This Is How To Become Mentally Strong: 3 Secrets From Neuroscience
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Ever get to the point where your brain is just pooped? The ol’ grey matter is waving the white flag. You’re exhausted. You can’t go on. You’ve got no more mental energy…
Well, sorry, but that’s just not true.
In fact, you know it’s not true. When the deadline is in 5 hours, you can work for five hours straight. But when the deadline is next week, suddenly you can’t work for 20 minutes before your eyes are glazing over. What gives?
Oddly enough, we can find an answer in cutting edge research coming out of… Would you believe me if I said “professional sports”? Seriously.
A sprinter breaks a record. The commentators are saying how that competitor gave it his or her all… Really? Did the sprinter use every bit of energy they had? Then why didn’t they die? I’m serious.
Why didn’t their heart stop beating because it had no energy? Why didn’t their brain stop functioning from lack of calories? Why didn’t their thighs muscles snap?
But you’ve never seen an athlete just die from exhaustion, have you? Why not? Something flipped the tired switch before their heart, brain or muscles gave out. Long before.
And that thing is your “governor.” No, we’re not talking about politics. We’re talking “Central Governor Theory.” Something in your brain that regulates energy use in your body — and your mind.
At the end of a grueling event have you ever seen an athlete kick it into high gear? They were wiped, but suddenly the finish line is visible and the afterburners kick in. If they were really out of gas, how could they kick it up a notch in the final moments?
Because they weren’t out of gas. Their governor told them they were tired. But with the end in sight, wily old “G” stopped holding them back.
But when I asked Noakes for the single most convincing piece of evidence in favor of his theory, he said, without hesitation, “the end spurt.” How could the runners at Comrades, after pushing themselves through 56 miles of hell, summon a finishing sprint to beat the 12-hour limit? Conventional physiology suggests that you get progressively more fatigued over the course of a run, as muscle fibers fail and fuel stores are emptied. But then, when the end is in sight, you speed up. Clearly your muscles were capable of going faster in the preceding miles; so why didn’t they?
Your brain doesn’t want your gas tank to ever get anywhere close to zero. It doesn’t want you to blow ligaments or tear muscles. And it also knows that it’s quite the energy hog itself, with your neurons burning as many as 20% of your daily calories.
So it’s a miser. The governor errs on the side of being conservative. And your body and your mind feel tired long before you’ve gotten anywhere near empty.
But can we trick that governor into easing up a bit so we can increase our mental stamina? Sure we can. The answer lies at the intersection of sports science and neuroscience. And it’s not nearly as difficult as you think.
Let’s get to it…
1) Cheer Up
Want to be mentally tougher? Want the challenges ahead to seem easier? Try this esoteric technique called “smiling.”
…known as the “facial feedback” hypothesis, an idea that can be traced back to Charles Darwin: just as emotions trigger a physical response, that physical response can amplify or perhaps even create the corresponding emotion. Related experiments have extended this finding to clusters of related mental states: smiling, for instance, makes you happier, but it also enhances feelings of safety and—intriguingly—cognitive ease, a concept intimately tied to effort.
You get exhausted and you grimace. But when you grimace you make yourself tired. The feedback loop works both ways. So smile. You can trick your governor into thinking things are easy.
What do people with the highest levels of mental and physical endurance say? When I interviewed Army Ranger Joe Asher he said this was the attitude that got him through his incredibly difficult training:
If I can laugh once a day, every day I’m in Ranger School, I’ll make it through.
Navy SEAL Platoon Commander James Waters told me the same thing:
You’ve got to have fun and be able to laugh; laugh at yourself and laugh at what you’re doing. My best friend and I laughed our way through BUD/S.
If you want to be able to endure, be positive. Smile. Laugh. It helps people keep going during the toughest moments in life, including combat and severe illness.
Substantial evidence exists for the effectiveness of humor as a coping mechanism. Studies involving combat veterans (Hendin & Haas, 1984), cancer patients (Carver, 1993), and surgical patients (Culver et al., 2002) have found that when humor is used to reduce the threatening nature of stressful situations, it is associated with resilience and the capacity to tolerate stress (Martin, 2003).
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
Now if that was all it took, high school cheerleaders would win all the Nobel Prizes in physics and go on to be Navy SEALs. So what else does it take to build mental endurance?
2) Train Your Brain
“Your brain is a muscle.” It’s cliche, I know. But even when we want to get mentally stronger we sure don’t put that metaphor into action.
If you wanted bigger biceps, you’d increase the weight at the gym. And if you want more brain stamina, you need to systematically increase how long you make it work.
…long years of training help the mind adapt to resist mental fatigue, just as the body adapts to resist physical fatigue.
You might say, “work gets boring.” But that’s not you talking; that’s your governor. It’s sneaky, making you feel bored or tired so you never get anywhere close to your capacity — or your potential.
Every time you’re doing some serious brain work, try and go a little longer without a break.
“Being boring is an important characteristic for inducing mental fatigue and, therefore, a brain training effect,” he replied. “Just do a longer session of one test at a time.”
Georgetown professor and author of the bestseller Deep Work, Cal Newport, recommends the exact same thing. Doing a little more each day is a simple method for increasing your brain’s stamina.
(To learn the seven-step morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Don’t stop reading now — don’t give in to your governor. Just one more left…
3) Perception Beats Reality
If it was all about how much gas you have in the tank, then your energy levels would always determine your performance. And you know that’s not the case.
Ever work longer and harder because there’s a looming deadline? Ever suddenly feel tired because you look at the clock and realize you’ve been at it for hours? So it’s not about how depleted you actually are — it’s about how exhausted you think you are.
Researchers call this “perceived exertion.” Your brain relies on cues from your body and environment to determine when you “should” feel exhausted — and when the governor should kick in.
Researchers at Canterbury Christ Church University in Britain gave cyclists doses of caffeine before a series of time trials — but they didn’t tell them exactly how much. The subjects that believed they had been given a moderate dose rode 1.3 percent faster. If they thought they had taken a high dose they were 3.1 percent faster. And those who thought they got the placebo rode 1.4 percent slower. But guess what?
They had all been given the placebo. Their performance differences were completely due to their beliefs, not how much energy they really had. So we need to trick that governor.
What makes you feel like you’ve been working hard? Do you eye the clock and say, “Jeez, I’ve been at this for hours!”? Do you look at the work you’ve completed and say, “Whoa. That’s a lot!”?
Reduce how much effort your governor perceives and you’ll reduce how tired you feel. And what’s the best way to do that? Make any mental effort into a game.
Work challenges you, frustrates you and takes hours. And you get tired. Video games challenge you, frustrate you and can take hours. And they’re addicting. It’s all about perception.
When you see things as a game, you don’t perceive effort the same way. And so you keep going.
- What’s one of the things people who live through disaster scenarios have in common? They make survival a game.
- Happiness expert Shawn Achor said the best way to deal with stress is to see problems as challenges, not threats.
- Kids do better in school when it’s treated like a game.
And Navy SEAL James Waters said the same thing about getting through his training:
Many people don’t recognize that what they’re doing at BUD/S is assessing your ability to handle a difficult circumstance and keep going. It’s a game. If you want to be a Navy SEAL, you’ve got to play that game. You’ve got to have fun with it and you’ve got to keep your eye on the bigger picture.
So how do you make things into a game? Challenge yourself. Set a goal. Get feedback. Score yourself. And try to do better. Can I accomplish this faster than I did last time? Can I cut this from 5 pages to 4 and still get my point across?
(To learn more about how to increase mental toughness — from Navy SEALs and Olympians, click here.)
Okay, we’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it all up and find out why everyone’s favorite mental stamina booster — caffeine — is proof that these tips can help…
This is how to become mentally strong:
- Cheer up: Smile. Be optimistic. Laugh. They improve endurance and grit. (Side effects may include happiness and enjoying life.)
- Train your brain: Push that mental muscle and it will grow. Work a little longer each time and you’ll be able to work a lot longer over time.
- Perceptions beats reality: Reduce the signals that make you think things are tiring and they won’t be as tiring. Make it a game instead of a chore.
Caffeine gives you more energy, right? Wrong. Caffeine doesn’t give you more of anything.
Adenosine is a chemical in your body that tells your brain you’re tired. And caffeine blocks adenosine. The tired message never reaches the governor, and so the governor doesn’t hit the brakes. Caffeine works via that same principle we talked about above — it reduces perception of effort.
And that, dearie, is what keeps coffee-guzzling bloggers blogging.
…caffeine’s ability to shut down receptors in the brain that detect the presence of adenosine, a “neuromodulator” molecule associated with mental fatigue. Warding off mental fatigue, in turn, keeps your sense of effort lower, allowing you to exert yourself harder and longer.
So you don’t need more energy. You need to act like a giant caffeine molecule and hide cues in your environment that remind you how tired you “should” be.
Throw in a few laughs and smiles. Build your endurance over time by extending your bouts of work a little each time. And, most of all, keep the Central Governor Theory in mind. You can always do more than you think.
Remember how “The Little Engine That Could” kept going? Well, that tiny train didn’t read as much science as you do, so you’re one step ahead of him. She said, “I think I can.”
You know you can.
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