How Feeling Down Can Make You Mentally Strong

Going through tough times can actually make you stronger.

Posted Jun 30, 2019

To be alive is to feel.

Travis, a veteran of the Iraq war and a participant in my study on yogic breathing for post-traumatic stress, shared with me at the beginning of the experiment that he was unable to feel emotions. He told me there had been a suicide in his family and that he had felt no emotions during the tragedy. After the study was over and his trauma symptoms eased, he came to share with me: “It’s incredible. I have feelings. I feel good, I feel bad, I feel!” 

He was grateful to have all his feelings back—both the good and the bad. Trauma had numbed him from experiencing any feelings at all. He had lived in a sort of dead zone. Alive yet unable to feel. 

Yet, we often prefer not to feel. Especially when it comes to negative emotions. Let's face it, they can range from uncomfortable to outright painful. We know, for example, that loneliness registers similarly to physical pain in the brain.

So we try to avoid discomfort whether it’s through food, drinking, recreational drugs, impulsive shopping, movies, overworking, overexercising or digital distractions. Anything to not feel pain, boredom, sadness, insecurity, loneliness, emptiness, or fear.

What Hard Times Can Provide

What we forget is that if we don’t feel the pain, we also don’t feel the pleasure. By numbing ourselves to one, we numb ourselves to both. If we don’t feel sad, we also have a hard time feeling happy. We need that contrast. Without down moments, we won’t feel the up moments. Travis was grateful just to feel at all. Good or bad, it didn’t matter. 

We also forget that hard times have led to our growth. There’s nothing like going through a really rough time to appreciate our good fortune even more in the moments that happen to be smooth, easy, and joyful. The contrast makes us wise—it helps us have perspective and gratitude. We stop sweating the small stuff.  We become more empathic for others going through a hard time. Our compassion translates into action: How many people have joined fundraisers for health issues that they themselves or their family members have gone through?  

Research on post-traumatic growth shows that the hardest times—even extreme life-or-death situations—can lead to powerful growth experiences for people. In particular, they can deepen our relationships, increase our sense of strength, open up new opportunities, increase our appreciation for life, and even deepen our spirituality. The ability to experience our emotions, no matter how uncomfortable, is critical. 

How to Build Emotional Endurance

So how can we build our endurance? The good news is that we all have the tool for it: our minds. And extensive neuroscience research has shown that our minds are highly trainable. 

A U.S. Marine Corps veteran going through the Infantry Officer Course distinguished between those men who were able to complete grueling hikes carrying 200-pound backpacks and those who could not. He noticed that some very able-bodied men dropped out or passed out while others who were physically less fit succeeded. He told me, “It’s not the fact that you are the youngest or the biggest or the fittest that makes you successful. What determines the outcome is your mind.” 

So how can you train your mind? Meditation is one way. That helps make you less impulsive. You become better at managing your emotions, neuroscience shows.

Learning to control your mind through conscious and controlled breathing is extraordinarily powerful. When US Marine Corp Officer Jake Dobberke's vehicle drove over an improvised explosive device, he looked down to see his legs severed below the knee. At that moment, he remembered a breathing exercise he had learned in a book for young officers called On Combat. Thanks to that breathing exercise, he was able to stay calm enough to check on his men, give orders to call for help, tourniquet his own legs and remember to prop them up before falling unconscious. Later he was told that, had he not done so, he would have bled to death.

You can also learn the controlled breathing exercises that we researched and found to reverse the symptoms of trauma.  

Hypnosis is another form of mind-training. Childbirth is an example of a physically and emotionally painful time that feels truly unbearable. During my first child's birth, I had chosen to go all natural and without medications. I felt intense pain during all of the contractions. Between contractions, during those breaks with no pain that can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, I was anxious and scared about the next contraction.

I was experiencing what psychologists call “anticipatory anxiety”— I was wary of the next contraction (it doesn’t help that each one gets progressively more painful), anticipating the worst, and, in my particular case, feeling incredibly sorry for myself and completely alone, cursing like a sailor, calling for my mom, crying, and praying. I was a hot delirious mess. For 17 hours. 

Before my second child was born, I learned self-hypnosis for natural childbirth. I still felt pain during the contractions—in fact, I felt it intensely. But between contractions, I wasn’t cursing or crying. I was in a deep, restful state. My husband said it looked like I went into a comatose sleep. Now, these in-between-contraction moments are not long, certainly not long enough to go back to sleep. But my anticipatory anxiety was completely absent. In between contractions, I wasn’t worried about the next one. I was so peaceful and quiet that my experienced midwife decided to take a nap right as my body was actually getting ready to deliver. She told a friend who was there that I wasn’t going to give birth until the next day. I gave birth about 20 minutes later. 

This delivery experience solidified my understanding of the power of our minds. We can train our minds to endure discomfort, both emotional and physical. We can approach our experiences with whole attention. This is easier and has a better long-term outcome than trying to avoid discomfort through destructive or empty activities.

“When you reach the point that you can’t go on, it feels physical, like an immutable limit,” Alex Hutchinson, a former long-distance runner, endurance expert, and the author of Endure, told The New York Times. “But your physical limits are actually mediated by your brain. In most instances, dropping out is a decision.” 

That is good news. Although our bodies are not equally strong, we can all have strong minds—because we can train them.