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What Exactly is Mental Strength?

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Learn how one nurse leader practices self-compassion to maintain her mental toughness.

Nurses have faced a lot over the past year. Not only have nurses dealt with the fallout of a pandemic, some have been overworked, many have experienced daily traumas, and they've put their own health and the health of their families at risk. And that’s probably putting it lightly. As nurses, you need mental strength during the best of times. But for the past year? You've needed boatloads of it. But, what does mental strength even mean?

Like work-life balance, mental strength is one of those terms that we haven’t quite been able to define yet. You can’t look it up in a dictionary. Searching online will turn up so many differing opinions, you’ll come away feeling either less-than or just flat-out confused. Talk about a recipe for stress and anxiety. So, can we at least try to agree on what mental strength means?

According to Amy Morin, a psychotherapist, the concept of mental strength is really quite simple. “Mental strength is about thinking, feeling and doing your best,” she says. Notice she didn’t say someone else’s best.

Morin also says that mental strength is the key to balancing self-care and persistence during a crisis.

Mental strength is a moving target

For LaToya Phillipe, a nurse leader in Rapid City, S.D., the pandemic tested her mental strength in more ways than one. As cases surged in her community, her orthopedic/neurology/surgical unit became a COVID one. “All of a sudden, our patients were sicker than those we normally cared for,” she says. “We had to learn quickly to care for this population. The amount of changes happening made it difficult for my team to stay motivated. I watched their confidence level decrease so much.”

Phillipe doubled down on keeping her team’s spirits intact, while at the same time struggling with her own motivation.  “As a leader, I had to put my team first, but I quickly realized that I also needed to take a step back to prioritize myself, too.”

The definition of mental strength shouldn’t change from situation to situation—it should always be about thinking, feeling and doing your best, Morin says. Be open to redefining what “your best” means depending on what you’re facing.

“What you’re able to accomplish or how you might feel may look a little different,” Morin says. “You may need to cut yourself a little slack in some areas. Or, you may have discovered you had inner strength you never even knew existed.”

Is your overtime schedule too much? Maybe “your best” has half as many workouts on the calendar and a lot more takeout. Juggling nursing through a pandemic with virtual learning at home? Maybe “your best” is saying no to overtime all together.

Changing the means to an end

For Phillipe, maintaining her mental strength has meant a greater focus on mindfulness and gratitude. “I wake up early in the morning and try to start my day with three things I’m grateful for and read a daily mindfulness tip to carry me through the day,” she says. “I also block out time in my schedule to refocus myself and my purpose. I’ve maintained these strategies throughout the pandemic but have definitely fallen off the wagon a few times.” And when that happens, she simply starts where she left off—no berating self-talk necessary.

Morin says every nurse could use an extra dose of self-compassion these days. “Speaking to yourself with a kind inner dialogue is important to feeling your best,” she says.

Another key tip is just taking time to identify your emotions. “Whatever you feel is OK—there’s no need to judge yourself harshly for being anxious, tired or overwhelmed,” Morin says. “But simply labeling your feelings can go a long way toward helping you make sense of your emotions.”

Phillipe created a support group on her unit to encourage just that. “This gives everyone the opportunity to discuss their challenges and successes with others to build connection and know they aren’t alone,” she says.

At the beginning of each week, Phillipe also sends out motivational tips and mindfulness strategies to her team.

“People often confuse ‘being strong’ with ‘acting tough,’” Morin says. “Mental strength doesn’t involve ignoring your pain or suppressing your emotions. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It takes a lot of strength to acknowledge that you’re sad or to face your fears.”

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