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The Psychology of Mental Toughness

How Anxiety and Depression Feed Each Other

Under stress, some people get anxious, others depressed, or these feed each other so coping efforts stall.

  • The anxious response. Facing a daunting challenge, you get so anxious you lose clarity to deal with the problem at hand. Your fear takes center stage and feels overwhelming. So you back away from the fear and the problem itself.
  • The depressive response. Here, you convince yourself it’s hopeless, so you feel helpless. This de-energizes you just when you need to take positive action.

How can anxiety and depression feed each other? Fearful thoughts convince you the situation is hopeless, so you avoid challenges, and problems compound. Responding to stress with escape and avoidance — whether drinking, TV, or other habits — fuels the belief you lack willpower. Now you’re ashamed and guilty and lose faith in yourself, so you avoid the pain and the cycle continues.

Seeking therapy is one of many ways to overcome this downward spiral. It’s reaching outside of yourself to improve your coping skills and feel better. But even here, your self-esteem may be affected by admitting you need help.

You don’t have to remain trapped in such negativity. The first step is to admit you’re overwhelmed. Then, gather your strength and seek help from someone who’s knowledgeable, reliable, and can help you marshal your strengths to face challenges more effectively.

Behavioral therapists train clients to deepen their ability to relax and access that relaxation at otherwise tense moments, helping them be “cool under fire.” Psychodynamic and other therapists encourage you to disclose your experience without censorship. They join with you to explore the difficult emotions and thoughts that surface, sometimes tracing their origins to past experiences, which can help you release their hold on you. Methods that address the intensity of emotional discomfort, such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) and imaginal exposure have you review traumatic experiences in the safety of the consulting room and help free you from the fight, flight or panic responses that often accompany such memories.

At the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt stood at the inaugural podium on withered legs supported by steel braces and proclaimed that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” How can you develop this kind of courage? Through facing your fear and doing what you need to anyway, you progressively conquer that fear.

For example, if you’re afraid to drive over bridges, you may avoid any route that involves a bridge. Your therapist may teach you slow, deep belly breathing to relax or show you how to tense your muscles and let them go to induce relaxation. He may also introduce you to exposure therapy, where you practice relaxation breathing while viewing the bridge from afar. You may then go near an actual bridge while practicing relaxation until you calm yourself enough that you’re able to drive over the bridge. You may begin the exposure process by imagining the situation at a distance, then closer, which readies you for encountering the actual situation.


Skill is a combination of awareness, thinking and perspective.

Awareness is attention and focus. These are developed through exploring the issues that cause difficulty and becoming aware of what may contribute to them. Where life stress triggers strong emotions, you may be trained in meditation, where you build your ability to concentrate or mindfully conduct everyday activities rather than fumble your way through them. Other tools that build awareness are journal writing; diary cards; focusing on your feelings until you have a deeper intuition about what they’re reflecting; and dreamwork, where your associations may provide insight into your attitude and life situation.

Sometimes attention and focus are impaired by brain dysfunctions that feel disabling, such as severe depression, bipolar disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). For these conditions medication can be especially helpful. Awareness may also be impaired by substance abuse that needs to be brought under control.

The Psychology of Mental Toughness

Gary Seeman, Ph.D

Gary Seeman, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Corte Madera and San Francisco, CA. He works with adult individuals and couples, specializing in addictions, bereavement, creativity, life transitions, personal fulfillment, relationships and spirituality. He maintains a website at

APA Reference
Seeman, G. (2018). The Psychology of Mental Toughness. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.