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Understanding mental toughness as a means of resilience and the ways to cultivate it – Literature Review

What is mental toughness?

Mental toughness, or resilience, can be understood as responding to aversive stimuli in a constructive and positive way where an individual can retain their psychological integrity despite any apparent hardship or challenge. According to the American Psychological Association, it is defined as the process by which an individual can adapt to difficult life experiences through the recruitment of mental, emotional and behavioural flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands (Spielberg et al., 2014).

In popular culture, being tough or resilient is typically associated with terms that evoke invulnerability or durability. Although some elements of these traits may be relevant to mental toughness, they fail to capture the true nature of what it means to be mentally tough. Suppose we delve deeper into its underlying meaning. In that case, we begin to realize that being mentally tough does not entail being an unbreakable force but rather an adaptable one that can pivot and adjust depending on a given circumstance. It is not to be a stone wall erected to stop all in its way, but rather to be a fluid actor that can weather the storm and curate an approach to adversity in a way that is the most appropriate. Hence, new explanations for what it means to be mentally tough arise when we consider this perspective, and research into the psychological underpinnings confirms this. More importantly, another question that needs to be considered is if there is an underlying ability enables us to respond to situations of adversity, allowing us to cultivate mental toughness in the way described above. 

Hence, in the following essay, we will demonstrate the current scientific literature surrounding this process and list the different methods that can be implemented in order to foster an efficient state of mental toughness. To explore this, we will begin by highlighting the major role of mental toughness in human functioning: its role in the stress response (full literature review on stress management). Following this, we will outline the different factors that underlie the process of mental toughness and impart the techniques that have been proven to foster long-lasting mental toughness. 

Stress and Toughness

One factor that highlights the human ability to be mentally tough is stress and how it is coped with. Exposure to stress can engender many outcomes depending on its degree of intensity and how it is responded to within the human mind. Some instances of stress can come in the form of environmental, social and financial stressors, which have the potential to impact individual lives significantly. In more severe cases, prolonged exposure to stress can lead to trauma forming within the brain (Southwick et al., 2014). However, research into the effects of trauma has found an overarching ability that significantly mediates whether exposure to stress can lead to eventual trauma – Mental toughness (Southwick et al., 2014).

When an individual becomes exposed to stress, research has shown that how they cope with this exposure dictates whether trauma is formed within the brain (Metel et al., 2019; Wu et al., 2013). During stress exposure, we can boil down the continuum of possible responses into two primary domains: maladaptive or adaptive. Depending on the chosen response, the subsequent effects produced within the brain can be harmful, and a deciding factor for this is how mentally tough or resilient the individual is.

Maladaptive coping styles are typically associated with processes such as experiential avoidance, thought suppression and fear in response to stressful stimuli. As a result, research has shown that these responses have the potential to produce dysfunctional neurochemical responses that lead to trauma (Kashdan & Kane, 2011). More specifically, a maladaptive response to stress can lead to heightened levels of cortisol, otherwise known as the stress hormone, to be produced which has been shown to have debilitating effects on neural circuitry leading to potential episodes of anxiety and depression (Herbert, 2013). Accordingly, individuals who lack mental toughness typically resort to maladaptive coping styles as they do not possess the ability to confront challenging experiences with the appropriate cognitive mechanisms (Wu et al., 2020).

On the other hand, adaptive coping mechanisms are associated with factors such as optimism, emotional self-regulation and intellectual functioning, which have been shown to significantly mediate the stress response during challenging experiences (Crum et al., 2013; Folkman & Maskowitz, 2000). The difference between the two coping styles is that one is more likely to engender an acute and prolonged stress response, whereas the other significantly inhibits it. More importantly, the latter is associated with the ability to be mentally tough. Hence, how does mental toughness achieve this, and what cognitive processes underly the trait of mental toughness?

The Underling Factors of Mental Toughness

One important distinction is that mental toughness does not arise from one singular process within the brain but through a combination of many (Lin et al., 2017). Research has demonstrated that being mentally tough equates to developing various factors that come together to form a person’s mentally tough or resilient disposition. If we break this process down into different sub-components, themes such as emotional and impulse control, determination and confidence arise concerning mental toughness. Accordingly, these elements can be considered the psychological factors that form mental toughness. This was outlined by Clough and Colleagues (2002), who characterized mental toughness with four connected but independent underlying processes, which are:

  • Commitment – The commitment factor relates to the tendency of mentally tough individuals to remain in pursuit of a given goal despite any difficulties that may arise. 
  • Challenge – The ability to perceive challenging situations as opportunities for learning and self-development. This can also be considered a form of optimism and personality trait that veers toward positivity. 
  • Confidence – Confidence is a key factor that dictates how a person behaves in response to setbacks and hardships, making it a cornerstone of mental toughness. (full Chapter on developing confidence)

Moreover, subsequent studies have also outlined similar psychological processes that contribute to mental toughness and resilience. Factors such as optimism, intelligence, self-efficacy and the use of adaptive emotional regulation strategies all fall under the umbrella of mental toughness if appropriately cultivated within the individual (Ong et al., 2006; Sapienza & Masten, 2011).

Focus and mental toughness

Moving deeper into a cognitive scale, studies have significantly associated processes such as inhibitory control (IC) with the presence of mental toughness in an individual (Afek et al., 2021). IC is a component of the brain’s executive functioning that refers to the ability to maintain goal-directed behaviour while ignoring irrelevant information (Miyake & Friedman, 2012). Hence, the higher the IC levels are within an individual, the more likely they will be able to remain on a stable path towards their initially attributed goals. Conversely, if someone possesses reduced IC, they will be more likely to stray and become overwhelmed by concurrent distractions.

Furthermore, cognitive processes such as emotional and psychological flexibility have been frequently mentioned in literature to positively contribute to mental toughness (Spielberg et al., 2015; Shi et al., 2019). The ability to confront and adequately process difficult emotions without allowing them to “bite” you is a fundamental cornerstone of what it means to be mentally tough. More specifically, it drives the ability to adapt and to appropriately re-orient oneself in the face of adversity and challenge, thus reducing the negative impact of a given event. If we bring ourselves back to the arguments made for the role of mental toughness in the face of stress, the psychological and cognitive factors that contribute to mental toughness are also what drive the individual to undertake adaptive instead of maladaptive coping methods. 

Mental Toughness – How Can We Cultivate it?

Research into mental toughness has put forth a dual paradigm that can be used to inform individuals how it can be cultivated. Accordingly, two interconnected themes arise when we discuss mental toughness development: (1) Formative Experiences and (2) Support and Coping Resources.

  1. Formative experiences relate to the instances where an individual goes through a unique experience that engenders a switch in perspective due to challenges, setbacks, sustained commitment, failure and even trauma (Powell & Myers, 2017).
  2. Support and Coping Resources refer to the subsequent events that enable the individual to adaptively process the formative experience that had just been completed in a way conducive to psychological growth. Examples of support and coping resources are social support, external shaping, overcoming problems and engaging in reflective practice (Powell & Myers, 2017).

Ultimately, considering these two themes, we see that the process by which mental toughness is cultivated demands one to undergo a formative experience that has to be coupled with subsequent support and coping resources. It is crucial to consider this, as this dual paradigm can be applied in any field or domain of human performance for anyone to cultivate mental toughness or resilience. 

Furthermore, the notion that mental toughness is developed in the face of adversity is also a heavily cited idea within literature (Sarkar et al., 2015). This process is heavily utilized within military settings, which integrate significantly aversive training procedures within their selection process to filter out and cultivate mentally tough trainees (Duckworth et al., 2007). It has also been similarly introduced within athletic settings, where studies are beginning to show the robust benefits of adversity concerning the improvement of athletic performance (Tedeschi & Calhood, 2004a). Post-traumatic growth (PTG) is often cited in relation to this, where reports demonstrate how mental toughness and subsequent performance receive a prominent boost following episodes of acute challenge.

Studies have also outlined that gains in mental toughness are more pronounced when there is an active intent toward being exposed to challenging stimuli instead of being exposed to them unwillingly. Hence, we observe a clear association between proactivity, determination, and a willingness to embrace adversity as elements which prompt mental toughness and growth. However, similar to the dual paradigm outlined by Powell and Myers (2017), mental toughness springs forth uniquely when an adaptive method of integrating challenging experiences is present. 

What does this mean for the layman seeking to develop mental toughness? Considering these findings, mental toughness can be cultivated by purposefully engaging in challenging and ultimately strenuous activities while simultaneously adapting to the final outcome in a constructive and beneficial way to your growth (Powell & Myers, 2017). Simply put, it demands an individual to leave their “comfort zone” and enter an area of novelty that elicits either mental, physical or emotional challenge. If one is more suited for athletics, a method to prompt mental toughness would be to increase the duration and speed of their run and undertake a physical activity that will push them towards their physical and mental limits. On the other hand, if an individual is more academic, they can involve themselves in a mentally intensive task with a higher probability of failure. Essentially, according to these studies, it is not the outcomes that are of interest but the level of challenge and the subsequent ability to process the experience that will prompt mental toughness and resilience

The Bottom Line 

Through this essay, we have demonstrated that mental toughness is the process by which an individual can adapt to a given experience and that through exposure to that challenge, they become mentally tough themselves. Moreover, we realize that mental toughness is an umbrella term that encompasses a myriad of factors that work at a psychological and cognitive level. Briefly defined, the more an individual can control their impulses and remain rigorous in the face of distraction, the more emotionally flexible they are, and the more mindful there are in the face of challenging experiences, they will be more conducive to mental toughness compared to those who cannot. Mental toughness is not a unique or exclusive trait present in only a select few, but it is a mental disposition that can be cultivated through sustained effort and a willingness to confront challenging experiences head-on.


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