In an all-girls senior school like Toorak College, building ‘mental strength’ is a concept we value with high regard. Our girls are always encouraged to dream big, embrace challenges and leap boldly with their passions and strengths at the forefront.
What is mental strength?
Mental strength refers to the characteristics or reactions a person expresses when they confront failure or adversity. Mental strength involves being able to regulate thoughts, manage emotions effectively and behave productively. Mentally strong women respond to failure and adversity with a positive attitude, perseverance, and determination to make their efforts count.
What builds mental strength?
Building mental strength does not happen overnight. Just like building physical strength, time, effort, and patience are required for long-term success. The following points are important considerations in building mental strength:
1. Replace negative thoughts with more productive thoughts
Promoting mental strength is about increasing positive thinking and reducing as much of the negative mindset as possible. Increasing awareness of thinking habits is an essential first step in building mental strength. Ruminating over negative experiences can result in unhelpful thoughts, contributing to negative emotions and behaviours. It is important to catch these thoughts and replace them with more productive ways of thinking, which can then influence more positive emotions and behaviours.
For instance, an individual may have failed at a task and thought inwardly, ‘I never do anything right,’ which can impact on how an individual feels and behaves in a negative way. A more helpful or productive way of thinking about the failure could be ‘I have experienced difficulty with this task but I have plenty of strengths that enable me to succeed in other areas.’ Although an individual cannot control all the events in their life, they can control their thoughts, which impacts how they feel about their own being and the ways they react. This approach needs to be applied consistently in order to improve mental strength. With practice, an individual will increase their ability to regulate their thoughts and emotions and behave in a more productive way.
2. What are we truly grateful for? Consider this actively
Practicing gratitude by identifying three good things every day enables the individual to gain a more helpful perspective and acknowledge the positives rather than allowing the burdens in their life to take over their thoughts. This can be done in a variety of ways such as writing them in a journal, listing them before going to bed or talking about them as a family over dinner. Consciously learning to acknowledge the positives in life can increase one’s experience of positive emotion, which helps individuals deal more effectively with negative emotions, such as stress.
3. Practice mindfulness
One’s tendency towards ruminating over adverse or disappointing events can negatively impact an individual’s mental strength. One way to reduce this is to practice mindfulness each day. Mindfulness is about staying present in the moment and bringing one’s awareness to feelings and sensations at that moment. Mindfulness can be practised as part of an individual’s daily routine. For instance, when washing the dishes, the individual could focus on their breathing or the sensation of the water on the hands. It could also be a more formalised ritual such as having a couple of minutes to focus on breathing before having dinner or begin studying. With regular practice, the individual’s ability to focus and be in the moment will improve, which can reduce the tendency towards rumination.
4. Perseverance is key to success
Persevering when things become difficult is important in relation to building mental strength. Successful people who experience some kind of failure or setback often use this as a powerful learning experience that assists them in achieving their goals.
Even the likes of J.K Rowling experienced setbacks before she truly experienced success. When she pitched Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to the first publishing house, they rejected her book. She took to Twitter claiming she received many rejections before finally landing the right publisher that saw her potential.
Failing or experiencing setbacks can result in people thinking about how they can go about things differently in the future and enable them to cope better during difficult situations. Perseverance is acting on the more helpful and productive thoughts mentioned earlier.
5. Utilising a support system
Being a student can sometimes feel isolating, as there is such a demand for independent study during the senior years. A support system is essential to assist with increasing positive emotion, providing a sense of balance, and relieving negative emotion such as stress. A support system includes the people closest to the individual - personally and academically - such as parents, siblings, grandparents, guardians, extended family, teachers, best friends and colleagues. These people are the ones who can be relied upon unconditionally and enables the individual to feel safe and supported, particularly during difficult or stressful times.
6. Make time to exercise, ensure adequate sleep and eat well
One’s physical health is an important consideration in determining one’s capacity to maintain mental strength. Exercise can help clear the mind and releases the endorphins that make the individual feel more positive. Apart from the physical benefits, it is important to build regular exercise into the daily routine as it assists people with remaining focused, enabling them to cope better during peak stress times.
Having adequate sleep is important for mental strength. It is recommended that children get 9-11 hours of sleep per night, adolescents between 8-10 hours and adults at least 7 hours. Adequate sleep can be a protective factor against fatigue, poor concentration and impaired judgement and can improve an individual’s ability to cope during stressful situations.
Eating a well-balanced diet containing the five food groups and consuming the recommended six to eight glasses of water per day is important for physical health and wellbeing but it is also important for fueling the body so that the brain is able to function effectively.
How do we begin to implement these concepts?
Being a student can be overwhelming and mentally tiresome. It is so important that the students are able to alleviate those pressures by feeling they can prioritise their wellbeing first. A little positive thinking can go a long way in a children’s overall sense of wellbeing. A smile, a hug, a joke, an act of kindness are all things that we as humans need more of on a daily basis. An effective way to begin implementing a more mindful regime is to write a basic agenda in your diary of what you wish to focus on during your downtime. Write down when you plan to exercise, do a yoga class, relax and listen to music, go for a hike, or even try a new hobby. Any activity that takes your mind out of its usual thinking pattern and into a more positive state is an activity that is worth doing.
Lee-Anne Marsh is the Head of Wellbeing at Toorak College.