From reflecting on past years of new beginnings, endings, adventures, challenges and leaps—and experiencing a range of the good and bad—it’s struck me just how important a healthy level of mental fitness is.
What I mean by mental fitness is a combination of resiliency, determination and belief in one’s ability to figure out life’s challenges.
Just like physical fitness, mental fitness is at its best when it’s exercised, developed and strengthened.
During good times, strong mental fitness accentuates what’s going well and protects you from feeling like something is wrong despite no clear evidence of such.
I discovered this to be true during the period of time right after my first sabbatical, when I began exploring possibilities of what was next. Nothing had really happened, but I couldn’t help but feel trepidation instead of empowerment and excitement. What could have been a fun, exploratory time felt more like a stressful, scary ordeal.
Mental fitness becomes even more crucially important during tough times.
A lack of mental fitness can definitely add more heaviness to an already challenging time. While having a healthy level of mental fitness certainly isn’t the sole solution, it will absolutely help you when dealing with and overcoming life’s trials. Thinking back, I would have struggled less during some periods of time in the past if I had my current level of mental fitness.
Of course, it’s all a process. Every step you have taken in the past has led you to where you are today.
But when you focus on strengthening your mental fitness, navigating life becomes better and easier—particularly when you’re in less than ideal circumstances.
An important note: if you’re in a physically dangerous or abusive situation, it’s crucial to prioritize your physical safety before you even think about the mental fitness aspect. Depending on what you may be dealing with at the moment, finding trusted professionals and people to help may be the best option.
However when it comes to petty disagreements with others, politics at work, or on days when things just seem to be going wrong, my hope is you’ll find the following tips to be helpful.
Below are 7 ways to strengthen mental fitness during tough times.
1) Remember you have a choice
During tough times, it can feel like your choices are limited to non-existent. It can feel like the world is closing in or that you’re stuck in the path of the oncoming avalanche.
But remember that no one can take your power away without your permission. In most situations, the reality is you do have some choice in the matter. Maybe not in all things, and perhaps your choices are in fact limited—but you are definitely not helpless.
It’s common for negative people, groups and entities to use fear and intimidation (often combined with monetary consequences) to purposefully or unintentionally make it seem like you don’t have much of a choice.
But you have a choice in whether or not you want to play in the way that’s expected of you.
You can choose how you react, feel and view the situation. You have a choice to say no, figure out how to change it, deal with it or walk away.
While it may seem like everything is happening to you, not for you, that’s not the only way to view the situation. More often than not, what ends up not working out wasn’t the best option for you anyway.
Tough times are sometimes life’s way of closing one door so a better door can open. You are a powerful being with the capability to think and act in a way that is authentic to you, even if you don’t feel like it at the moment.
2) Remind yourself you are doing the best you can
We’re all doing the best we can under the current situation and with our current level of knowledge, self-care and energy. Forgive yourself for decisions in the past, or how you may have gotten yourself in the sticky situation to begin with.
There’s no benefit in continuing to punish yourself for past actions.
Holding on to the guilt or responsibility won’t help you get out of the situation. At worst, it will keep you frozen, trapped or feeling like you need to go along with it.
The past is just an aspect of our memory that no longer exists except in the mind. Give yourself the gift of a clean slate and work on changing your thoughts and actions in the present moment to get yourself onto better ground.
More important than taking responsibility over past actions is taking responsibility for the actions you will take going forward. Your current and future actions are what can be changed, whereas past actions cannot.
Regardless of what’s happened in the past, you have the power to change course and make it out of this challenging time.
3) Cultivate, expect and insist on the best
Whatever the issue may be, and whether or not you made a mistake or had a part in the tough situation—know that it can be different.
We can cultivate healthy relationships with positive people and build a supportive environment in which to thrive over time. When we cultivate, expect and insist on the best, we ultimately set ourselves up with a much stronger foundation compared to one with people and environments that are unsupportive and unbeneficial to your wellbeing.
I’m lucky to generally have positive people and situations in my life—partly by luck and partly by intentional design. If that’s not the case for you, it’s time to take some action and create distance from the negative source.
While it’s our own responsibility to build up our mental fitness, it can be difficult to grow and sustain when you’re in a negative environment.
Tough situations can strengthen our mental fitness, but staying in them longer than necessary can have the opposite effect.
That means if you have a negative person in your life, it’s time to create some healthy distance from that person or discontinue contact completely. Seek out and grow relationships with people who truly want the best for you instead. If you’re in a situation you no longer want to be in anymore, figure out what steps you can take to get out of the situation, and start envisioning what you’d ideally want instead.
You could do better if you’re not living a life that brings you joy and meaning. Start doing the work to cultivate and build the life you love and deserve each and every day.
4) Stand up for yourself
The number one person on your team needs to be you.
If you don’t stand up for yourself, you’re likely going to keep coming across people, groups or companies that may take advantage of you. It’s okay to ask for help from others for support, advice and muscle power—such as a trusted friend, family member or professional. But they need to be part of the team that includes you as well.
In order to deal with a tough situation, it’s necessary to process, separate and distance yourself from the emotions.
As I mentioned earlier, those who may want to control or influence a situation often use fear or what they call “standard protocol” as tactics (more on this below). By taking your time and looking at the situation as objectively as possible, you can see the situation as it really is instead of how they may want you to see it.
It’s also worth mentioning that while prioritizing whatever you need to do to distance yourself from the negativity is important, it’s not the only thing that’s important. Don’t de-prioritize the essentials such as self-care, sleep, diet, exercise and caring for the loved ones in your life.
Part of standing up for yourself and taking action is doing so on a timeline and in a manner that doesn’t compromise your well-being and values.
5) Change the terms if you don’t like them
If you don’t like the terms or situation, there’s a fair likelihood that you can change some or most of the details. Sometimes you can change the terms despite what’s in the fine print, standard procedures or rules.
This is something that I’ve struggled with internalizing and embracing. I usually defer to what’s written, what seems official, the standard or regular protocol—when that’s really not how the world works at all.
One humorous example of this was when I climbed over a fence rather than using the exit door that was labeled as “Emergency exit only.” But many higher stakes examples happened as well. During negotiations in past years, I probably had more leeway to negotiate than I realized at the time.
Reality is, most things are negotiable.
Here’s an example. You get a job offer along with a salary they say is standard for the level, but in most cases you have some room for negotiation. In these cases, at best the company is putting out a lower offer with the expectation that you’ll negotiate. At worst, they’re hoping you simply take the lower offer.
Think about what you’d ideally want—and what’s the lowest threshold you’d be willing to settle for. And since many of us often undervalue and don’t demand what we’re really worth, add a 20% to 50% buffer on top of what you’d be willing to settle for and make that your final lowest threshold.
Just because things are the way they are now, doesn’t mean you can’t do something different in the future.
I’ve heard of entrepreneurs going to city council to request a change to zoning laws so they can start their business or expand their services. While there will be things that end up not being negotiable depending on the situation, the key is to always ask. Stick a foot out and test the waters. If you never ask, then it definitely won’t happen.
6) Walk away as soon as possible
Walk away from the negativity as much as you’re able to, and as soon as you can. Clear out the toxic people and situations from your life. What I’ve learned time and time again is they are just never worth it.
Negativity simply isn’t worth your energy, your time, or any part of your life.
Extricate yourself as quickly as possible and distance these people or situations. Life is way too precious, short and full of wonderful people and experiences to waste even a moment.
Sometimes, this means you may need to distance yourself from family or others from your past. Sometimes this means you may need to let go of money, status, an opportunity, benefits or assets in order to do so.
Don’t let the desire for more diminish the quality of your life. So much more is at stake—opportunity costs that are invaluable and worth more than money or status or the past.
7) Know that this too shall pass
As with all things, this too will pass. At some point, as you consistently take steps to remove yourself from a tough situation—it will pass.
What we can always count on is everything is always changing.
Nothing stays the same for too long, especially when you begin cultivating, expecting and insisting on the best. What was once a challenging ordeal will eventually become a distant blip in the past, a learning experience or a past life.
While things may be tough right now, keep on moving forward, taking care of yourself and strengthening your mental fitness. At some point, it will pass and you will come out stronger and better able to tackle the next curveball life ultimately throws.