What do mentally strong people do—and not do? This question became a burning one for Amy Morin after she suffered a series of personal losses early in her career as a psychotherapist.
It also led her to write several books, including the international bestseller 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, and 13 Things Mentally Strong Women Don’t Do.
We caught up with her recently for a conversation (from her houseboat) about how developing mental strength can help us meet the unique challenges of living through a pandemic.
Morin—the editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind, the largest mental health website—will speak at the Texas Conference for Women on October 5th.
Q: You distinguish between mental health and mental strength. What is that difference, and why is it important?
Think about the distinction between physical health and physical strength. Becoming physically strong might help prevent health problems, but it doesn’t guarantee it. We also know that being healthier and stronger are interrelated. The choices we make every day can prevent and reduce symptoms of existing problems. But it doesn’t guarantee we won’t get health problems. As a therapist, some of the strongest people I’ve ever met battle depression.
Q: We’re facing a staggering growth in mental health issues due to the pandemic. What practical steps can women take to address this when there is still no clear end in sight?
First, research says that when you are struggling with a tough time, just remembering it’s tough can give you a huge boost. Second, it helps to have something to look forward to. Put it on your calendar: Watch this movie on Friday at 7. Most people think that’s ridiculous. But research shows it gives a boost. A third strategy is to schedule time for worry. Tons of studies say that putting 15 minutes on your calendar to worry helps. It takes two weeks. But people notice a huge difference in mental well-being.
Q: A recent report suggested that businesses are sleepwalking into a mental health crisis, because many employees feel they have to disguise what they are experiencing. Why is it bad to hide their struggles, and what can employers do to create healthier workplaces now?
We do tend to hide mental health issues. There is still a stigma that it may be a sign of weakness. Or that if you’re struggling, it means you have a lack of mental strength. People worry they may get penalized. They won’t get a promotion. The truth is that mental health affects everything we do: how we stay on task, perform, and perceive things.
But it’s OK to talk about it. To come back to the office now and pretend you’re fine, pretend all of this didn’t happen is bizarre. Many people are distressed, and substance abuse is rampant. It doesn’t do any good to hide it. Employers can provide access to free screening tools from Mental Health America, so employees know that struggling and talking about their struggles is OK.
Q: You’ve written several books about what mentally strong people don’t do. What are some recommendations you’ve found most helpful in your own life since the pandemic?
Through the pandemic one thing I have appreciated is the strategy: Don’t focus on what you can’t control – on what the government or other people are responsible for. Focus on what you can. And you can control whether you wash your hands, mask, where you go, how you spend your time, who you spend it with, even how much news you want to consume and how.
Q: There are some misunderstandings about mental strength. For example, you’ve written that it doesn’t mean acting tough or ignoring your emotions. Can you explain that?
I see the memes: I’m tired of being the strong one all the time. This doesn’t make sense. We don’t get tired of having big muscles. But people get tired of being tough. Mental strength is about being courageous enough to say you could use a helping-hand or acknowledging that you are in pain.
Q: You’ve also said mental strength is not about positive thinking. What is it about then?
Positive thinking says it’s probably good you didn’t get the job because something better will come along. It’s a way to avoid being disappointed. But mental strength isn’t positive thinking. It’s about being realistic in your thinking rather than assuming everything will turn out well. If you’re overconfident, it can be more detrimental than having a lack of confidence.
Q: Some people have suggested if there is a silver lining to the pandemic, it is that more people are choosing mental well-being. Do you agree?
While this has opened the door to considering mental health for many people, and the stigma is decreasing a little, I also realize how fragile mental health is now And, there is a need for coping strategies. There are plenty of struggles, and they won’t magically go away. I hope that, coming out of the pandemic, we will have more tools and strategies for working on mental health.