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Becoming a Mental Quarterback

Rethink how you play the game.

Pexels/Pixabay CCO Creative Commons
Source: Pexels/Pixabay CCO Creative Commons

Change happens in the moment, if it happens at all. You’ve probably heard someone say that the past is over and the future is yet to be written. All we have is the present, which drilling down to its basic level brings us to this very minute in time. The sports world provides convenient examples of the currency of change. Professional athletes need to continually adjust how they play the game to gain an advantage over their opponents. Quarterbacks alter the play at the line of scrimmage if they perceive a weakness in the defense they can exploit. Baseball players alter their swings depending on the type and location of the pitch. Successful athletes are able to adjust and modify their behavior on the fly in the face of the ever-changing present.

The One Minute Drill

To extend the sports metaphor, the best quarterbacks in professional football are masters of the two-minute drill. When the clock winds down to the two-minute warning, they make the most of every second as the game is literally ticking away. They march their teams down the field with clockwork precision to set up a winning field goal or drive all the way to the end zone. In this blog, we do one better than the two-minute drill. This blog offers one minute drills, ways of changing what you think at each moment in time, providing tools you can put into practice in a minute or so without having to stop the clock by calling a time out.

We Are Thinking Things

We are thinking things. Although scientists continue to debate whether other species have consciousness or use some form of language, it is certainly the case that humans are bestowed with distinctive cognitive abilities that have allowed our species to survive and flourish. We are not as fleet of foot as a leopard, as fierce a combatant as a bear, or as keen of vision as a bird. We hairless apes are no match for many potential predators, save for our wits and ability to communicate with others of our kind for hunting and mutual defense. The ability to cognitize—to understand the world through thinking, problem solving, and using language—is a basic survival mechanism that enabled our remote human ancestors to survive the harsh and threatening world in which they eked out a bare-boned existence and eventually gained dominion over the Earth.

The word cognition derives from the Latin root, cognitio, meaning knowledge. It refers to processes we use to come to know the world, such as thinking, perceiving, and forming judgments and attitudes about the world and its inhabitants. Our cognitions—thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions—have a determining influence on our emotional states. Put simply, cognitions drive emotions. Our emotions, in turn, mirror our thoughts and perceptions of the world.

We Are Feeling Things

We are thinking things, but we also are feeling things. We experience strong feelings or emotions, such as fear, anger, sadness, and joy. The mechanisms responsible for regulating these emotions tap into the deeper recesses of the brain shared with many species on lower rungs of the evolutionary ladder.

Emotions are a throwback to our evolutionary past. Like cognition, they are adaptive bodily processes that enable organisms to survive in a harsh and threatening environment. Fear is a textbook example. It is as an internal warning signal that something is amiss, that a threat looms large and that we’d better seek cover or prepare to fight it off. Fear is the subjective or felt experience of our body revving up to defend itself in the face of a threatening object or situation.

Fear stems from automatic cognitions (instant appraisals of threat). I can still vividly recall the day when my car spun out of control on an icy road, turning 180 degrees into the face of oncoming traffic. Instantly, my body was gripped in a state of intense fear. Did I pause for a moment to consciously reflect on what was happening and carefully evaluate the situation and what I should do next? If that were so, dear reader, I might not be around today to tell the story. Rather, my body reacted as though it were guided by an invisible hand. My heart starting pounding and my breathing quickened, resulting in more oxygen-rich blood coursing through my veins to my muscles to burn the extra fuel, or glucose, which was simultaneously being released into my bloodstream and taken up by my bodily tissues. My muscles, energized by the rush of blood carrying precious fuel and oxygen, were prepared to spring into action. Ironically, this automatic fear response can lead people to slam on the brakes in an emergency situation. Fortunately, many of today’s cars are equipped with antilock braking systems (ABS) to prevent people from acting on instinct.

The body’s fear response is a carefully scripted dance controlled by brain mechanisms operating beyond the level of awareness. We become aware of the outward effects of these bodily responses (the pounding heart, the hurried breath, the beads of perspiration forming on the skin), but remain oblivious to the underlying bodily processes that bring about these responses. Fortunately for me, oncoming traffic was able to stop in time, allowing me to right the car (which did require conscious effort, to be sure) and then proceed on my way, unharmed but emotionally drained. The take-away message is that our emotional responses are wired into our nervous systems and for a very good reason—to enable us to respond immediately to threats and challenges we face in the moment.

Changing the Mental Play

The lesson we can draw here is that emotions are neither good nor bad, but are merely signals from the body that direct our attention to salient cues, whether they be imminent threats (fear), looming threats (worry), perceived unfairness (anger). Behind every disturbing emotion is a disturbing thought. Sometimes the thought reflects objective reality, as when my car spun out of control and I experienced intense fear. But sometimes the thought is exaggerated, distorted, or just plain irrational, as in the case of someone thinking the world will end if they experience a minor setback or disappointment.

This blog focuses on becoming mindful of our emotional responses to life situations and identifying the thought triggers that prompt these emotions. By becoming your own mental quarterback, you take control of calling the plays in real time. You change how you think about things to change how you feel about things.

Here’s a tip you can use today or any day. Change your focus from what you “shoulda, woulda, coulda" done differently in the past to what you can today in the present. The past is done and the future has yet to be written. So start writing it by planning to do one or two things each day for yourself or others that make a difference. By the end of the day, list the things you did to make the day meaningful and important, whether it be cheering for your daughter on the soccer field, running an errand for your husband or wife to get something that would make their day better, or taking time for yourself to do something enjoyable. Little things count and add up over time. Keep a diary of your daily list so that when you look back, you will recognize what you have accomplished.

The blog entries on the Minute Therapist provide many other tips and suggestions for making the kinds of cognitive changes that can change not only your feelings, but your life. Check them out.

(c) 2017 Jeffrey S. Nevid

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