While assigned to my first FBI Field Office, I believed that life had finally settled down for me. I loved my assignment and had made lots of friends. It felt like home. Then one day I was called into the office of the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) and given orders to transfer across the country.
I felt as though the air had been kicked out of me. A transfer would mean pulling up roots and starting all over—again.
Whether it’s starting over in a different environment, losing a job, or a failed relationship, we have all experienced the tug of war between our thinking brain and our emotional brain. It feels as though each brain has it’s own agenda, and at some point a certain amount of paralysis sets in.
Different parts of the brain fight for control. Technically, this is what happens in post-traumatic stress disorder—the prefrontal cortex of the cerebral thinking brain loses its ability to regulate the emotional limbic system.
When we’re knocked down in life or go through tough times, our emotions become overly sensitized to fear and danger. While we may not experience the full impact of PTSD, we are feeling enough discomfort that our ability to make the best decisions for ourselves is affected.
Many of us go to therapy or take medicine to remove our symptoms when we’re feeling distress, but that is doing nothing more than either lecturing the thinking cerebral brain or suppressing the emotional limbic system.
Instead, we can develop a stronger mind when we find ways to get both brains to cooperate equally. Mental toughness is the ability to experience discomfort yet still feel comfortable.
Understanding how to control our different brains when we’ve been knocked down is an essential component of mental toughness.
Here are 4 steps to develop a strong mind so you can bounce back when life strikes a heavy blow:
STEP ONE: Tackle A Minor Source of Uneasiness
The first place to start is by identifying a minor source of uneasiness that clearly places you in a discomfort zone but not in a panic mode. Since you are training your brains to communicate with one another, starting small will not be enough to put your emotional limbic system into survival mode but will be enough to generate a physical reaction.
For example, if you fear public speaking, the thought of your performance can cause palms to sweat and heart rate to increase. These physiological responses are triggered by your fear response—which is housed in your limbic system.
STEP TWO: Call Attention To Where The Fear Is Coming From
The limbic system is so powerful because we often have a visceral reaction to a situation before we have a conscious awareness of it. This is called gut reaction.
Studies have shown that we can use our thinking brain to control our limbic system if we do two things:
- recognize what is happening
- intentionally tell ourselves that there is no reason to react with fear
By forcing ourselves to use our cognitive function, we are activating the prefrontal lobe of the cerebral cortex which is responsible for generating positive thoughts. Interestingly enough, when we call attention to our fears we are able to see them in a different, and often more objective, light.
The longer our fear lurks in the darkness, the greater its chances of growing and sabotaging our efforts to move forward.
“No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light.” NIV, The Bible, Luke 11:33
STEP THREE: Get Comfortable With Discomfort
The secret to a strong mind is learning how to get comfortable with discomfort.
If you can walk on hot beach sand as you make your way to the cool water of the ocean, you’ve got the gist of a strong mind. The discomfort is there, you are aware of it, and it does not feel great but it is co-existing with the pleasure of a day on the beach.
As the discomfort increases, and you experience anxiety, stress or pain, you begin to see your experience as more absolute—you are either comfortable or miserable. While there will be miserable moments in your life, not all of them need to trigger fear.
“Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” – Buddhist proverb
Once you are able to control your fear by using your thinking cerebral brain, the limbic system simmers down so you can deal with your situation and make decisions utilizing both brains.
STEP FOUR: Label Your Discomfort
Studies have found that when you call your emotion by name, it lessens the limbic system’s activity. When you accurately identify and describe your discomfort, you lessen the power of the fear associated with it.
Similar research has found that it is important to limit your description to one or two words, however. If you engage in a long soliloquy about your emotion, it will only increase your response to it and produce adverse effects.
I have found that by following these four steps, I can increase my tolerance for discomfort.
By using these same steps, you can develop a strong mind and bounce back from life’s adversities.
What additional steps would you add?
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