THE BLOG
04/23/2014 05:37 pm ET Updated Jun 23, 2014

Crave an Iron Mind

If you had to "trust your instinct," would you rely on your brain or your "gut"? Under pressure, do you become hyper-focused like a laser or vacillate until you physically manifest the stress within? Although they seem like opposite ends of the spectrum, each path is actually your mind's hard-wired reaction to life's daily grind. But both reactions can drain us, physically and emotionally, without preparing us for the next battle. Rather than focus on our reactions, we should practice building our resiliency instead.

When we talk about stress and the hardships of modern life, somehow our great Aunt Louise shows up and says, "You have it so much harder. We just did not have so many things to worry about when we were growing up." Really? In my family alone, we have had six bouts and five deaths with cancer, life-debilitating OCD, suicide attempts, alcoholism and varying addictions. At first, that might sound like an overwhelming list, but as you consider what really goes on in your life, and in the lives of your family and friends, you see that we all have humbling experiences. Even if they are small aftershocks on everybody else's seismograph, these occurrences may be traumatic to you and your family.

Life is filled with trauma, so the question is whether we are equipped to handle it. How can we get a grip on the tension in our life and help generations ahead do the same? There are several ways to handle stress in life, but the process has to become habit. For starters, how about a DIY switch on the acronym of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and think of it as "Prevent and Treat Stress Daily." Rather than react when something has happened, let's proactively build our minds towards resiliency.

Accepting trauma as a part of life may sound harsh. Even though it is a common thought in other cultures, many (including myself) feel an impending doom when we think like that. But author Anne Lamott gracefully describes the result of everyday suffering in her book Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair with the quote:

My understanding of incarnation is that we are not served by getting away from the grubbiness of suffering. Sometimes we feel that we are barely pulling ourselves forward through a tight tunnel on badly scraped elbows. But we do come out the other side, exhausted and changed.

Beautiful words.

We can train our brain to be more prepared for trauma, and in turn lower the negative impact that stress has on our system. As Sandra and Mathew Blakeslee explain in their book The Body Has A Mind Of Its Own, although as humans we are amazed with computers; but each of us come into this world with individual maps and files of our own, so complicated and unique, but also very programmable.

When trauma occurs, we often want to wrap ourselves in a blanket and cry, "Why?" But what if we re-trained our reaction to be that of resiliency, to know that after the pain, after the shock, we have a plan of how to pull ourselves back together. We can establish a constructive reaction to trauma by establishing a habit of bouncing back.

I was raised in a family that if first you do not succeed, give it up because, you are probably not cut out for it and life is too short. Well, if I had stuck with that mindset, there is no way that I would have shifted from an okay but extremely inconsistent gymnast at age 14 to eighth in the country in a period of 18 months. What it took was completely engrossing myself in a world of persistence, positive repetition and saturating my belief system with the conviction that I was an international/Olympic-level gymnast. The daily hardships, scary skills and aching muscles took second place to my positive, repetitive thoughts.

The best template of establishing these types of new brain patterns comes from the model we use to teach children to speak, to walk and so forth. Keep it short, simple and positive, both for items in your life that are in your control and out of your control. Try a T-chart, labeling one side with a list of the things "in your control" and the other side a list of the things "out of your control." Look at the things in your control: Make a plan, set a reward, and do them with as much energy and passion as possible. For the things that are out of your control: First, talk to others, such as a close friend or a mentor, who often have ideas that can help.

Next, pray or meditate about your out-of-control items -- hearing your own voice in humility aids in finding peace or at least a more realistic perspective. Lastly, if the item on your worry list is still sitting around after all of the above efforts, then stronger action is needed. You may need intense repetition and what I call "engraining a belief" in your brain. If the thought, fear or persistent "yuck" in your brain will not go away, then you must spend at least 25 percent of your day with a planned attack on those unwanted thoughts. This effort is similar to the suggested amount of time that you would have to spend with a child to teach them to be fluent in a new language.

A daily diet of de-stressing brain fuel might entail the following;

(1) Five to 10 minutes of focused thought on the language you want to hear in your mind about life, love, family and/or work during the day, such as: I am looking forward to accomplishing my fifth presentation this week. I am going to rock the house at this year's skills forum. Getting out in the morning at 7 a.m. will lead to a smooth transition into a productive day. For children, you can write these things down on cue cards and call them "little life scripts" or "my mini game plan."

(2) Plan times during the day when you repeat something physically, incorporating a mantra: a 20 minute walk of the same route at the same pace, repeating the language of life that you want to believe, such as: "I am strong-minded and have a game plan set forth to handle ___." Liz Lockhart mentions in an article on ritualistic behaviors that the combination of physical and mental repetition has been researched and shown to be calming and even used by those in the animal world. The important detail about rituals is to maintain the focus on the end result, the cue, otherwise known as a goal.

Charles Duhigg mentions in his book The Power of Change how Michael Phelps and his coach used the power of positive habits, patterns and repeated behaviors to his advantage to become one of the most decorated Olympic swimmers. It was the way he was able to bring the perfect stroke he reviewed on video into the water. First, repeating it in his mind and then repeating it in practice. Finally when under competition pressure, on the block and into the water, the pattern was automatic... thoughtless.

(3) Make the things that you already do symbolically mean something positive to you: Your cup of coffee in the morning will bring energy and focus, washing your face clears your mind of negative "crust," putting on your right shoe represents strength and putting on the left one represents stamina. These are the cues that, if practiced habitually, will create an iron mind that craves a positive outcome.

A life of trauma requires convincing ourselves every day that there is some sort of thread out there to sew the rips and tears in our delicately-stitched lives. No matter how stretched, torn and ripped we become, if we are wired to believe we are irreparable, then we will be. We need to do more than just trust our mind and gut to be the judge.