How to Have More Mental Strength

February 3, 2012

Don’t panic! It’s just a new type of sandwich.

I’ve been traveling in India for the last two weeks. I feel at home here and it’s been great, but I’ve also seen how nervous new situations can make me.

In India, there are serious things to freak out about: Malaria, lack of sanitation and clean drinking water, germs that can’t stand up against hand sanitizer. When I first arrived I was uncomfortable not because New York City is less dirty, but because I control my environment in the states – places without mosquitos, filtered water, dust-free surfaces. These things aren’t easy to find in India, so NYC provides a level of automatic control over my environment that I don’t have here. And apparently I like control because when I don’t have it, I see how uncomfortable I get. I’m fairly adaptable to new situations (humans can get used to a lot) but I see how even small inconveniences get big when you’re used to a particular lifestyle like I am in New York.

Of course, India has it’s own conveniences that make for a great life- driver, cook, and cleaner per family – even if you’re lower-middle class. Everything delivered to your doorstep – groceries, massages, airline tickets. A service-based economy where you’re treated like royalty if you can afford it. But the point isn’t the difference between what is and isn’t available, the difference is what you’re used to. And there’s a lot I’m not used to here.

So because I don’t want to drive myself crazy, I’m bucking up.

I’m strengthening my mental fibers and noticing what does matter (disease) and what doesn’t (how dust reappears the moment you wipe it away.) I’ve stopped worrying about what doesn’t matter and if a thought enters, I get annoyed but don’t let it linger. ”It is what it is” is my mantra and life has become much easier because of it. You become all “bring it on” and realize you can handle a lot more than you think.

Even as I write this I’m sitting by a space heater in a small dining room with three people milling about in the back. This took two days to get used to but now I’m happy here with my cup of tea; very different from writing at my desk in NYC in the morning with only my thoughts and the page. But I’m used to the shower shoes, the shawls to keep me warm, showing up late to everything, everywhere. I have no qualms about these things now. Once I saw that brushing my teeth with bottled water was my only option, I started looking for more bottles, not more ways to avoid brushing my teeth. There’s a huge difference.

Practicing mental toughness when you’re uncomfortable is important because without asking, life will throw something your way that you can’t control and you’ll have to deal with it. Here’s what helps me be more resilient and if you practice these techniques, you’ll see how tough you really are.

1. Ignore sensations.
We’re so used to responding to our environment that it’s hard to take discomfort even for a few minutes; It doesn’t even have to be uncomfortable, it can simply be what you’re not used to and instantly you want to change the situation. We inextricably link our environments to our bodies so we design them to meet our comfort levels – If we can’t do it, we get angry. If we’re uncomfortable, we want to stop feeling it. But this is exactly what perpetuates discomfort – wanting something to be different than what it is.
If you can’t change your situation, you must do one of the following: ignore it, focus on something else, get used to it, or think about people worse off than you. Wishing it were different will make it worse. Being flexible with sensations, with time, with how plans unfold in unfamiliar territory is a golden rule for staying calm. I learned this quickly in India when things weren’t as efficient as I’m used to.
2. Panic about only what you need to.

Like Malaria. Or getting stuck in an elevator with no one around. And even then panic won’t help you out. There are few reasons to freak out in life and even those where it’s warranted, you’re better off being in control of what you can and leaving the rest. If you’ve taken your anti-Malaria medication, worn long socks, and slathered on repellent, do not worry about Malaria. Though they’re annoying and it’s actually very difficult to do, don’t let mosquitos ruin an experience. I’ve done that too many times and now I’ve learned to hold out my arms so at least they don’t bite my face. Realize that you will never be able to control everything, and that’s a good thing – there’s less to worry about. As they say in India, “Don’t take tension, man.”

3. Positive Mental Attitude.

Believe wholeheartedly that things will work out. Because there’s no reason they shouldn’t. This has helped me tremendously in staying happy and solution-oriented even when things point to a shitty situation. Like being lost at night in India. Yes, you should have a healthy fear of being lost, but do not start thinking “I’ll be caught by hoodlums, kidnapped and never found again,” just calmly analyze your options. I once read in a book, “Do something calmly, do something quickly, but do something. Do not sit idle in the face of danger.” No matter what, your safety depends on your ability to be aware and calm. Know deep down that you will be okay, and that will give you enough energy to act even if you’re scared. Oh, and believing in God helps me a lot in scary situations. Say what you will, but for me it works wonders.

4. Make it light.

Few things are as heavy as we make them, including situations we think are very uncomfortable. If it’s not life or death, taking a less intense perspective will help you.

5. Only listen to positive people.

Before I boarded my flight to India people gave me tons of opinions: “Make sure you take your Malaria pills otherwise you’re sure to contract it” “Eitihad Airlines is the worst – no tv’s, no food, prepare yourself.” “India will be freezing!” I received so much advice about my travels that I was pretty anxious heading to the airport. What happened before I caught my flight? A man who had flown the same airline on the same route started talking to me on the bus. I told him the opinions I received and he said, “Nah, you’ll be just fine. You’ll be able to handle it, piece of cake.” I loved him in that moment. What relief he brought. He didn’t say it was a better flight or that India wouldn’t be freezing, what he did do was give me an enormous amount of strength in myself to handle whatever came my way. Only talk to people like that.

This goes for travel and regular life. People who focus on life’s little worries and don’t strengthen you should be cast out of your life to make room for guys like the one on the bus.

You’ve already handled a lot of discomfort in your life. And you can handle more. Know that your mental fibers are constantly being tested and it’s your job and no one else’s to meet the challenges of life with the courage of a hero and the smile of a conqueror. Next time you feel uncomfortable, angry, whatever, sit with it and use it to strengthen yourself.

xx Ishita

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Chris U February 20, 2012 at 10:32 am

Not too much but you didn’t leave out any of the most usefull considerations. To stay calm when you are really perturbed needs constant re-inforcing. Thanks for the tips !!!

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