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Cultivating inner strengths

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Inner strengths (power) are the supplies you’ve got within as you make your way down the twisting and often hard road of life. They include a positive mood, common sense, integrity, inner peace, determination, and a warm heart. Researchers have identified other strengths as well, such as self-compassion, secure attachment, emotional intelligence, learned optimism, the relaxation response,{{more}} self-esteem, distress tolerance, self-regulation, resilience, and executive functions.

The word strength broadly includes positive feelings such as calm, contentment, and caring, as well as skills, useful perspectives and inclinations. Your strength embodies qualities such as vitality and relaxation. They are not like passing mental states, but rather your inner power or strengths are stable traits, your enduring source of well-being, wisdom and effective action.

A well-known idea in medicine and psychology is that how you feel and act – both over the course of your life and in specific relationships and situations – is determined by three factors: the challenges you face, the vulnerabilities these challenges grind on, and the strengths you have for meeting your challenges and protecting your vulnerabilities. For example, the challenge of a critical boss would be intensified by a person’s vulnerability to anxiety; but he or she could cope by calling on inner strengths of self-soothing and feeling respected by others.

We all have vulnerabilities. Personally, I wish it were not so easy for me to become worried and self-critical. And life has no end of challenges, from minor hassles like dropped cell phone calls to old age, disease, and death. You need strengths to deal with challenges and vulnerabilities, and as either or both of these grow, so must your strengths to match them. If you want to feel less stressed, anxious, frustrated, irritable, depressed, disappointed, lonely, guilty, hurt, or inadequate, having more inner strengths will help you.

Inner strengths are fundamental to a happy, productive, and loving life. For example, research on having positive emotions shows that these reduce reactivity and stress, help heal psychological wounds, and improve resilience, well-being, and life satisfaction. Positive emotions encourage the pursuit of opportunities, create positive cycles, and promote success. They also strengthen your immune system, protect your heart, and foster a healthier and longer life.

Finding out how to grow these strengths inside you could be the most important thing you ever learn.

How?

Our experiences matter. Not just for how we feel in the moment, but for the lasting traces they edged in our brain. Our experiences of happiness, worry, love, and anxiety can make real changes in our minds. There’s a traditional saying that the mind takes its shape from what it rests upon. If we keep resting our mind on self-criticism, worries, grumbling about others, hurts, and stress, then our brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety and depressed mood, a narrow focus on threats and losses, and inclinations toward anger, sadness, and guilt.

On the other hand, if we keep resting our mind on good events and conditions (someone was nice to us, there’s a roof over your head), pleasant feelings, the things we do get done, physical pleasures, and our good intentions and qualities, then over time our brain will take a different shape, one with strength and resilience hard-wired into it, as well as a realistically optimistic outlook, a positive mood, and a sense of worth.

So, look back over the past week or so; where has your mind been mainly resting?

In effect, what you pay attention to – what you rest your mind on – is the primary shaper of your brain. While some things naturally grab a person’s attention, such as a problem at work, a physical pain, or a serious worry….on the whole, remember we have a lot of influence over where our mind rests. This means that we can deliberately prolong and even create the experiences that will shape our mind for the better.

This practice of growing inner strengths is both simple and authentic. First, look for opportunities to have an experience of the strength. For example, if you are trying to feel more cared about, keep your eyes open for those little moments in a day when someone else is friendly, attentive, including, appreciative, warm, caring, or loving toward you and let your recognition of these good facts become an experience of feeling cared about, even in small ways.

Second, help this experience actually sink into your brain – the good that lasts – by staying with it for a while, helping it fill your body, and getting a sense of it sinking into you as you sink into it. In essence, growing inner strengths boils down to just four words, applied to a positive experience: have it, enjoy it. See for yourself what happens when you do.

Dr Miller is Health Psychologist at the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital.

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