Beyond mental health to mental strength

Mental health is a frequent topic of conversation in our society today. While mental health issues have always existed, we are more aware of them now than ever before, and this goes for me personally as well. As I wrestle with the ramifications of mental health, I still yearn to see what’s on the other side of it.

I’m not only concerned about the mental health of the people around me, I’m also very concerned about my own. I find that it’s extremely healthy and helpful to be transparent, so I will do so here.

I’ve never felt like I’ve struggled with mental health. For most of my life I have thrived off the adrenaline rush that I get from being excited about life and the thrill of what might happen each day. I see challenges as opportunities and a chance to win and come out stronger on the other side.

But sometimes, life is hard. At this point, it doesn’t matter if your brain is chemically balanced. At some point the mental and emotional load can become a large weight that is very difficult to withstand. In my case, I have a wife and kids and friends and co-workers and a job and sometimes the combination of all of those things can be overwhelming.

There have been many times when I have been overwhelmed by the mental and emotional load, some worse that others. I notice when it happens now. Maybe this is what people refer to as a “nervous breakdown”, I don’t know. I notice when it happens because for the 2-3 weeks after the worst of it, I’m a lot more tired and I really struggle to get out of bed early like I usually like to, even if I try. At the end of the day, even if it’s a good day, I’m dragging myself up to bed.

These “mental injuries” are a lot like physical injuries. If you roll your ankle, depending on how bad you injure it, it might be a few weeks before you can run and cut on that ankle. With the mental injuries, I feel like my body goes into defensive mode and stores up energy in order to fight the next potential mental onslaught, leaving me with less energy to use (which doesn’t help things).

If a basketball player injures their ankle, they have to rest. They might really want to play and might feel like they could, but they risk injuring it further if they try to play on it. So they take care of their injury, and when it’s healed they can get back in the game. Some people feel like they can “push through” the mental injuries, just like you might push through being tired to get something done. Pushing through physical tiredness can be easily achieved with caffeine and a nap the next day. I’ve found that pushing through a mental injury will make it even worse and increase the recovery time.

While I accept these mental injuries, I don’t want to be mentally weak. I’m learning how to take care of the mental injuries. But what would be even better is if I could become mentally stronger. Basketball players do stretching exercises to prevent ankle injuries. In the same way, we have a chance every day to become mentally stronger.

I know people that are mentally weak. They tell you they are unable to do something or go somewhere because “it might stress them out too much”. To be fair, we all have things that we don’t like to do. But I don’t ever want to not do something worthwhile because it’s too hard.

When I think of mental strength, I think of the word resilience, the dictionary definition of which is, “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.”
Related to resilience is grit. We aren’t born with resilience or grit, but we learn it over time, and these are often mentioned as the key attributes of successful people.

I think I’ve become very mentally strong over the years. I don’t say this to brag, because I still struggle (as I am right now, in fact). It’s clich√© to say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but that definitely is true. The question is whether you have the desire to get off the bench and get back in the game.

I’ve had a lot of adversity over the last several years, both personally and professionally. At times it’s tempting to wish that life could be easy. Most of my high school and college years were “easy” and exhilarating. It’s a different time now. What I’ve learned from all of it is that the key to success is not figuring out how to make life easy again, the key is learning how to thrive when things are hard.

Once I got to that point, a whole new set of possibilities opened up in my mind. I’m willing to take risks that I wouldn’t have taken before, because if I take a chance and end up in a pit, I’m confident in my ability to work my way out of it and make something great out of it. This means I have a much higher chance of success no matter what I choose to do.

Every day we get to wake up and take our best shot, and some days we will fail. But the great news is that the next day we get to wake up and try again at a new day. I implore you to keep waking up and keep finding ways to make each day better than the last. Be aware of your current mental limitations, but realize that you will have opportunities to stretch them. Run towards the chaos and then find your way through it, carrying those that need help. Think about resilience and grit and what those mean to you, and what they can look like in the future.

I will never stop fighting. I will get knocked down, many more times. But I will always get back in the game.