Mental toughness and stress
Stress is our response to circumstances that we perceive as threats. Usually this means that we don’t feel as if we have the resources to cope.
For entrepreneurs or business people, these circumstances might be external, such as financial pressures or problems with clients or suppliers, but they can also, and very often do, come from within.
Those driven to carve out their own path in life frequently have high standards, a burning desire to succeed in their chosen field and sometimes the inability to switch off, let go or delegate tasks.
All of these can be sources of stress and, as internally generated factors, they point us towards another way of looking at stress.
Thus, instead of considering that stress is caused by the circumstances we find ourselves in, it may be more accurate – and more useful – to say that it is our internal appraisal of those circumstances that either does or does lead to us feeling stressed.
This formulation explains why some people, when faced with a sudden influx of work, for example, will not feel stressed by the situation, but instead will consider it to be a challenge or a problem to be solved.
This approach, therefore places the individual, rather than the stressor, at the heart of the stress response process. It also suggests that individuals can improve their capacity to deal with stress by adjusting some of the factors that contribute to the appraisal processes.
And this is vitally important because there can be serious consequences for those who don’t deal well with stress, such as:
- unhappiness, dissatisfaction with with life, burnout or depression
- distractedness, poor performance, increased substance abuse
- forgetfulness, bad decision-making, lack of concentration
- problems with the immune system and other physical health problems.
Mental toughness and peak performance
On the other side of the coin, the ability to deal with stress well is what leads to optimal or peak performance – where you function at your best and to your full potential.
In their book, Developing Mental Toughness, researchers, Doug Strycharczyk and Peter Clough, suggest that it is by developing mental toughness that we can give ourselves the best chance of optimising performance – whether in business, in the workplace or even in our personal lives.
Mental toughness is “the quality which determines in large part how people deal effectively with challenge, stressors and pressure … irrespective of prevailing circumstances.” Clough & Strycharczyk (2012).
And, as you can see, this definition aligns with the ‘internal appraisal’ view of stress outlined above, in that it proposes that an individual’s response to stressors, challenge and pressure is determined by that individual’s mental toughness, not by the difficulty of the circumstances that they face.
Mental toughness consists of four components:
- Commitment – the ability to remain active and focused on the task at hand despite difficulties that may arise.
- Control – feeling able to influence how you feel about what is going on, and how events unfold.
- Challenge – This involves seeing stress as a normal part of life and an opportunity to learn, develop and grow.
- Confidence – the belief that you can successfully complete what you set out to do. It involves belief in your abilities and in your interpersonal skills.
This is why, when thinking about mental toughness, it makes sense to think of it as a kind of counterpoint to stress.
And, in fact, many of the tools that I use and recommend to clients for dealing with stress, such as mindfulness practice, solution focused approaches or reframing, are tools that are also helpful when it comes to building up the various facets of mental toughness.
Clough, P., & Strycharczyk, D. (2012). Developing mental toughness: improving performance, wellbeing and positive behaviour in others. Kogan Page.
Clough, P., & Strycharczyk, D. (2015). Developing mental toughness: coaching strategies to improve performance, resilience and wellbeing. Kogan Page.