How to be Tough:

Toughness is difficult to define really. We use a lot of different terms to describe the various components of toughness. So let’s take a second to thoroughly confuse ourselves with them now…

Some people (the American Psychological Association) use  “resilience” to describe being able to adapt well in the face of adversity, trauma or significant sources of stress, and having the ability to bounce back from difficult experiences.  “Will power” is the ability to focus attention and effort without being distracted by other urges. Then we have “Determination” which we describe as being the resolute commitment to achieve a goal (I know it’s pretty similar). And one final definition which I particularly like is “antifragility” which is when someone actually becomes stronger after being exposed to stressful situations.

We can then divide toughness in to its mental side and the physical side. The relationship between these two is very closely linked. From my experience, someone can’t demonstrate a physical toughness without the mental toughness behind it. However, there are many people out there who are mentally tough enough to drive their body past its ability to keep up, destroying their body to achieve their goal. This is why I think that training mental robustness plays a vital part of training our physical ability as the two often develop simultaneously. We measure mental toughness by assessing a person’s persistence, focus and confidence in their abilities. The final definition which I like is “Hardiness”. Three components make up hardiness:

  1. A commitment to seeing life as meaningful and interesting.

  2. The belief that you can influence events. (see how this relates to stress by clicking this link)

  3. And that you can see all experiences, good and bad as opportunities to learn and develop.

One thing to note about “hardy” people is that they tend to see success as normal and therefore don’t celebrate it as much as those who are less hardy. This is often difficult for the latter group to understand and can lead to the impression that the hardy person does not care as much.

All of this makes it sound as if mental toughness is a rare trait and one that only a few people possess. This is not the case. It is not so for two reasons:

  1. Most people are never able to find out how tough they really are because their lives don’t put them in positions where it becomes necessary.

  2. We can cultivate and train Mental toughness. You may not have learned to see yourself as a tough person, but you can become one.



So how is it that some people are tougher than others?


I’ll jump straight in with something pretty dry. The FKBP5 gene (yeah you know the one) is known to be involved in the hormonal feedback which drives our stress response (see the Objective X article on stress here). The FKBP5 gene can vary with two different outcomes. One variant causes us to be more susceptible to PTSD. The other variant in this same gene actually protects us from it¹. Which means that to an extent, our genetics do affect our toughness.


People who have experienced trauma but not developed PTSD seem to have a more active prefrontal cortex. This is in comparison to those who have developed PTSD. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for reasoning and can prevent things such as stress or fear responses. This could mean that someone with a more active prefrontal cortex is likely to be more resilient or hardy.


Special Forces soldiers who had been selected and trained to be tough were found to have a hormone which dampened their stress response called neuropeptide Y. This hormone also had the effect of reducing anxiety and improving their ability to think clearly in stressful situations². The combination of all these effects leads to these soldiers being tougher than those with lower levels of this hormone.


If we live lives full of things which require us to be tough then we learn to be tough. Fortunately what this means is that we can train to become tougher and more resilient.



Training to be Tough

So what can we actually do?

Let’s look at short term solutions. You find yourself suffering somewhere and for some reason.There are a few techniques we can use to assist our resilience.

  1. Find a meaning in your situation
    • This comes down to motivation. Either your motivation to complete a gruelling task or your motivation to get home alive afterwards, depending on whether or not you have chosen to be there.
  2. Take strength from social relationships
    • Most people will benefit hugely from very simple interactions when they are suffering. Having a good support network can be an important factor in bolstering our resilience.
  3. Humour
    • Every bad situation I have ever been in has benefited from an injection of humour. This is usually shared with someone else, but don’t be afraid of allowing yourself to find things funny. I have found myself laughing out loud at how absurd a position I have forced myself to be in. With horrific weather and terrible conditions I will still try and climb something. Every time I do this I realise what a terrible idea it is but for some reason it makes me laugh each time I do it, maybe because it’s simply absurd.


And some longer term methods for developing resilience and toughness:

Essentially, if we learn to tolerate stressors which require us to be resilient then we can become tougher. The best way for us to experience stressors like this is if we are able to control them, experience them acutely and to such a degree that they are not beyond what we can deal with. We call the response to this “Stress inoculation” or “Toughening”³. This toughening process has other benefits in the form of a greater ability to control emotions and a heightened immune response. Some have claimed that this also assists in anti-aging (acute stresses only, chronic stress ages us more apparently)… I’m not convinced. I think I probably age in dog years when I’m really forced to draw on my own resilience, regardless of how long that stress lasts for.

This is where antifragility comes in to it. If you possess the ability to learn from the things which require resilience then you will develop toughness. If you find that you begin to perform better under stress than without any then you will probably develop your toughness rapidly. Each time you undergo something which forces you to be tough and you come out of it stronger you will be developing.


In summary.

Toughness can be developed and learned, even if there are some aspects of it which are dictated by genetics. Get out there and do some things which scare you a little, ideally things which have an element of physicality and skill to them. You will learn to resist the stress and perform when you need to. This will gradually increase your toughness.  Like anything though, if you do not use your resilience for a long time it may well begin to diminish. If you are constantly testing it then it will grow. It is a psychological piece which we can train in a similar way to our physicality.









¹Binder et al. (2008)

² Morgan et al. (2000); Feeder et al (2009)

³ Seery (2011)