14 ways to cope and build Mental Toughness

Mentally Tough individuals show resilience and automatically apply coping mechanisms to reduce or eliminate stressors. These coping mechanisms come natural to some, not to others, but the good news is they can be learned. Coping mechanisms are useful in the workplace when one has to perform and deal with stress.

Workplace stress can be severe due to workplace changes, mergers and acquisitions, organizational changes, a missed promotion, an unforeseen demotion, bullying, conflicts with colleagues or broken employee-employer relationships.

I’m now an AQR accredited master trainer in Mental Toughness, but at one part in my career I to needed coping mechanisms to deal with workplace stress. Most of them I used without knowing. I can reflect on this situation now and share my insights and learnings.

At one point in my career, I was in disagreement with the business I worked for. The business wanted me to leave and so did I. During the negotiation of leaving terms, we couldn’t come to an agreement. Worse, I felt my integrity was attacked and I felt threatened. From then on it got nasty pretty quickly. I started to be excluded from meetings and did not get invited to a team training. In some meetings I wasn’t acknowledged at all. Holiday requests became tough negotiations. And of course, the business started to performance manage me.

What followed were the 10 toughest months in my career, maybe even in my life. The following are some of the coping techniques I used during those dark 10 months:

1.   Find a higher Purpose

One of the first things I did was promise myself not to give up, to fight this game. I convinced myself that there was a higher goal and made myself promise that; ‘I will get a good outcome for my kids and family’. You might find higher purpose at home or in a community like in sports, church or charities.

2.   Connect an anchor to your purpose

You can change your state of mind or mood using the techniques of anchoring. Usually I kept work and life separated. My office desk is clean, without any photos. I changed this and put a photo on my desk from my two daughters and I wore a wristband my daughter gave me. In tough moments I would look at the photo and smile to my daughters or kiss the wristband as a reminder to keep a positive mindset.

3.   Keep perspective

You might be in a terrible situation. First of all, be aware of that, acknowledge it and then try to keep it in perspective. You will get out of this one day and your life will go on. Your self-worth is made up from more than just work. You are a friend, a wife, husband, maybe a parent. Your friends and family will still love you. You have hobbies and stuff you are good at. There might be worse things in the world.

4.   Don’t make it personal

The people you are having a disagreement with represent a business. In your view, they might be incredibly incapable, dishonest and unfair. But they might not even personally dislike you. Think of them as people with family and friends too. Try and feel empathy for them. In this way, the ‘bad guy’ is the business and you can easier deal with the people that represent that business. I genuinely felt sorry for some of the people I had to deal with, which helped me control my emotions.

5.   Activate your social environment

When the ranks are closing and works get taken away from you, things get a bit quiet, maybe even boring. Find colleagues who understand your situation so you get some support and ideas to deal with the situation, or just to take your mind of the situation. I started to go out of the office for lunch with some younger colleagues I didn’t previous go out with. Go out for a drink more often or meet up with some old friends.

6.   Nurture Yourself

The situation might take a while, so take care of yourself, even more so in this period. I took the bicycle to work whenever I could and I made sure that I got enough exercise outside the office hours. If I didn’t go out for lunch, I went for a 30 minute walk. Make sure you keep a healthy diet and go to bed in time.

7.   Practice Mindfulness

Although I didn’t meditate and practice mindfulness during this period, I would recommend it now. Before you go to bed, try and clear your head with some form of meditation. It releases stress that’s stored during the day in your body and it can empty your mind before you go to sleep. I now use the app Smiling Mind to practice Mindfulness and I’m sure it would have helped me deal with the situation.

8.   Controlled Distraction

By concentrating on something else you can you can distract your thoughts form negative situations. I used to play very loud music from Muse in my car when driving to and from work. I would sing out loud and try to hit those ridiculous high notes from singer Matthew Bellamy. And yes, I might have screamed out loud; ‘you mother@$*#^&% are not going to get me’. You can also do puzzles, exercise, watch a movie, practice mindfulness, or visualize yourself on your last holiday.

9.   Keep your sense of humour

If you don’t have a great sense of humour, don’t worry about it. But take the point that you have to keep on laughing regularly. This is also a form of controlled distraction. You use your face and stomach muscles, enhance intake of oxygen, stimulate circulation and release some feel- good chemicals. I used to stand next to somebody’s desk and just started laughing for the sake of it. First you get a weird look, then a hesitant smile, but if you keep going most people will join you in laughter. Yep, it’s a true story!

10.  Build your mastery

You are good at something, everybody is. Keep doing it and start doing more of it. Or start to learn something new, something you always wanted to do. Building mastery gives you fulfilment and if you’re lucky gets you in a state of ‘Flow’, a period where time seem to have disappeared. I picked up my guitar a bit more often and kept writing blogs and articles. I started to build an App, something which opened up a whole new world for me that I still benefit from years later.

11.  Make affirmations

Affirmations are short statements that mean something to you and can build your self-worth and confidence to deal with things. Think about what is important to you, what you’re good and what you have achieved. Some of mine; ‘I’m good in what I’m doing’, ‘I worked for the world’s largest companies that appreciated my skills’, ‘I’ve hundreds of people following my blogs’, ‘I can make a difference’.

12.  Self-Talk

Although affirmation are more used to increase your self-worth, self-talk can be used at the moment of performance under stress. Self-talk is widely and successfully used in sport and there is growing evidence that his has a major impact on how we approach tasks and challenges. Whatever the pressure is, try to talk yourself through it. ‘I’m going to stay calm, even when they attack me in this meeting’, or ‘I just have to get through this now, but it will be over soon’ is some of the self-talk I used.

13.  Work on plan B (and C)

Ask yourself; ‘what I’m I going to do after this?’ and ‘what can I do about that now?’ Start working on your future, as you know your future is not in this business. If possible combine your purpose and mastery with your next step. Activate your business network. I started to meet entrepreneurs, which gave me a lot of energy and ideas. I talked to recruiters for new jobs, which made me realize I didn’t want to work in corporate for a while. I went to Meetup’s for start-ups, social networking and other of my interests and met lots of new people that are still active in my network today. I read ‘The start-up of You’ to get some inspiration. In short, I started to shape my plan B.

14.  Ask for help

Maybe most important, when you feel you can’t cope anymore, ask for help. If there is an employee help line, call them, or use another professional to have a chat with. I didn’t do it, as I’m too proud and stubborn and it indeed pushed me to the edge of my coping limits.  But please do so if everything else isn’t working and your situation is going on for too long. It is not a sign of weakness. You can get good advice and tips on how to deal with your situation.

So what happened to me? Well after 10 months we came to an agreement which was very satisfying for me. For three days I was tired and had an enormous physical reaction. I felt the stress literally leave my body. A reminder that mind and body are connected.

As a coach, I now know that Mental Toughness is a personality trait and key to understanding how people respond to and perform under stress, pressure and challenge. It can be measured with a questionnaire in a reliable way and it can be improved on individual and organizational level.

I now run workshops for teams to increase awareness and measure and improve Mental Toughness and resilience. I’m blessed that I can help people improve their awareness, coping skills, well being and performance. My plan ‘B’ is working. I hope yours soon will be too.

My dear SCT followers. I posted this more personal blog on my LinkedIn profile, but wanted to share it with you too. Although maybe not so much Supply Chain or business related, I hope it has some valuable tips for you, as we all go through rough times every now and then. Stay well, Niels

2 thoughts on “14 ways to cope and build Mental Toughness

  1. Hi Neils,
    An interesting and as always refreshingly candid post.
    In an alternative terminology I would suggest you worked 10 months under “pressure” rather than “stress”, as you applied multiple coping mechanisms and capability enhancements to prevent you from descending into “stress”. To me true “stress” in an absolutely unhealthy situation to be avoided at all costs with symptoms such as a chronic irritable mood, high blood pressure, arrhythmic heart-beat, uncontrolled perspiration, sleepless nights, lowered immune system and higher rate of flu, etc.
    Also one person’s “stress” may merely be another person’s eminently tolerable “pressure”.
    E.g. a task of manually re-ordering 64 sku’s in one 8 hour day. A worker who operates at 6 skus’s per hour (one every 10 minutes) may immediately experience stress when confronted with this task (knowing that by closing time they will still have 16 sku’s – more than 2.5 hours of work – to go), whereas a worker who operates at 11 sku’s per hour will be finished a comfortable 2 hours before closing time and may have experienced zero stress in the process.
    Regards,
    Conrad

  2. Thanks for your kind comment Conrad,
    I just had to look up the definition of stress; ‘a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances’. I certainly believed I felt stress, I started to notice changes in my energy levels, confidence and self-worth. I was more agitated at home. I was lucky enough to have coping mechanisms and not to have the physical reactions you describe, but I certainly had a physical reaction when the tension left my body after those 10 months.

    You’re right that was seems to be a little pressure for the Mentally Tough individual might be sleepless nights for the Mentally Sensitive. Mentally Tough individuals also endure anxiety, self doubt and stress, but a lot of research shows that they just better deal with these adverse situations.

    A last thing which is interesting to know is that our thinking impacts our emotions and behaviour, which in turn impacts our physical reaction. This is what Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is based on. This means that the coping mechanisms like self talk and affirmations can actually influence and have a positive effect on the physical reactions one might endure.

    I see it as one of my duties now to help people in this area

    cheers,
    Niels

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