How to Build Mental Resilience

Updated: June 20, 2015


What are some ways that a civilian person can actively build his mental resilience? A question from Johann S.

I was asked how to build  “Mental Resilience” and in part it means keep your eye on the horizon. It is about setting goals and completing it to the end. My initial short answer to the question is at the end of this article but as I thought more about it after responding to this thought provoking question I realized there was really more to building Mental Resilience and I wanted to expand on how it related to my own experience.
I went to Wikipedia (the free encyclopedia) and here is their definition in part: Psychological Resilience is defined as an individual’s ability to properly adapt to stress and adversity. Resilience is not a rare ability; in reality, it is found in the average individual and it can be learned and developed by virtually anyone. Resilience should be considered a process, rather than a trait to be had.[2] It is important to note that resilience is not only about overcoming a deeply stressful situation, but also coming out of the said situation with “competent functioning”. It also encompasses grit which refers to the perseverance and passion for long-term goals.
I was blown away as I have lived this life style my entire life. The words within the definition, that really stood out for me were: Stress, competent functioning, and grit but I would add to the definition focus and protective factors as it applies to those who engage in life with hope and humor despite devastating losses.
I remember when I was young, my sister and I seemed to have to put up with lots of abuses and traumatic events, changing the way I focus. For us these events slowly became a way of life coping experiences. For many years when things seemed like doom and gloom, I would catch my sister laughing about something else. When I asked her how could she be laughing, her response was always the same, “You always have a choice, you can laugh or you can cry”, “I’d rather laugh”. Wow, how simple and effective. So as children when things would get bad, we would hide and start laughing together. At the time I had no idea what a significant and positive outlook this would eventually have on my life. This simple solution to a point caused me the focus like a horse with blinders on, ‘tunnel vision” only seeing what I wanted to see until I was or am able to cope.
Throughout my life I had to deal with traumatic events, from when I was a child, my older brothers would tease me push me throw me around, lock me in places, make me climb the tallest tree while they would cut them down and even throw me into quicksand and wait until full panic had set in prior to them pulling me out. I had my 8 stitches in my head from my brothers when I was 18 months old. Without knowing I was developing psychological/mental resilience at a very young age, kind of like the dog you lock in the trunk or put in a cage, the dog was just waiting all day for a kind word, a little praise or food. I developed a strong sense of loyalty and love to the same family, simply not knowing any better, especially being the youngest. I’m now 61 years old and was raised in Milledgeville GA. Where we had a dirt road leading up to the house and very few toys. We got creative and tough at a very young age. You might be wondering what I consider traumatic events. From a very young age about 18 months until recently, I have had more than 35 broken bones, over 150 stitches in and under my face, reconstructive surgery, pronounced dead but somehow I am still here. I experienced the price of entry at 17 during the Vietnam Era (legal physical hazing), away from home for the first time, witnessing one of the guys in basic actually blowing his brains out on the rifle range on one day, leaving parts of his brains on me. The Special Forces Selection and Training, Combat Dive, Military Free Fall and I am a Combat Veteran. I walked into the service to cope with things from home thinking this would be the easy way out and follow in my brothers’ footsteps. Wow, what a wakeup call. However I got here, there has always been a “Never Quit” attitude and I felt like paying the price was mandatory. Over the past few years one of my brothers passed away, my mother died when I was with her, one of my nephews committed suicide, I have lost two step parents and one of my own sons was brutally murdered in Pittsburgh.
I now struggle with combat related PTSD, nightmares and sweats, paranoia, angry issues while dealing with corporate America as I work for a Fortune 500 Construction Company in NYC. It’s funny how I sometimes close my eyes and breath like when I was a Special Forces Sniper, you control the breathing before pulling the trigger. Then at times I can hear my sister’s words, “Smokey, you have a choice, you can laugh or cry”. As we are men of responsibility and I have another 16 year old son, and it all becomes clear, I have to be a role model for my son. Once you figure out your end strategy, your life priorities and the steps to get there, should you stumble along the way, you just need to keep Your Eyes on the Horizon and you will be able to pick yourself up and keep moving forward. It is my opinion we are all products of our failures and successes.
I recently heard of a situation that may be fracturing part of the Special Warfare Brotherhood and this caused me to reflect back on my own experiences and my own Mental Resilience and how this could be helpful for others. First we have to let our egos go and ask the most prideful of us to drop the pride long enough to see their own horizons. A Navy Seal relayed a humorous situation about one of his Navy Seal brothers on the verge of quitting during the course. Of course no one wants to ever admit to quitting, and the truth be known the individual never did quit, so what the “F” get over it. I discussed this with my friend Jack Murphy and I once again laughed it off as I told him I could count how many times and days during training I felt like quitting. You know you are dirty, hungry, knee deep in mud with a 120 pound rucksack, no creature comforts and more and I knew my brothers were hurting too. We all found our own humor in these situations. If you are on the verge of quitting and don’t, that’s cool. I have seen some people that should have quit, that stopped coping and actually died. Who knows how you will find the strength and develop mental toughness or “Psychological/ Mental Resilience” as were are all products of our own environment. Special Operators to me are the world’s best at adjusting and overcoming. The hard thing for us is to integrate into the rest of the world when we are not running on empty all day and our hearts are pounding wondering if you will live or die, swim or sink.
I have also found comfort in my Martial Arts background and training, just like walking into the military at 17 years old I walked into a small garage training with some of the hardest fighters I have ever known. All stemming from the American Open Style Karate System, created by Robert Trias and brought forward by men like Jerry Piddington, the late Joe Lewis, Bruce Lee, Bill Super Foot Wallace and other great influential characters. They brought reality into the world of modern defensive martial arts systems. Let me tell you, I thought I knew it all when I walked into those doors and was I surprised how knowledgeable and tuff these guys were; real fighters and they taught me a lot, especially Danny Wilson, my Grand Master. Life is going to be full of challenges and each of us have to find our own place and learn how to interact with others. You don’t have to get along or even like everybody and that’s ok. Once you learn how to identify your good from bad and what works for you, you will learn what stresses you and how to adopt and overcome. You must in order to survive. I read the statistics of all of the young soldiers coming home from war thinking they will have a job and their wives and girlfriends have been faithfully waiting and after learning certain harsh realities, they commit suicide. They can’t find a job, they can’t provide and protect their families, instead of coping, and they throw the towel in and end it all. They lost sight of the Horizon and forgotten how to reset,   use the training they had to use to survive in the service but unable to translate that same conditioning to civilian life. Then you have the young people searching for a life where they think they will feel important and join ISIS, little knowing that their value to ISIS is to use them as suicide bombers while the real ISIS members don’t use themselves in that very way and continue to live life.  These are the ones who are running away, lost focus and have not tried to reset and nurture their own mental resilience.  Ultimately, they accomplish nothing and hurt their loved ones. How useless and hopeless does one have to feel to end it all? They are people who have forgotten how to laugh when the chips are down. The young people whose’ own family never gave them a sense of self-importance. Misery truly does love company. It really does take a village to raise a child, but at the same time each of us must find an inner sanctuary, a place within ourselves, where we can go, to tell ourselves it will be alright. My mother used to tell me as long as you have breath you have hope. Pretty good words.

Here was my short answer on how to build Mental Resilience as it related to working out.

Mental resilience is a tough one. I kind of grew up in a harsh environment and once I entered the military I became more determined and even more once I joined Special Forces. You have to know what you want i.e. mental toughness. Stress is the key. I think in the beginning you should establish goals. If you wanted to run 5 minute miles for example set a time and a distance and start running. If you come up short, repeat this and increase your stride a little each day. What I mean if you are running at a pace of 32 steps a minute and you are running slow, maintain the pace and increase your speed by lengthening your stride. At the end of each run do 10 winds sprints until you are clearing the phlegm from your lungs. If 10 is the number, no matter how fast or slow do all 10. Take physical task running or hitting a heavy bag set a time and an expectation and push harder every day and be relentless, even if you feel you are not strong. When you feel like quitting, do more.”

Keep Your Eyes on the Horizon, but take pride in the little successes in life, no matter how small or how insignificant you may feel, it is still a win and another stepping stone to the next win and step in your life. What is a win or a success? To me it is anything you set out to accomplish and you complete the task. It could be rehabbing a broken leg and walking up a flight of steps, reading book, doing 10 pull ups or graduating a combat dive course. In the end at some level it’s all the same, all you have to do is finish! Adapt and overcome.

© James “Smokey” West


Hey bro. This is well written, succinct and honest. The things kept so close all of our lives, for me, not to hurt our extended families, now brought to light. You validated it. Had a good cry after seeing you to day and after reading this, but there it is. I was not expecting anything ever about this and oddly, I feel like some kind of weight is lifted. Thanks for being you. I'm glad we got here. <3 Sis