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How a strong mind can give you the resilience advantage

The best way I can describe my four months at the FBI Academy is “coping ugly.” I got through the special-agent training. but it wasn’t a pretty sight.

While I’m a big believer in positive thinking, I knew it was going to take more than gray matter to turn me into an athlete that could compete with my former military and law enforcement classmates.

I was in survival mode. If I didn’t pass the physical fitness requirements, I would be washed out of the Academy, and my dream of becoming an FBI agent would die. The single question that haunted me every morning of training was, “How can I do this?”

At this point, my challenge was both physical and mental. I needed mental toughness to not only cope with my stress and anxiety, but also to keep my eye on the goal as I struggled to develop the physical strength to pass the FIT test and graduate with my new agent classmates.

Alas, I did not graduate with my class as planned because I developed an injury and was recycled. Sent back home to rehabilitate, the stress and anxiety became even more acute as I waited out three months before I was given the green light to join a different new-agents class.

I knew I’d need to be resilient and bounce back, but how?

I started out by reading books with clever marketing titles that packaged their methods as “resilience-building programs.” It didn’t take long to discover that most of the people who wrote this crap and got rich from it were just that —writers. They had never been in the trenches themselves and could offer nothing more than anecdotes and weak platitudes that I could have found in an Oprah magazine.

What I needed was a strong mind -- the mental toughness to find ways to work through my challenges. All I needed were the right tools.

Everyday Health and Ohio State University conducted a national online survey: "The State Of Resilience." They found that the majority of Americans overestimated their own resilience by a lot. While 83% thought they had high levels of mental and emotional resilience, that percentage dropped to 57% after testing on those capabilities.

Clearly, while most of us feel the inherent need to be resilient, very few of us know how to leverage it a way that will make a difference in our life.

(Are you mentally tough? Take this evidence-based and free Mental Toughness Assessment)

Here is how a strong mind can give you the resilience advantage:

1. Hope creates a strong mind

Sometime during my three-month rehabilitation, I found the perfect four-letter word for my situation: hope. Without hope, I had no defense against despair, depression and anxiety. The reason is that hope is about the future, not the crap that’s already raised its ugly head.

Humans need hope to survive, much like the way news media outlets need scandal and tragedy as clickbait. Hope is fuel for us, just like negative headlines are fuel for our ridiculous 24/7 news cycle.

If we don’t have hope, our spirits wither and die because, if there’s no hope of things getting better, then why do anything? Hope reminds us that there are things that matter, that there’s a reason to get out of bed in the morning and do something about it.

Without hope, we slip and slide into a state of existence worse than death -- resignation and indifference.

“The tragedy of life is not found in failure, but complacency. Not in doing too much, but doing too little. Not in living above your means, but below your capacity. It’s not failure but aiming too low, that is life’s greatest tragedy.” — Benjamin Mays

Hope is what we believe to be greater than ourselves. It gives us purpose in life.

When I talk about purpose, I’m not prattling on about the great passions in my life, or how I expect those little bursts of happiness to sustain me for the next 40 years. I’m talking about a worthy use of my time on earth.

You may, or may not, attach a spiritual significance to the existential question of “What is your life’s purpose?” The point is that hope is what gives you meaning at the very same moment you’ve found yourself in a cloud of unknowing.

Your purpose is to make the world a little bit better. This may be why religious or spiritual people appear to suffer from less depression and suicide than the general population.

I knew my purpose was to become an FBI agent and be a voice for victims. Maybe not for the first time, I needed to care about something or someone other than myself.

“Passion asks, 'What can the world give to me?' Purpose asks, 'What I can contribute to the world?'” — LaRae Quy

Hope is what sustained me during those three months in my moments of anxiety, despair and fear of a failed future.

It’s also what reminded me that there was something better in my future, that it was possible for me to get my act together and go out there and claim it. I knew what was required of me at the Academy; hope gave me the kick in the ass to work out in a gym on a daily basis.

I returned to the Academy and passed all my tests.

Hope is derived from a clear understanding that, while we can’t control some aspects of our life, we do control how hard we work and how we develop skills to become a success. It’s a belief that we have potential for growth and improvement, and that there are ways to get there.

Hopeful people have less stress and anxiety because they don’t beat themselves up when things go wrong. Instead, they take pride in what they have controlled in their life, such as their ability to learn new things so they can improve their circumstances.

How to make it work for you: Sort through the areas of your life that are creating anxiety for you by lumping them into 2 piles: those you can control and those you can’t. This is why you need a strong mind -- to claim ownership over those areas you can control. As a result, you will have the resilience advantage because the stress and anxiety you’ve carried around with you can be eliminated in those areas you can control.

2. Information creates a strong mind

The ambiguity around my future in the FBI was debilitating, and research shows that uncertainty lights up the pain centers of the brain in a way similar to physical pain. My ability to focus and solve my problem was greatly diminished, just when I needed them the most!

Uncertainty about a possible future threat disrupts our ability to avoid it or to mitigate its negative impact; the result is anxiety.

Our brain doesn’t like uncertainty; like pain, it’s something to be avoided. It explains why we avoid uncertainty and why we don’t like change. Certainty, on the other hand, feels rewarding. This explains why we prefer the certainty of focusing on problems and finding answers in data from the past rather than risk the uncertainty of new, and more creative, solutions.

When you seek out information that’s relevant to your situation, it activates the reward networks in the brain because the brain craves information (dopamine release). Ambiguity, on the other hand, creates a threat response (cortisol release).

Studies by neuroscientist David Rock have shown that ambiguity creates a stronger reaction in the brain than an actual threat. Your brain wants to feel that:

  • You’re always getting better
  • You understand what’s going to happen
  • You can decide for yourself
  • You’re connected safely to others
  • Things are fair in life

The desire to reduce ambiguity drives the brain to constantly seek out new information; unfortunately, the brain can become addicted to information that is counterproductive and unhelpful. It snacks on information produced by social media and bite-size articles about nothing. As a result, it overloads on junk and overvalues information that is useless.

A study shows that the need for junk information produces dopamine, a chemical that plays a key role in motivation. This explains why people are so susceptible to clickbait headlines.

How to make it work for you: Remember that your brain likes certainty. Give yourself the resilience advantage and seek out pertinent information regarding the issues you face. Left on its own, your brain will crave information just for the sake of it. As a result, you spend the entire day collecting data and end up even more stressed than when you started.

So, be selective and edit out the crap that accompanies much of what passes as “news” these days. When you do, your brain will relax because you’ve provided clarity on your next steps.

3. Mindfulness creates a strong mind

I don’t know about you, but when I’m stressed, the last thing I need are hushed tones telling me to “just relax.” Or soft music meant to magically place a chokehold on my anxiety.

They’re Band-Aids, at best, and what I need -- right now! -- is a deep healing. But, as we all know, healing takes time, and when the pressure is on, you cannot waste a moment on touchy-feely therapies or platitudes.

It might make sense that self-care methods like relaxing could strengthen resilience, but that is not what science says will happen.

Unlike relaxing, mindfulness requires us to be an active participant as we question our thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness gives us the ability to pause and observe. This trains the mind to be stronger and more difficult to throw off center.

When we’re mindful, we take note of what’s happening without judgement and without needing things to be different. That doesn’t mean we become a doormat and accept whatever comes our way without trying to change things. It does mean that we’re in control of our mindset so unexpected information doesn’t produce cortisol, the chemical released by stress.

Mindfulness helps us reduce the uncertainty that we face in each day of our busy lives because it trains the mind to become more balanced and stable. A strong mind is equally balanced between desire and aversion.

Mindfulness means staying present in this moment, rather than daydreaming about the future or ruminating about the past. Mindfulness is easy when you’re sitting on a little cushion, a lit candle in front of you and a hot cup of tea in your hand.

It’s a lot harder to remain mindful, however, when things are stressful or emotionally demanding. Ironically, mindfulness feels most out of reach when you need it the most.

For this to make sense, we need to understand that the brain is designed to be changed by our experiences. The person we’ve become boils down to what we’ve paid attention to in life. Have we focused our attention on things that are useful and enjoyable, or have we let ourselves become preoccupied with worries and self-criticism?

The only way for our experiences to become an inner strength is for us to focus our attention on a good experience long enough that it’s consolidated into our memory.

How to make it work for you: Concentration is the anchor of mindfulness. A strong mind will notice when the focus or concentration has strayed and gently bring it back to where it belongs.

Pick a simple subject to begin with. Lots of mindfulness advice suggests that you focus on your breathing. After that you might move on to mindful walking, which is done in a slow manner, or mindful eating. Sitting meditation requires practice if you want to get to a point where your mind becomes quiet. Again, a strong mind can quiet itself and remain focused on the subject.

Prioritize your mindfulness practice so that it becomes a habit. Actively work on slowing down physically because it will also help your mind to calm down.

Meditation trains our minds to focus on what is both useful and important, to disregard the junk information stream, and to separate thoughts from emotions. The stronger our mind becomes, the more we’re able to control what our mind focuses on and how it processes new information.

 

LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Get Quy's new book, “Secrets of a Strong Mind (second edition): How To Build Inner Strength To Overcome Life’s Obstacles" as well as “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths." Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.

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