Mental Toughness v. Mental Health. What’s The Difference?

Mental Toughness is a term that gets used a lot, particularly by males and particularly within the athletic world. While mental toughness is important to overall performance and well-being, the term is often misunderstood.

Defining Mental Toughness

Let’s first define how mental toughness relates to mental health and then look to unravel the definition of mental toughness in general.

Mental toughness is something that fits into the “mental fitness” category. We often talk about mental fitness, mental health, and mental illness as related but separate concepts. Mental health is sort of an umbrella under which everything else falls, along a spectrum. On one end you have mental fitness, on the other is mental illness, and there is a lot of space in between.

Mental Health

Mental health, as a term, describes the state of our emotional and psychological well-being at any one point in time. If a person is dealing with mental illness, their mental health conversation would certainly include a discussion on their particular mental illness(es).

If they are not experiencing a diagnosable mental illness/disorder, their mental health discussion would likely be more about general mental health symptoms that many experiences, to varying degrees. This could be relative to life events, emotions, productivity, self-esteem, motivation levels, relationships, work stress, or a host of other possible variables. Mental health is quite a broad topic.

Mental Fitness

Mental fitness is about being proactive with regard to mental health, it’s about refusing to wait for mental health symptoms to worsen. We all struggle with varying degrees of mental health symptoms. Symptoms always have the potential to decline enough to meet the criteria for a mental illness, which is why mental fitness is so vital.

Like eating healthy and staying physically fit, mental fitness best practices are important because they help minimize the chance of negative mental health momentum. Mental health challenges and mental illness often come from an accumulation of things over time. Proactive mental fitness habits can prevent that accumulation from forming, protect a person, and give them positive momentum to step up + move FORWARD in their life, instead of feeling stuck.

Mental Toughness

This brings us back to mental toughness, which is a part of mental fitness. There is what many think mental toughness is, and then there is what it really is. Let’s start with what many think it is.

Many often THINK mental toughness means the absence of a mental miscue (particularly in sports), or the external ability to weather life adversity without showing any sign of weakness (in a general life sense). After all, guys, in particular, will do whatever it takes to make sure they don’t appear as weak. Toughness is the opposite of weakness. Voila, mental toughness. Unfortunately, this view actually misses the point completely and often serves only to reinforce harmful expectations like perfectionism and stoicism.

Let’s talk about what mental toughness ACTUALLY is. Mental toughness is emotional intelligence with a more alpha term, plain in simple. Consider the sports angle. If a player is mentally tough, it really means they are emotionally intelligent enough to remove their ego from the equation, stay in a flow state by shaking off miscues quickly, refocus instantly, self-motivated, and self-drive to reach higher and higher levels. It means after the game, they can look at failure, again void of ego, and see it for what it is: the most valuable set of data for potential improvement they could possibly hope for.

There is MUCH more to learn from failure than from success, and emotionally intelligent people get this completely. Mental toughness means after a win or a championship, they allow themselves to feel joy while also showing gratitude and appreciation for all the others who made it happen (teammates, coaches, etc) instead of making themselves the focus of all attention (ego-driven). Mental toughness means a day or two after victory they start from scratch because instead of being driven to achieve some end-product goal, they are driven to see how far they can push themselves in this one life, consistently, relentlessly.

This is because, they aren’t setting goals to prove their self-worth as a person, they’re setting goals to play a mental game within a game, competing against themselves in a healthy way. There is no finish line. Think Russell Wilson. Think Tom Brady. Tom Brady always says his favorite ring is “the next one.” Mentally tough players know how and when to feel emotion. They channel emotion into energy and focus, when needed, and also allow themselves to feel the difficult emotions they need to, provided it’s at the right time and in the right manner (not during a game).  They can delay and/or channel emotion strategically, but they do NOT ignore emotion.

So how does mental toughness relate to mental fitness? Mental fitness is about a proactive approach to staying in good mental health. Emotional intelligence (EIQ) is one component of this. The brain is known to incorporate something called neuroplasticity, which means even after development is complete (mid-20’s), the brain still has the ability to learn and create new neurons through the process of learning. Emotional intelligence is something that can be learned and improved upon, like anything else, through practice.

When people improve emotional intelligence, they learn how to be vulnerable and grow from that vulnerability, they decrease ego and increase resilience, all of which affords them the ability to reach higher levels of mental fitness. This will also allow them to recover from a mistake on the court quicker, to stay locked in flow state during competition. This might look like mental toughness or the opposite of mental weakness when in actuality, this is emotional intelligence.  Emotional intelligence doesn’t quite have the same alpha ring to it, but it is the key to maximizing performance and excelling at the highest level in anything.

Jotham Busfield, LICSW

Owner @ Riser+Tread

Host of The Grim Drive Podcast

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