There are a few schools of thought on how we can deal with unwanted thoughts and emotions. In traditional sport psychology, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has been the most popular framework which states that how we think affects the way we perform. Here, thoughts play a vital role in regulating our emotions. Another framework that has gained ground recently is mindfulness. With mindfulness the perspective is more about how we feel, and see thoughts as something more transient, and more often than not should be trusted. Both have their benefits in different situations, but in my line of work I like to subscribe to the feel first, think later model; although I do like to balance the two frameworks with the individuals I work with. There is no perfect method to set the mind, but a looser grip on our internal cognitive chatter always seemed to make more sense to me.
Decades of research shows the benefits of having a more mindful approach to our performance. In my own athletic career I always noticed that the more I thought about my performance, the worse it actually was. Studies tend to back this up. One in particular showed that golfers who had their brains scanned while performing a putting task performed more poorly when their verbal linguistic center of the brain was showing activation. What this means is that the golfers who had more cognitive activity did worse than those who didn't. Furthermore, research on flow indicates that when are performing at our best we experience transient hypofrontality. Transient meaning for a short period of time, hypo being the opposite of hyper, or low, and frontality referring to the pre-frontal cortex which seems to go offline when experiencing a state of flow. So again, thinking less tends to increase performance.
"I always noticed that the more I thought about my performance, the worse it actually was."
Now I am not saying thoughts don’t have the ability to make some feel a certain way which in a lot of cases is a good thing. But too often we add layers to how we are thinking with excessive thoughts. For example when we are stressed out we may ask “why am I stressed?”. In itself a very good introspective question. But we fall into the think first, feel second trap. We experience a temporal dislocation; our mind is elsewhere! We get caught up in either the past or the future, and don’t experience whatever is happening now. Our mind has shifted away from the present and is disconnected from our bodies. This is because the source of our stress lies in either something that happened prior, or something that has not yet occurred, both of which we can do nothing about. In order to effectively deal with the stress we must become familiar with it. So instead of asking “why am I stressed”, we should start to say “I am experiencing stress”. We must learn to experience whatever is present and not try and label it as a positive or negative thing. Sometimes stress is very necessary for us and can lead to some positive change. We shouldn’t get lost in the past or the future about the answer to a particular problem because we must first come to terms with what is currently happening. What is it like to be stressed for you? Experience the feeling and then deal with it later when the emotion has run its course. Only then can we comprehend what the emotion was trying to tell us and not when we are driven by it. Emotions have a way of very easily leading us to catastrophizing.
"Instead of asking “why am I stressed”, we should start to say “I am experiencing stress”."
After we have dealt with the experience of the emotion, we can start to course correct and implement cognitive strategies. A useful analogy is to think of emotion and thought as an elephant and a rider on top of it. The elephant represents the emotional mind, and the rider the thinking, rational mind. Sometimes the emotion is unpredictable and acts out. The rider has to learn to direct the elephant, and calm it down by allowing it the space it needs because they can’t control the elephant completely. So by relinquishing some control, the rider gets control back. In the same way, the thought can deal with the emotion, but only when we learn to ride out its unpredictability and see it as a temporary bump on our road to mastery. Mindfulness teaches us to see our present moment experiences more objectively and be completely OK with it. So the next time you feel anxious, stressed, or fearful try not to over-analyze it label yourself as such, but rather learn to distance yourself from the particular thought or emotion and let it run its course. As Baltasar Gracian once said: "Let the first impulse pass. Wait for the second".
As always, feel the force and don't force the feel!