The Science of Mental Toughness
"Oh by the way... I signed you up for a Super Spartan Race next week," my business partner said to me with a mischievous grin on his face. This is how I was told I'd be competing in a grueling 10k (6.21 miles) obstacle race in less than ten days.
If you're unfamiliar with what Spartan Races are, I'll try to paint you a picture. Picture all those movies and documentaries you've seen of military basic training, or Navy SEALs BUD/s.. you know the monkey bars, crawling under barbed-wire, traversing massive walls, climbing ropes, etc., all spread out over a 6.21 mile off road course. And I definitely mean off road. We're talking massive dirt hills to climb up (and slide down) and muddy, freezing cold water to wade (and sometimes swim) through. But unlike military training, people actually pay to induce this torture on themselves. If you're wondering what's wrong with these people, well you're not alone. I certainly questioned their sanity too.
"Uhh.. next week? Well shit, ok. What time?" I replied.
Sometimes I question my own sanity.
Even though I still workout 4-5 times a week, those workouts consist of mainly heavy resistance training and a few 20-30 minute zone 2 cardio walking sessions. I don't care how great your biceps peaks are, or how well you can walk on the treadmill listening to the latest Joe Rogan Podcast... it's not going to prepare you for a Spartan Race! So why didn't I panic? Why didn't I tell him "no way" and just spend my Saturday drinking coffee in bed with Victoria and our 5-month-old Goldendoodle Benji, catching up on this week's episode of Better Call Saul? Because I have what I believe every successful athlete, entrepreneur, parent, student, etc have.... mental toughness.
Now I'm not saying I'm anything special. I'm an OK "athlete", but I never made it to the CrossFit Games or the Olympia stage. I was a decent student, but never valedictorian. But I've never been one to shy away from a challenge. I've never said no to something just because it was going to be hard or make me uncomfortable. And even though I'm not a famous athlete or billionaire entrepreneur, I'm very happy with who I am and what my life is. And sadly, I think that's rare these days.
Unfortunately, science doesn't seem to have a fix for the genes you were born with, what neighborhood you were raised in, or how much money you come from; but there does seem to be more and more science emerging on the topic of mental toughness and I'm positive I can give you a few tricks and tips to strengthen that mind. So let's dive into it.
What is Mental Toughness?
In their 2015 paper, Gucciardi et al., describe mental toughness as a personal capacity to produce consistently high levels of subjective or objective performance despite challenges, stressors, and significant adversities. It's what I've always, albeit less eloquently, described as having the ability to embrace and endure the suck. I'm sure you've heard plenty of military guys say "embrace the suck", but that "endure" part is my unique addition. True mental toughness requires you to not only accept discomfort but to be able to hang out in it for a while too.
OK, so that's the very rudimentary surface-level definition of mental toughness. I'm sure you could have probably guessed that's what it meant, and if you've gotten this far you're probably thinking "I thought this was going to be on the science aspect, I already know it means to suck it up..."
So let me try that again...
What is Mental Toughness? (Scientifically Explained)
As we discussed above, mental toughness is having the ability to perform at a high level under periods of stress. So to dive a little deeper, let's talk about stress. Stress, from a scientific standpoint, is defined as times when epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) are elevated. These two compounds are both neurotransmitters and hormones and play essential roles in our sympathetic nervous system (think "fight or flight"). They help to increase our level of focus, attention, and ability to move.
These catecholamines (the fancy name given to norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine because of a certain molecule in their structure) are responsible for all those annoying things we experience when we're stressed. You know that feeling on edge, heart racing, pit in your stomach feeling you get when you're going through a stressful time? Thank the catecholamines.
So scientifically speaking, mental toughness is one's ability to maintain composure and performance through the elevation of epinephrine and norepinephrine. Now that that's out of the way, you might be wondering how exactly mental toughness can be beneficial. Even if you're not, I'm going to touch on it. Stick around, you might be surprised by some of the stats!
Benefits of Being Mentally Tough
When one discusses the science and research surrounding mental toughness, Angelia Duckworth, Ph.D. has to be in the conversation. Duckworth is a researcher, psychologist, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of the best-selling book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. She'd dedicated her life to the study of what she calls "grit" which for all intents and purposes is synonymous with mental toughness.
Through her work, she found that West Point candidates who were one standard deviation higher than their peers on the Grit Score were 60% more likely to finish the grueling training. She also discovered Ivy League undergraduate students who had higher Grit Scores also had high GPAs despite scoring lower on the SATs and not being as "intelligent" as others. Similar examples occurred over and over in numerous groups and endeavors. Check out the study here.
Let's get to the fun part...
How Do We Increase Mental Toughness?
You might have guessed it...
Deliberately expose yourself to stress. You know those annoying captions under that fitness influencer's IG post that go something like "get comfortable being uncomfortable" and "do things you don't want to do"? Well, unfortunately, at least in this regard, they're right. Just like everything else in life, the more exposure you have to it, the less effect it has on you. In pharmacology, this is known as tolerance.
Another pretty cool scientific phenomenon I liken it to is called "sensory gating"...
Are you wearing underwear right now? Probably had to think about that for at least a second right? Up until now, you've been sitting here reading this, completely unaware of the fact that you have something on down there. That's because neural processes mediated by the pulvinar nuclei of the thalamus and other systems in the brain are constantly filtering out redundant and irrelevant stimuli from ever reaching the level of consciousness. When you first threw those undies on this morning, you could feel every inch of them touching your skin. Then as you went on to continue getting ready for the day, your awareness of them disappeared. Now, this isn't the exact mechanism by which one becomes mentally tough. But I've always just thought it was a really cool phenomenon, ok? And we're here to talk science! And the idea is essentially very similar. Our brains are extremely good at reducing the impact a stimulus has on us the more we're exposed to it.
So what's the actual scientific mechanism here? Well that gets a little tough. Most of the research on mental toughness comes from the field of psychology. And yes psychology certainly is a science, but of the published papers on the subject, few are diving into the neurochemistry. So I'll try my best to explain what I believe is happening drawing from other research.
Let me try to get real nitty gritty here in the molecular science. All effort is mediated through neurons. Neurons utilize glucose (carbohydrates) and electrolytes (think salts) for fuel. If there's not enough glucose and the body has become "fat adapted" they could also use ketones (the fuel source used in the "Keto Diet"). There's a group of these neurons in the brain stem called the locus coeruleus that pumps out our old friend epinephrine when we're exposed to stressors. This group of neurons also appears to be the governor that either allows us to keep going, or quit. This happens through another type of cells called glia. When the glia cells determine the locus coeruleus has released too much epinephrine it shuts down the system. That's when we tap out, stop running, drop the weights, etc. So remember when I said mental toughness is the ability to handle more epinephrine? That's the mechanism. Mental toughness comes from the ability to increase the amount of epinephrine the glia cells are exposed to before they flip the off switch. Ya know, make epinephrine like that underwear you forgot you were wearing to the glia.
I know, I know. You want actionable steps here. Well, first and foremost I'll point you to James Clear who states "mental toughness is about your habits, not your motivation." I couldn't agree more. And though I wish I could just sit here and discuss how habits, not motivation, will help you to achieve mental toughness and your goals; that would be plagiarizing. So instead, check out his book Atomic Habits if you haven't!
So besides reading Atomic Habits and subscribing to our email list, what else can you do?
Actionable Steps Toward Mental Toughness
One of the best ways to improve our resilience, in my opinion, is through physical effort. Yes, there's much more to mental toughness than the physical, but our cells don't always know the difference. Ya see, the epinephrine that is released during physical stress is the same that is released during psychological stress. And in my opinion, it's probably a better life choice to increase your resilience to epinephrine through physical tasks than it is to say break up with your spouse or get fired. But that's just me.
Here are some of my favorite tools...
Choose the stairs over the elevator. I don't care if it's been a long day, or if yesterday was leg day and it hurts to even think about the stairs. "Good," as Jacko would say. That's the goal: do something uncomfortable.
Park further even when the close spots are open.
Wake up early. Uncomfortably early. But still ensure you get enough sleep, which means going to bed early too. Going to bed early will mean not watching that junk TV you wanted to or aimlessly scrolling through your phone. Stopping yourself from doing that might be a little uncomfortable too, so that means we get 3 out of this one.
When you do wake up early, get up immediately. No snooze. No "just a minute more." Jump straight up and go.
Do a cold plunge or take a cold shower. Yeah, this sucks. Takes a lot of damn mental toughness to turn that shower handle from nice and warm to tortuously cold. But it has a ton of benefits; both mental and physical. I won't go into them now. Check out Andrew Huberman's talk about all the benefits here.
Do the extra rep! No that likely wasn't true "failure" you hit on your last set of leg press. In my opinion, very few people have ever truly crossed into that world of hurt that is "failure." True failure is when you're about to pass out, when your knees are wobbling when it feels like it's taking 15 minutes to complete that rep. Then you're left in agony gasping for breath and consciousness on the ground. I'm not saying you have to go to failure every time (though I do think you should at least try to a few times in your life.) But what I am saying is just because it started to burn and your mind is telling you "meh... 8 is enough," tell it to shut up and do the 2.
Say yes to things that scare you. When your business partner tells you he signed you up for the Spartan Race, and every cell in your body is screaming "Noooo!" Show up anyway.
Get hungry. In fact, do a fast. There are certainly plenty of health benefits to fasting, but I really think it shines when it comes to mental toughness. Given you don't have a medical issue, most of us are not going to die from not eating half the day, or even for a few days really. It'll get uncomfortable. But after you experience that, and after you realize you can do it, passing up that second piece of cake at the office party will feel a lot easier.
You get the point. Do the things that suck. Do the things you don't want to do. Pick the road less traveled as they say. And now, while you're doing it, you can think about what's happening at a cellular level. And I guarantee the more you do these things you don't want to do, the more you push through pain, the less hold life will have on you. Life will start feeling easier, tasks that were once hard will be a walk in the park. You'll build up the mental toughness and resilience to achieve whatever it is in life you want to. Now get off your butt and go mow that lawn you've put off for the past few days.