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The Psychology of Mental Toughness

Escaping Avoidance

Some people get trapped in a subtle kind of avoidance that looks like they’re doing something, but they’re doing it half-heartedly, in a daze.
For example, rather than respond to his wife’s request to talk, a husband goes to his computer and surfs the Net for hours. Or, a young woman loses herself in junk novels but feels ineffective about getting her life in gear. This haven can take many forms. It isn’t quite alive nor completely unconscious and has the illusion that you’re doing something, but it actually creates nothing but emptiness.

If you find yourself in this zone of lethargy, the first thing to do is notice you’re there. Then get up and do something else. See what you were avoiding and address it directly if you can, or explore what you’re avoiding if still feeling stuck. But get out of that swamp, because it’s one of the ways that you can get stuck in depression.

Thinking. Cognitive therapists help you train awareness and thinking through the use of automatic thought records. Here’s how those work:

Some situation throws you off balance. As soon as you can, you write down what happened and examine the thoughts that were triggered by the situation and whether those thoughts are a distorted description of what you observed. Then you write down the feelings that were elicited by those thoughts and gauge their strength. Next, you dialog with those thoughts to find a more adaptive response. You conclude by measuring the intensity of emotions that now relate to that incident.

Often you’ll find that your emotional response has calmed considerably so you’ll have a more adaptive response going forward. You can receive similar benefits by examining such situations, thoughts, emotions and possible responses with your therapist. She may also engage you in role play to build confidence and teach you new skills. These methods all help you think more clearly under pressure. Some people may have learning and attention problems that are innate, such as dyslexia. Your therapist may refer you for assessment and address such issues in your treatment plan.

Perspective is the ability to take a step back from the immediate situation and view it in context. A solution-focused therapist may help you imagine the life you want and start doing the things that build such a life. Imaginal approaches such as dreamwork, art therapy or sand tray therapy encourage you to work with images you spontaneously produce. These methods and others like them help you see that your unconscious mind already has the broader perspective you’re seeking.

Talk therapy is the method most often used to help you gain perspective. Your therapist may guide you to explore your situation and the many influences that create it. Sometimes, interpreting your actions through the lens of unresolved childhood conflicts can help you understand responses that no longer make sense. You may also benefit from assigned reading and discussion of research findings about your particular situation.


Resilience is needed for staying power, and can be seen as a combination of patience, flexibility, self-care and support.

Patience can help you avoid compounding problems and make it possible to time your responses more effectively. It’s taught through encouraging realistic goals. If you try meditation practice, this builds the ability to remain focused despite distractions or discomfort and helps you hold your focus for a longer time. People who are so impatient they often take ill-considered, impulsive actions may need to learn emotion regulation and distress tolerance skills or stop feeding addictions.

Impulsive actions can also be triggered by anger. Those prone to anger can benefit from anger management classes and training to assert themselves more appropriately, considering others’ needs as well as their own.

Flexibility is the willingness to change your action plan as circumstances evolve. It begins with developing insight about your situation, including exploring alternative courses of action. Several therapeutic processes support flexibility, including dialog, role play, problem-solving and communication skills training.

Self-care is essential when people are under stress because the mind has a body! Good physical health gives you the stamina to withstand stress. Often people find that depression starts to lift by beginning regular exercise, eating healthier meals, and learning proven methods to deal with insomnia (or seeking medical help if insomnia continues). People may also stay in situations or relationships that are so stressful they need to resolve them or move on. A good therapist will help you do this.

One of the most important elements of self-care is having compassion for yourself, because few people choose to be stuck. They’re usually doing the best they can with the knowledge and means at hand. Your therapist will help you survey your self-care practices and help you identify medical problems whose symptoms may masquerade as mental illness. Licensed therapists are trained to pick up on that possibility and refer you for a medical workup. As with building other strengths, self-care must include resolving addictions that prevent full healing.

Support is something we all need because we are stronger collectively than alone. Building a support network may involve helping you plan and access the most helpful members of your family and community and includes your therapist and others in your treatment team.

Some people benefit from support groups or group therapy. Also, your therapist may recommend more frequent sessions if you’re under great stress or if your discovery process becomes so active that you could use more time for processing your changes.

Toward Lasting Change

You’ve now reviewed the characteristics that make up mental toughness. You’ve also seen how your therapist can help you do the challenging work that builds individual strengths. One of the payoffs of a successful course of therapy is building a more positive attitude and optimism that you can overcome even difficult challenges. Increased mental toughness is a gift that will keep on giving for the rest of your life.

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 20, 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.