In the world of physical fitness one of the most commonplace cliches for building stamina or muscle mass is “No pain, No gain.” Fair warning: the rest of this paragraph is an amateurish simplification that will vastly oversimplify complex anatomical functions. At its biological core the standard pain one experiences during physical exertion is due to the build up of lactic acid. During strenuous physical stimulation in which energy must be converted more quickly than our standard aerobic mechanisms allow for, the body converts to a different form of fuel known as glucose. Through a series of complex steps that are well above my paygrade, glucose based energy production gives off a bi-product known as pyruvate. When the body lacks the necessary oxygen to flush away the pyruvate into further energy conversion it is instead converted into lactate. The physical sensation of this substance building up in our muscle is colloquially referred to as lactic acid build up. That sensation is often referred to as “feeling the burn” (not to be confused with “feeling the Bern” a politically charged phrase that indicates a poor grasp of basic economics).
I believe that psychological suffering is part of the human condition that afflicts each and every one of us to a certain degree. Furthermore, I believe that the same phrase “No pain, No gain” is equally applicable to the building of mental toughness. The problem is that people treat fear differently than lactic acid when really at their core they are the same: a temporary discomfort for lasting self-improvement. To bring this metaphor to its conclusion, the only way to gain mental strength is to purposely and continuously exercise your psyche by exposing yourself to fear and anxiety. Just as I am not going to roll off my couch tomorrow and run a marathon, I don’t expect you to go face down your greatest fear without zero preparation. The same training rationale applies for both: map out a plan which allows for incremental growth by increasing adverse conditions gradually so that the pain/fear is manageable. If President JFK was right in saying “The only thing to fear is fear itself” than we must recognize that the only way to conquer fear is by embracing it.