Is there a downside to mental toughness and resilience?

Athlete displaying mental toughness

In the previous post, I looked at mental toughness as it relates to stress.

In particular I covered how mental toughness operates to insulate the mentally tough person against the ill-effects of stress.

And this happens because when you have higher levels of mental toughness, you are more likely to interpret potentially stressful circumstances positively rather than negatively.

So, you’ll more likely believe that a potentially stressful situation is something you can deal with, or which is even an opportunity for growth, rather than to see it as a threat.

As a result, mentally tough people will often not be affected detrimentally by stressful circumstances in the same way that the those who are more mentally sensitive might.

And this, in many ways, is the central idea of mental toughness – that it facilitates an adaptive rather than a maladaptive response to challenging circumstances.

But, there is a warning about the downside of mental toughness that you need to be aware of.

Like all strengths, and like positivity generally, mental toughness, when overdone, can become a weakness.

In other words, just because you have the mental strength to keep pushing on through, whatever the circumstances, it doesn’t mean that you always should.

You still need to exercise good judgement and restraint, or you’ll be in just as much danger of burnout or poor performance as you would be if you were hampered by significant sensitivity to stress.

The need for downtime

All of this is backed up by research conducted by Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr, who tested their ideas originally with athletes and later within the workplace.

Schwartz and Loehr make the point that elite athletes work to reach peak performance at specific times, i.e. during competition. This is the performance zone. They also have structured periods of ritualised training and recovery between performances (the recovery zone).

And it is the recovery periods that are critical.

In business, we risk falling into the trap of trying to operate at full stretch the whole time – packing more and more into every day and more and more onto our to-do lists. And, of course, the more resilient you are mentally, the more of this you can do.

But if you are in the performance zone for extended periods you risk physical harm and mental burnout.

What Loehr and Schwartz’s work tells us is that there is a need for what they call “energy oscillation”, which is about managing your energy by alternating periods of intense activity with periods of rest.

Of course you can’t always take time out during the work day to literally kick back and relax. But what you can do is shift between tasks that are more and less intense.

So if you have been working on tasks that take up lots of physical or emotional energy, change down to some more mundane or less taxing tasks from time to time.

And, equally importantly, when you’re not working – don’t work. Set aside genuine, no-work, recovery time.

So whilst, I’m all about helping entrepreneurs, business owners and professionals build the mental toughness they need to maximise their performance, I’m also very much concerned with helping you to recognise how to use the capabilities that you develop wisely.


The Making of a Corporate Athlete, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, Harvard Business Review 2001.

Resilience Is About How You Recharge, Not How You Endure, Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan Harvard Business Review 20016.

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