I am indebted to Marzena Jankowska for drawing attention to an interesting study she came across in the April 2011 edition of New Scientist which contained a feature on mental toughness!
This described the idea that most of us think that traumatic experiences must, by their nature, leave a lasting mental footprint – such as emotional scars, if not post-traumatic stress syndrome. Meanwhile, research indicates something different!
George A. Bonanno of Teachers College at Columbia University conducted research with people who had lost a loved one, experienced war, terror, or disease.
Immediately after the event, 30-60% of the people did NOT show any signs of psychological injury (such as sleep disturbance, excessive vigilance, or obtrusive memories). After six months this percentage has grown to more than 90%!
They began this research to better understand those who appeared to recover well from the traumatic incident. They suggested that for many, our stress response may have a built-in mechanism that not only soothes our nerves but also helps to heal them.
Perhaps there are even more things happening with those experiencing extreme stress. In discussions with Lt Colonel Andy Riise, who is an expert on resilience and mental toughness, he noted that, in his work with the US Army, whilst it was clearly the case that some returned from Iraq and Afghanistan experiencing PTSD, it was equally the case that some returned with evidence of Post Traumatic Growth. In other words, they learned something from the experience. It’s not a simple yes or no issue.
Some might relate this idea to Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous quote that “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”. But we know that is true only for some. The key question, therefore, is “Why is that?”
There are many people around us who can be described as strong and mentally resilient. The question is what is significant about their way of thinking and acting? There are many underlying mechanisms that help to explain this.
For example, part of the answer may be found in the work of Professor Stephen Dewhurst and colleagues at Hull University (including Professor Clough) on Directed Forgetting and its relationship with Mental Toughness.
Using a number of exercises, they found that mentally tough individuals were better able than mentally sensitive individuals to deliberately forget or put to one side something they should forget.
Mentally Sensitive individuals appeared much less able to forget things they were asked to forget. In other words, mentally tough individuals were better able to compartmentalise their thoughts and emotions.
This is an important finding and has many applications in the workplace and in the world of sport and education. For instance, we will often face setbacks and failures in many aspects of our lives.
Although they may not always be traumatic in nature, it is a valuable quality to be able to put setbacks into perspective, deal with them as positively as possible and move on quickly.
This appears to be what Mentally Tough individuals do. The Mentally Sensitive appear less able to put adversity behind them, often dwell on the adverse situation, and struggle to move on and resume normal behaviour.
This research is continuing, not least because it indicates what might be the cognitive underpinning for the Mental Toughness concept as described by the 4Cs framework. It is also gathering interest because we need to understand better what well-being means and how to manage mental health for everyone.
And, of course, it’s consistent with our (and many other) definitions of Mental Toughness:
“A personality trait which determines in large part how people respond mentally with challenge, stressors and pressure …. irrespective of prevailing circumstances” (Strycharczyk, Clough and Perry, 2021)
Recently research on the impact of Covid (which Banonno argues is not an example of Trauma) found that the mentally sensitive did indeed struggle during the pandemic. The mentally tough on the other hand were largely affected and, in some cases, even thrived
The important thing to note is that one’s pattern of mental toughness may be a significant factor in mitigating response to setback, failure and trauma in large part. We do not claim that it is a complete solution for such situations but it may well be a very important part of the solution for some.
Certainly, it supports the idea of becoming aware of one’s mental toughness and using that to cope or deal more effectively with adversity when it occurs
Doug Strycharczyk, CEO, AQR International
If interested in knowing more or completing training (now available online) for licensed use of the MTQPlus measure, contact email@example.com
George Bonanno is a Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University’s Teachers College and is internationally recognised for his pioneering research on human resilience in the face of loss and potential trauma.
“The End of Trauma – How the new science of resilience is changing how we think about PTSD” George Bonanno (Basic Books, 2021)