As a college psychology instructor, I see a disturbing pattern that is getting worse every year — college students lack the mental strength they need to thrive in the real world.
It's not their fault, though. They weren't given the tools, skills, and challenges needed to develop mental muscle. Instead, they were shielded from pain, defended from hardship, and coddled by people who wanted them to feel good.
Unfortunately, we're now seeing mental health crises across college campuses. According to a 2019 survey conducted by the American College Health Association, nearly 66% of college students felt overwhelming anxiety during the prior 12 months, and 45% felt so depressed it was difficult to function.
And it'll most likely grow worse this year given the rules about social distancing. With fewer opportunities to gain peer support, students might struggle more than ever.
Of course, it's not just college students who are struggling with mental strength. Many adults are as well. Here's why mental strength is on the decline in today's world:
There's pressure to be busy (rather than reflect on emotions)
We talk a lot about emotional intelligence and its importance. But, the truth is, most people don't spend much time thinking about their feelings and how those emotions affect their decisions.
There's a common misconception that feelings are either positive or negative; excitement is good and anger is bad, for example. But that's not accurate.
Any emotion has the ability to be helpful or hurtful. While anger may cause you to say something mean to someone you care about, it also might give you the courage to stand up for someone. Excitement may be a fun emotion when you're planning a vacation but it also might cause you to overlook the potential risks you face when someone invites you to take part in a get-rich-quick scheme.
It's important to spend more time thinking about our emotions. A little self-reflection in today's world could go a long way toward better understanding ourselves and the decisions that we make. But many people fill their lives with so much activity that they never take time to pause and reflect on how they're feeling.
Healthy emotional regulation skills are key to being mentally strong. But you can't learn how to experience your emotions in a healthy way when you're constantly running around trying to be busy.
People are often told their feelings are wrong
When people (especially children) share their feelings, they're often told what they're feeling is "wrong." People are quick to say things like, "Don't be scared," or "You have nothing to worry about."
Minimizing and denying how anyone feels isn't helpful. Whatever you feel is OK. Being told what you feel is wrong, absurd, or out of proportion might cause you to withdraw and become less expressive of your emotions.
Mental strength isn't about suppressing or denying your feelings. It takes strength to acknowledge how you're feeling and to deal with those emotions in a healthy way.
We avoid uncomfortable feelings at all costs
Many young people grew up with parents who wanted to raise happy kids. Consequently, they took responsibility for their kids' feelings.
If their kids were sad, they cheered them up. If they were angry, they calmed them down. Kids grew up believing they must avoid uncomfortable feelings at all cost.
Many adults are phobic about feeling bad, too. They dodge anything that feels anxiety-provoking, and reach for any coping skill that offers immediate relief from distress.
Technology offers a great escape from uncomfortable feelings. Whether you're bored, lonely, tired, sad, or stressed out, you can reach your phone and temporarily numb the pain.
Unfortunately, our digital devices (as well as easy access to other temporary numbing agents like drugs, alcohol and junk food) prevent us from experiencing the tension that helps us grow stronger. Just like lifting weights builds physical muscle, you need a little discomfort to add mental muscle.
We confuse mental strength with mental health
Sometimes people assume that depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues are a sign of weakness. So rather than get help if they experience symptoms, they try to pretend like everything is fine. Over time, their mental health often declines as they suffer silence.
But mental health and mental strength are two very different things. Many mentally strong people experience mental illnesses. I meet with many of them in them in my therapy office and I interview many of them for my podcast, which just happens to be called Mentally Strong People.
The comparison between mental strength and mental health is similar to the way you could compare physical strength and physical health. A physical health issue, like diabetes, doesn't prevent you from lifting weights to become physically strong. Of course, a health issue may make strength building a little more complicated, but it's still possible.
But misconstruing mental strength with mental health prevents people from getting help. Most mental illnesses are treatable. And when they're treated, it's easier to build the mental muscle you need to become the strongest and best version of yourself.
It's important that we start spreading this message now. One of the best ways to do that is to start teaching kids that taking care of their minds is no different than taking care of their bodies.
SOOTHING EMOTIONS WILL GUIDE YOU WITH RESEARCH, ARTICLES, AND INTERACTIVE TOOLS TO HELP YOU ON THE JOURNEY OF NAVIGATING YOUR MENTAL HEALTH.
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