by Emily Holland: To build physical strength, you may rely on a gym or a personal trainer. But what if you’re looking to build up inner strength?
Cultivating mental and emotional strength may not receive as much attention as physical exercise, but it’s equally vital to your overall health and well-being. Even better, it can be done without setting foot inside a gym! Instead, inner strength meaning can be developed and enhanced through a consistent meditation practice.
Similar to how physical activity changes the body, meditation physically changes the brain itself. Researchers of a 2011 study published in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, saw changes in gray matter in brain regions involved in regulating emotions, memory and learning processes in participants who practiced mindfulness meditation.
In a separate study published in 2016 by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, brain scans of participants who practiced mindfulness meditation over the course of three days showed changes in areas such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which plays an important role in attention and executive function. According to the researchers, the findings indicate an improvement in stress resilience and a reduction an inflammation, which can impact both your physical and mental well-being.
What Are Inner Strengths?
Physical changes to the brain elicited by meditation will, in turn, positively influence your thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Think of these changes as inner resources that can be drawn upon when needed. Collectively, they make up your inner strength and include traits and characteristics such as:
Resources of Your Mind
Psychologist and author Rick Hanson published an article in 2015 for the University of California, Berkeley, publication Greater Good about developing inner strength (or resources) to draw upon in challenging times. He discusses resources outside of yourself (such as friendships) and within the body (think exercise and movement) that you can draw upon to get through challenges, but Dr. Hanson points to your inner resources as having the greatest impact on your well-being. He breaks down resources of the mind into the following categories:
- Capabilities (e.g., mindfulness, resiliency)
- Positive emotions (e.g., self-compassion, joy)
- Attitudes (e.g., confidence, flexibility)
- Somatic inclinations (e.g., grit, relaxation)
- Virtues (e.g., integrity, generosity)
What Makes Up Your Inner Strengths?
A 2009 theoretical analysis published in the International Journal of Nursing Studies examined commonalities among traits and concepts that typically make up inner strengths. They are described in the article as:
- Hardiness: to be courageous and motivated in the face of stressful circumstances
- Resilience: to adapt effectively to stress and bounce back from adversity
- Sense of coherence: to possess an understanding of how life works and a belief that it can be managed
- Life purpose: to find meaning and purpose in the world around you; choosing how to respond to life circumstances
- Self-transcendence: an ability to look to someone or something outside of themselves such as a “greater being” or to other human beings
Shared Dimensions of Inner Strength
Researchers were interested in developing a deeper understanding of inner strength by evaluating any attributes the above concepts may have shared. The analysis pointed to four shared core dimensions:
They comprise a description of inner strengths that emphasizes an acceptance that life changes and adversities are par for the course and acknowledgement that life is meant to be engaging and meaningful.All four attributes are interrelated with some emphasized than others depending upon individual life circumstances.
Inner Strength and Depression
It makes sense that the inner strengths you draw upon are dependent upon the individual issue or challenge you may be facing. If you’re going through a big life transition that is causing you anxiety, developing and strengthening mindfulness may be most helpful. Or if you’re in a deep depression, practicing self-compassion may help to lift you out of it.
Researchers of a 2014 study published in the journal Aging & Mental Health wanted to find out whether an association existed between depression and inner strengths. More than 1,400 women over the age of 65 filled out a questionnaire that included both the Geriatric Depression Scale and the Inner Strength Scale.
Results indicated 11.2 percent of the women were depressed; those who weren’t reported having a strong inner strength. (Additionally, they partook in meaningful activities, seldom or never experienced loneliness, and also felt needed). The researchers suggested that having strong inner strengths to draw upon may serve as a protective shield from depression.
Actively strengthening your inner resources can positively influence your lives in numerous ways, according to a Swedish qualitative study published in early 2019. In addition to analyzing and then making changes to lifestyle, patterns, and habits, the female participants reflected upon and strengthened their inner resources, promoting both work-life balance and a stronger overall sense of well-being. Through reflection and self-analysis, participants became increasingly aware of their personal values and strengthened them in order to meet goals.
Use Meditation to Build Up and Enhance Inner Strengths
While inner reflection and self-analysis can be performed through activities such as journaling, talking freely and openly to another person (such as a friend or therapist), or asking questions such as, “What are my strengths,” “What matters most to me,” and “How am I getting in my own way,” meditation is both supported by scientific research and convenient as it can performed almost anytime and anywhere.
Meditation is simple, budget friendly, and doesn’t require any fancy equipment, as discussed in a 2017 article by the Mayo Clinic. The practice of meditating helps to clear away debris of the mind that raises your stress levels and improves your emotional well-being by reducing negative emotions, increasing self-awareness, and building new skills to manage stress.
These benefits are not only experienced on your mat (or wherever you choose to practice) but can be carried out in just a few minutes throughout your day to provide you with emotional balance. In other words, you can strengthen whatever quality or trait you choose to focus on at any given moment. Just as you increasingly strengthen a muscle in the gym with practice, the more you meditate, the more you activate and strengthen neural pathways that aid in connecting you to your inner strength.
If you’re familiar with meditation, you’re likely aware that it can be practiced in more ways than one. Whether you prefer to simply pay attention to your breath or to repeat a mantra quietly to yourself, your method of choice will depend on personal preference. Below are a few ways to develop inner strength meditation practices.
Mindfulness is a popular form of meditation where one focuses their awareness on the present moment, while accepting thoughts and sensations in the body as well as whatever may be occurring within the surrounding environment. As previously mentioned, practicing mindfulness can physically alter brain networks and increase gray matter in the hippocampus (a region of the brain that helps to regulate emotions), enhancing inner strengths such as resiliency, self-compassion, and self-esteem.
Mindfulness can be practiced by sitting quietly, focusing on the breath, and paying attention to thoughts that may arise or bodily sensations without attaching any judgement to them. Through the practice of mindfulness, you will develop an inner awareness that will allow you to increasingly exert more control over your thoughts, emotions, and general well-being. Practicing mindfulness can bring overall balance to your life.
This form of meditation can be performed similarly to mindfulness meditation but with the addition of repeating a mantra or phrase. This can be particularly helpful in cultivating specific inner strengths such as self-confidence or resiliency. By focusing on a specific character trait (or traits) that you want to strengthen while sitting quietly and listening to your breath, you are creating an openness and space that allows you to exercise that strength.
Below are a few suggestions for mantras to get you started:
- I can handle anything life throws at me.
- I am connected to everything and everyone.
- Everything in life has a purpose.
- I accept everything that I cannot control.
- Today, I will choose peace.
Remember, you can focus on a single word as well.
Guided meditations can feature guidance from a meditation teacher, recording, or even an app. A popular form of guided meditation involves imagery, or mental images, to relax and cultivate peace. A simple and cost-effective way to practice guided meditations is to look online, perhaps practicing one that focuses on the individual inner strength you’d like to cultivate. A quick internet search turns up guided imagery meditations videos for inner peace, self-confidence, and building inner strength in general.
You may also want to try movement meditation, which includes yoga, tai chi, walking, stretching, and everyday activities such as eating and brushing your teeth. These are all ways of strengthening the mind as long as you’re fully engaged in the activity.
Ultimately, you’ll quickly learn that meditation, whatever shape it takes, is a helpful healing tool for building your emotional and mental strength. Through cultivation of inner strength, you can go through life feeling empowered.