Contrary to popular belief, stress is not a threat to be avoided. But it’s how we react to it that counts, and it’s something we can improve, with practice.

You lose your job. Your relationship falls apart. A loved one dies. Your city is devastated by an earthquake…

Even the most blessed life is a series of ups and downs. But the difference between people who are flourishing and people who seem less fortunate is their ability to cope with reversals in their fortunes. As we seek to fulfil our potential, we will inevitably fail from time to time.

Since avoiding failure is not an option, our task is learning to cope with and grow from failure, loss and adversity. The more mentally fit we are before we’re overtaken by crisis, the better we’ll cope, and the faster and more completely we’ll recover and even grow stronger.

Prepare, perform, recover

In the army, it’s called Stress Exposure Training – a way to make sure you can deal with whatever comes your way. The system that’s used to increase this capacity is Prepare, Perform and Recover.

Preparation is all about situation, reaction and strategy. Identify the situations in which you experience stress. For the Defence Force, that’s pretty easy: bombs and bullets are flying.

But all of us experience stress and if we predict where it’ll come from, we’ll cope with it better. For me, sometimes it’s as simple as trying to get my kids out the door.

I regularly find myself asking my kids multiple times to get ready to go, without these requests having any impact on their preparedness. When this happens, I find myself starting to feel a combination of high energy and unpleasantness, and run the very real risk of losing my temper.

However, if I expect to be ignored by my kids and experience a potential loss of temper, then I stand a far better chance of controlling my reactions. Once we have identified situations that cause us stress, we need to gain insight into our reactions to this stress.

Once we understand our reactions, we can use these as cues to pull the trigger on the mental skills strategies required to manage our emotions.

Different people react to stress in different ways, so study your reactions to determine your own pattern. Sometimes, it can be helpful to ask someone who knows you well for their feedback.


New Zealand Defence Force personnel who are deployed to high-risk areas attend what is known as Conduct After Capture training. They are taught the mental skills required to cope with and survive becoming a prisoner of war or hostage.

Some of the skills taught can be summarised with the acronym CALM.

  • Control emotions – control your negative thoughts and unpleasant emotions. Breathe, to get oxygenated blood back into the brain.
  • Acceptance – accept your situation and let go of expectations and preconceptions.
  • Listen, look and learn from your environment. Take in your surroundings and formulate an effective response/ course of action.
  • Manage your response – choose your response, rather than allowing yourself to simply react without thinking.

We all know that when it comes to physical fitness, recovery is as important as exertion. Mental fitness is the same – we need time to recharge, to put fuel back in the tank.

We also need time to reflect. Mental toughness – the application of successful strategies for coping in times of crisis – is a learning process. You need to constantly evaluate what you did and how effective it was, so next time, you will know what works for you and what doesn’t.

About the author

Dr Paul Wood

At 18, Paul Wood was in prison for murder and his life was off the rails. In his work today, he uses his subsequent journey from delinquent to Doctor of Psychology to help people strive to be the best version of themselves.

He is a motivational speaker and runs workshops. This is an edited extract from his latest book, Mental Fitness, Build Your mind for strength and resilience every day.