Mental Toughness is one of the most important concepts any of us have to understand. It is a significant factor in our wellbeing, our attainment, our ability to manage change and in our ability to aspire to be contented individuals.
It is misunderstood. Sadly, this includes many of those who claim expertise in its application.
Granted, the term “toughness” can contribute to this. People see this and assume we are talking about the ability to be aggressive and to “tough” our way through life.
Mental Toughness is the correct psychological term for what it is. But the toughness bit was drawn from physics and the properties of materials, especially metals. It describes the ability to rebound if bent out of shape and to reform if needed to be in a different form.
Professor Peter Clough describes it as “being comfortable in your own skin”. He is describing our mental responses to what happens to us and around us. This is usually the first, invisible response/ when something occurs that then influences other responses – especially the ones we can often see – the behavioural and emotional responses.
We know it has eight components or factors. We describe them later.
Mental Toughness can be considered a composite of resilience (surviving past adversity) and positivity (embracing the opportunity available now and in the future). Together they enable us to thrive.
It describes a form of stoicism. Life is full of ups and downs. Good moments and bad moments. With a resilient and positive mental approach, we can take all in our stride and manage our response to all of those events.
So why is the “cold shower” solution, and others of its type, offered by some?
This lies partly in the mistaken belief that being mentally tough is always good and everyone should be more mentally tough.
There is an advantage in being mentally tough in many situations but this often only remains an advantage where the individual is self-aware about their level and patterns of mental toughness. The reality is that most of us have elements of mental toughness and, its opposite, mental sensitivity in our make-up.
Indeed, although mental sensitivity can be disadvantageous in some settings, it does have advantages and, once again, self-awareness is important here. If we understand our areas of mental sensitivity, we can understand how to minimise any downside and understand which coping strategies can help us optimise.
When it comes to being able to handle “tough things” like running a marathon or having a cold shower or cold water swimming, research shows that people who do this are often no more mentally tough than most people anyway.
In fact, research shows that marathon runners run marathons because they like running marathons. What is so tough about that?
Another colleague, Dr John Perry, often describes mental toughness in terms of “having the mental approach to do something that you would otherwise find somehow disagreeable”.
It must be your challenge, your purpose, not someone else’s.
If someone likes cold showers and is happy to have them, it isn’t very appropriate to exhort others to take cold showers to “help” to make them “more mentally tough”.
In fact, we know of one example where a motivational speaker finished their presentation with the big tip – “take cold showers!” and the response was to intimidate many of the audience, not inspire them.
This illustrates two things. Firstly, some may not truly understand what mental toughness is and, secondly, they don’t understand that we are all different and even if this worked for one person, there is no guarantee it would work for anyone else.
The whole point of self-awareness about your mental responses is that this is very personal and individual. There appear to be 8 factors contributing to your overall level of mental toughness. Each factor creates nuance. There are at least 40,320 potential combinations of those factors. The eight factors are shown here:
|Mental Toughness Scale||What does each factor represent … what does the MTQPlus assess?|
|CONTROL||Life Control – Self-worth – I believe I control enough of my life to achieve what I need|
|Emotional Control – I can manage emotions and not allow them to influence what I do|
|COMMITMENT||Goal Orientation – I have a sense of purpose and like to set goals for this|
|Achievement Orientation – I am minded to do what it takes to achieve my goals|
|CHALLENGE||Risk Orientation – I welcome experiences – I see opportunity more than I see threats|
|Learning Orientation – I reflect and learn from all that happens – including setbacks|
|CONFIDENCE||In Abilities – I believe in my abilities to deal with life – and will use my abilities|
|Interpersonal Confidence – I can comfortably engage with and influence others|
For some, finding the concentration to sit and read someone’s essay or report for an hour is way harder than taking a cold shower or going for a 10k run… Indeed, at those times, the thought of going on a long run or even taking a cold shower instead can suddenly be quite appealing.
Is there any evidence that taking cold showers toughens you up mentally?
An article in The Conversation pointed to a Dutch research study which found no improvements in anxiety with cold showers. It may reduce symptoms of depression.
Some research suggests that taking cold showers boosts the immune system. A Czech study showed that being immersed in cold water three times a week for six weeks, gave a slight boost to the immune system of “athletic young men”, the only group tested.
But that is not the same as helping someone to be more mentally tough.
The study also indicated that, for some, the shock of a cold shower can have a detrimental effect on those with heart disease or fatty deposits in their arteries
It could simply be that the more mentally tough are able to take cold showers because they can manage their responses better than most.
I can give a useful example from my own life. I have, like many, a fear of heights. I avoid climbing things – ladders etc. But I still do this.
Some years ago, I was persuaded to climb a mountain in North Wales called Tryfan. Widely recognised as a challenging and dangerous climb. I didn’t want to do it and I did worry about doing it. But I did it. And I will never willingly do it again.
But I know that if I have to, I can. I know that I have the sufficient mental toughness to manage particularly challenging situations. That is living John Perry‘s maxim.
At the end of the day, we always come back to
Self-Awareness and Reflection – what is my pattern of mental toughness and mental sensitivity? Is there something that would be useful for me to change or develop?
Action – finding an intervention(s) that suits my purpose and there is a good reason why it might work and then practising it until it makes that difference or not when I can try something else.
Evaluation – what difference can I now see?
As for the idea that a cold shower (or any other “tough” activity”) is a universal solution for developing mental toughness, I am happy to pour cold water on that idea.
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