Toughen Up: Building Mental Strength from the Inside Out

Darlene Marshall
Darlene Marshall
| Stay Updated with NASM!

Are you mentally tough? When life presents its inevitable challenges do you rise, seeing them as an opportunity to grow? Or do you find yourself ducking under the covers?One pandemic buzzword has been “resilience”, the ability to experience a challenge without being negatively affected. Perhaps even growing through stress. We all know exceptionally resilient people, and you might think some people are born mentally tough.

Yet, research suggests it’s a collection of life circumstances, personal factors, mindset, and social connections that boost resilience. This means you can build more mental toughness, too.

The Importance of Mental Toughness

Some hard-core athletes may tell you that mental toughness is the essence of what keeps them from quitting when down to their last miles, reps, or seconds of competition. There’s a lot more to mental fitness than a “do or die” mentality and it’s not only elite athletes or special forces operatives that are mentally tough. People from all walks of life, personality types, and dispositions can build resilience, better handle stress, and grow.

Mental toughness refers to one’s ability to weather challenges or face life’s inevitable stressors without being negatively affected. This includes wanted challenges, like a promotion or certification exams, and unexpected events, like illness or accidents. Resilient people are cool under pressure and able to roll with whatever’s being thrown at them.

Psychological resilience is important for more than keeping your cool. Resilience has been linked to increased longevity, greater well-being, improved mental health, and even satisfaction with your life. Being resilient also makes you available to support others and more readily able to pursue your passions, purpose, and meaningful life.

What Can Affect Our Mental Toughness Negatively

Our mental toughness can be negatively affected by both psychological and physical factors. Long-term and unmanaged stress wears down both the body and the mind. So do perceptions of overwhelm, when we feel we don’t have the emotional or physical resources to meet whatever demands are on us.

Our lifestyle behaviors can also have a significant effect on toughness. Inadequate or poor sleep has a bidirectional relationship with resilience; meaning those with higher resilience tend to sleep better, and those that sleep better have more resilience. This shows how the brain and body are linked when it comes to being mentally tough.

Similarly, eating poorly or being sedentary can negatively affect resilience, though people tend to sit more and eat more junk food when they’re feeling stressed. Regularly over-training also depletes us mentally and physically.

Mindset has a significant effect on mental toughness. When challenges present themselves, we explain the cause and effect of that stress to ourselves. Those who see life’s challenges as ever-present, broad-reaching, and as a negative personal reflection are less resilient. They might say “this all sucks, it’s always sucked, it will always suck, and it’s because I suck”.

That broad scope of strife wears them down. Resilient people remind themselves that challenges come and go, that we all go through hard times, and those hard times are not personal failing. Loneliness can whittle away mental toughness. This isn’t the same as being alone, but the feeling of being emotionally isolated, disconnected, or ostracized. Learning to be physically alone can be beneficial if we’re still able to emotionally connect with the feeling that we are loved, supported, and accepted.

Tips on How to Boost Mental Toughness

Fortunately, mental toughness can be cultivated. According to the American Psychological Association, you can build your resilience through a combination of personal practices, mindset shifts, and connections with positives outside yourself.

Cultivate a growth mindset and embrace optimism: A growth mindset is built on the belief that our setbacks are not failures, but opportunities to grow towards our goals. Similarly, optimism is how we explain to ourselves that challenges are short-term, don’t affect our whole lives, and aren’t a sign we’re bad as people.

Connection: with supportive people, community organizations, coaches, or others that can validate your emotional and personal experience is a major boost to resilience.

Make time to be positive: Dancing, a meal shared with friends, or playing a game together is enough to relieve stress and boost toughness. It’s even more beneficial when it builds connection.

Physical self-care: Eating nourishing foods, proper sleep hygiene, hydration, and regular physical activity are just some of the self-care strategies that support resilience. This can also include avoiding depressing substances like alcohol, too much caffeine, or other substances that affect our ability to cope.

Mindfulness and meditation: Regular mental practices build self-awareness, and emotional control, and help us practice calming the nervous system. Having a regular meditation practice even in times of low stress boosts mental toughness when the going gets rough. Read also - Incorporating Mindfulness Into a Wellness Coaching Practice.

Set meaningful goals: Seeking personally meaningful accomplishments encourages you to be proactive even if other areas of your life feel stuck or challenging. Your efforts build self-efficacy and support realistic optimism that things will continue to change. See also - SMART Fitness Goals.

Daily Tips on How to Keep Mental Toughness a priority

Building mental toughness isn’t a single activity but an ongoing process. You can cultivate daily practices that build your resilience:

Link meaning, purpose, and your “Big Why” to your daily habits – it’s likely your daily wellness habits relate to your values, purpose, and long-term goals. Keeping those things in mind helps you maintain a long-term and optimistic outlook.

Unite with others on a similar path – if you don’t already have a community of like-minded people, or those around you are in a negative mindset, it can be easy to get emotionally pulled down. Joining a mastermind, hiring a coach, or finding a support group boosts your resolve, shifts your mindset, and can be a source of inspiration.

Practice mindfulness – changing your behavior starts with becoming aware of it. Daily mindfulness practice helps you to learn your patterns and begin to shift your thinking.

Learn to reframe your thinking – when you catch yourself in a pessimistic and fixed mindset add the word yet. When you shift from “I can’t do this” to “I can’t do this yet” you psychologically shift towards problem-solving, growth, and looking for opportunities.

Look for reasons to hope – hope is a powerful, forward-thinking, and growth-oriented emotion. Ending each day with what you’re hoping for or looking forward to reminds you the things you’re struggling with are temporary. This can be as small as meals with friends or your relaxing evening ritual.

If you find yourself without something to look forward to you know it’s time to plan a positive experience to cut through stress.


We idealize mental toughness for extreme athletes and executives, but we all have storms to weather during our lives. Cultivating everyday resilience, regardless of your circumstances, is part of fostering lasting growth, wellbeing, and happiness.

Fortunately, mental toughness can be grown through regular practices, shifting your mindset, and caring for yourself with compassion.


• American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Building your resilience. American Psychological Association. Retrieved July 29, 2022, from https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience/building-your-resilience

• Deuster, P. A., & Silverman, M. N. (2013). Physical fitness: a pathway to health and resilience. US Army Medical Department Journal.

• Edward, K. L. (2005). Resilience: A protector from depression. Journal of the American psychiatric nurses association, 11(4), 241-243.

• Germain, A., & Dretsch, M. (2016). Sleep and resilience—a call for prevention and intervention. Sleep, 39(5), 963-965.

• Seligman, M. E., Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Thornton, N., & Thornton, K. M. (1990). Explanatory style as a mechanism of disappointing athletic performance. Psychological Science, 1(2), 143-146.

• Wang, J., Zhang, X., Simons, S. R., Sun, J., Shao, D., & Cao, F. (2020). Exploring the bi-directional relationship between sleep and resilience in adolescence. Sleep Medicine, 73, 63-69.

• Zeng, Y., & Shen, K. (2010). Resilience significantly contributes to exceptional longevity. Current gerontology and geriatrics research, 2010.

The Author

Darlene Marshall

Darlene Marshall

Darlene is a Holistic Wellness Coach who's been working in the fitness and wellness space since 2012. She's an expert at the intersection of fitness, wellness, and well-being. In 2021, Darlene was named America's Favorite Trainer in 2021 by BurnAlong and she hosts the Better Than Fine podcast on the NASM Podcasting Network. She's certified with NASM in Wellness Coaching and Personal Training and has a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. She has additional certifications in Nutrition Coaching, Neurolinguistic Programming, and 200hr YTT in Alignment Yoga and training in sleep coaching, motivational interviewing, meditation, and mindfulness. Want to learn more in Darlene's areas of expertise? Check out her NASM product recommendations.


Start Your Fitness Career Today

Become A Top-Notch Certified Personal Trainer

A NASM advisor will contact you to help you get started.

Get Started