding or managing stress. What if that isn’t actually useful?
The best illustration I’ve read highlighting the direct link between mental toughness and performance comes out of a research lab. A team of researchers wanted to look at what made subjects mentally fit or resilient and took some baby chicks into the lab to study their theory. Painting the chicks and grouping them in separate pens, the first group was left alone to interact happily and normally. The second group was periodically picked up and stressed in a confined space. After the stress, the chick was given time back in their group pen to recuperate. The third group was continually stressed in the confined space, with no recovery time or play opportunity with other chickens. The researchers created three distinct populations with different experiences.
After raising them for a time in this manner, all the painted chicks were placed in buckets of water, with researchers timing their struggle until drowning. I know, this sounds just awful.
The chicks that had been continually stressed drowned almost immediately; they just had no hope in the face of hardship that they could swim. The second group to succumb was comprised of those “happy innocents” in group one who’d never been confined and stressed. They didn’t know how to withstand this watery hardship and folded in the face of it. The last swimmers fighting to make it were the chicks from the stress adaptation group. Somehow, the confinement stressors followed by time to recover had rendered them stronger and able to swim and survive much longer than their peers. This group was resilient; they’d experienced hardship before and believed they had a chance to make it and recover.
They had those past mastery experiences to rely on, and they just fought to keep swimming.
Stress has a purpose. Stress is opportunity. It’s meant to teach us to swim!
To respond well to stress requires high functional capacity of your brain’s frontal cortex. This area of our brain houses something called our working memory capacity, which helps us with both emotional regulation (being able to think and not just react) and upper level cognition (focus). We can improve that capacity with the use of some well-studied, relatively simple exercises.
Think about the last time you experienced stress. I always think back to those really awkward years – for me it was 13. Think about that age, standing in the middle of the school lunchroom with your meal tray. As you gaze over top of your sandwich, anemic vegetables, and cookie snack pack, you anxiously wonder who’ll make room for you at their table? What happened in your body at that moment? Maybe your heart sped up, you started breathing fast, your face flushed – your body fired off a full-on stress response.
As the stress is registered by your brain, wherever that stress comes from – a chain reaction fires. Your body releases cortisol, adrenaline, and a host of other chemicals to help you cope. It also releases a hormone called DHEA into your bloodstream. DHEA’s entire role is to help your brain grow from the stressor you just survived. But there’s a catch – DHEA only does its job when you give yourself a post-stressor break.
You need that time to de-escalate your revved-up nervous system in order for DHEA to do its brain-building work for you! The hormone increases synaptic firing and neural connectivity (you’ll think faster) and increases working memory capacity (emotional regulation and focus). DHEA is what makes stressful experiences worth your time, but you have to create the space for it to do its work.
Creating this space is the heavy lifting of mental fitness training, and it isn’t as easy as it sounds. If I say rest, self-care, nervous system regulation and you think taking a nap, you’re on the wrong track.
When we’re asleep, our brain waves are long and slow. We call these delta waves, and our brain is in delta state. When you’re awake and ambulatory, walking and talking in the world you’re in theta state. What’s interesting for a lot of us in a hyper-stimulated environment is that we find ourselves often entirely on or entirely off, and the place in the middle where DHEA does its building work is theta state.
In this space you’re at rest, but still aware, and your nervous system has space to rebuild and strengthen. So what does a drop in stress hormones and downshifting of the nervous system feel like? Think about the last time you enjoyed an activity or training – when you took a deep breath in and you just felt that “Ahhh!” feeling – even if you were working hard and running up and down trails. You may find it while running, skiing, doing yoga, getting a deep tissue massage, taking a bubble bath, or even lifting weights. Some people call it a “click,” or a “shift.” Here’s where you have to experiment a bit. That moment will look different for everyone, but when you find it, take note. Do more of it – especially when you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed. I find it often on a yoga mat. I have a friend who tells me she finds it swimming laps. Now for me, I’m trying not to drown while swimming laps, there’s nothing theta state happening for me there! Dedicate the time to finding your practice. What down-shifts your nervous system? Then do it. Ritualize it. Make downshifted moments part of your training routine.
All of us face periods of adversity, and no one’s going to ask us if we can swim before the crisis. We have to train for the hard times, and we can. Make a little time for your brain and watch yourself get sharper, smarter, more focused, kinder. You’ll also be ready for the bucket of water.
You need to know how to become mentally fit to be the best student, professional, parent, and friend that you can be. Be the chick that lived well! Train yourself to swim.
Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas is the author of Brave, Strong, True: The Modern Warrior’s Battle for Balance and co-author of Bulletproofing the Psyche.