Filed under: Mind tactics
The human brain has evolved to be adept at identifying threats and challenges, which enables you to navigate through a dangerous world successfully. This ability helps keep Warfighters, family members, and teammates vigilant and safe from harm. But it also can skew your perception of life toward the negative. Read on to learn how to keep your mind in balance.
This hardwired tendency, called “negativity bias,” causes your brain to prioritize, seek out, and lock on to negative information out in the world like a heat-seeking missile. You’re likely to process negative events more fully than positive ones. Negative emotions seem to hang around a lot longer than positive emotions. And when you get home at the end of the day, you’re more likely to mull over the one negative comment someone made about your work and ignore the many positive comments you received from others. It’s just the way your brain works.
Negativity bias is adaptive and helpful in many ways, but the key to maintaining good mental health is in finding balance. So what can you do? Here are a few strategies to try:
- Spend a few minutes each day looking for the good around you. Write down the positive things you notice and reflect or share with other people.
- Check your interpretations. If you notice you tend to interpret the world in negative ways, ask yourself if you’re seeing things accurately and if you can be more flexible in your thinking.
- Be intentional about appreciating the ordinary. Good things don’t have to be big things. When you can learn to be grateful for and appreciate the little things, you can balance out the impact of your negativity bias.
The bad stuff will find you, but work each day at fighting the negativity bias by searching for the good.
If you’re aware that you tend to procrastinate, you probably already know it’s a good idea to take care of tasks right away rather than wait, but somehow you keep “putting things off.” Still, procrastinating is attractive for many reasons.
- You can’t find the “right place” to start. If so, start anywhere because somewhere is better than nowhere.
- Perfectionism is holding you back. This is because you’re waiting to no longer feel anxious about the outcome.
- Sustained effort can be hard! Remember: Waiting can make things even harder.
- It’s difficult to get started unless you feel pressured to finish on time. But there are other ways to get “amped up” enough to start performing.
- You think you’ll have more time “later.” But an “ideal time” seldom arrives. If you play these mind games with yourself, check out the mind-body ABCs.
- You feel overwhelmed by your specific task. Can you look at this “threat” as more of a “challenge” instead? Doing so can help you feel excited rather than anxious.
Does procrastinating help—or hurt—your efforts to get things done? Ignoring problems typically makes things worse. So, step up and tackle your to-do list. Use some of the tips laid out here, and consider the obstacles to engaging a new approach. Then develop action plans to overcome those obstacles. It’s helpful to use all of these strategies, but remember that even using some strategies can be useful too.
Olympians can teach the rest of us how to perform our best during career-defining moments. While we all can’t compete in the Olympic Games, we can relate to those instances when the pressure’s on and it’s time to perform.
What helps Olympic athletes meet or exceed expectations? Successful team members train together, receive helpful support from friends and family, develop sharp mental skills, stay focused, and honor their commitment to the task and each other. Teams that fail to meet expectations lack experience and have problems bonding. And they tend to face planning or travel issues, problems with coaching, distractions, and commitment issues. Often the best you can do is set routines that guide your attention to actions—within your control—whether you’re an Olympian or someone who values achievement.
Just like your career-defining event only happens once or a few times during your career, athletes know the Olympic Games are unique, rare, and unlike other events. They understand what they’re doing is important. And they’re in the public eye, facing new distractions everywhere.
They’ve spent an extraordinary amount of time preparing and planning for these big events too. It’s natural for an athlete to think, “This is the first time I ever...” Being a “favorite” can come with even more pressure and thoughts such as, “Don’t screw up!”
Nearly all Olympic athletes experience nerves. However, they can experience “butterflies” as excitement to some degree, rather than nervousness. Facing nervousness can be more effective than fighting it or pretending it’s not there. When Olympians or you—during career-defining moments—shift focus to little action plans within your control, gold medals and big successes can be wonderful by-products.
Forcing yourself to “just think positively,” especially if you’re feeling sad or anxious, typically doesn’t work. New perspectives can be wonderful, but they can’t be forced. Typically, it isn’t specific thoughts that can make you feel better; it’s the flexibility to recognize that there’s more than one way to look at a situation.
Remember: Thinking about something doesn’t always make it true. For instance, you might believe, “My NCO thinks I’m incompetent.” Instead, you might take comfort in thinking, “My NCO pushes hard, but he knows I’m good at what I do”—if you really believe it. Still, it could lead to an internal debate: “He thinks I stink. No, he knows I’m good. He thinks I’m a loser,” and so on. But recognizing there are many ways to interpret your NCO’s behavior can be helpful, as you simply move forward and do what’s needed.
You’re not burying your feelings and you aren’t fighting them: You’re using this mindfulness and acceptance-based approach to become aware of thoughts and feelings, let them fade into the background, and focus on what’s important. It’s tempting to fight negative emotions, but the fight itself often makes things worse. Picture someone saying, “Don’t be anxious/sad/mad/frustrated,” and you’ll likely feel the emotion that much more strongly as you either try to push it away or cling to it. Be present: Tune into your feelings and face what’s happening. Let the experience come and watch it go.
Mindfulness in daily life might seem simple, but it’s not. Practice the skill and enjoy slowly becoming better at it!
Even the most successful people wonder, at times, if they’re good workers, leaders, or parents. However, some can be overwhelmed by self-doubt. And they worry they’ll be exposed as fakes or frauds to others—otherwise known as “imposter syndrome.” Try these strategies to fight your fears and perform well.
- Normalize it. Take some comfort in knowing that others experience self-doubt—and get through it. You’re not alone.
- Try on different thoughts. When you treat your thoughts as facts, they can take on a life of their own. Don’t assume the worst and think, “I’m going to fail.” Instead, experiment with different thoughts, such as, “This is going to be hard, but I can do this.”
- Look to others for inspiration. You can feel even more inspired when you find similarities between other successful people and yourself. For instance, maybe he or she is hard-working, imaginative, or organized—just like you.
- Chill out and breathe. If you’re too amped up, it’s hard to focus on the task at hand. Allow yourself some longer, slower exhales, and enjoy clearer thinking.
- Remember your successes. Mental imagery is a powerful tool. Thinking about past times when you were successful—regardless of when they occurred—might help you feel more confident.
- Know you don’t “need” confidence. Certainly you’d like to feel self-assured before you perform, but you don’t have to feel confident at first. People often perform well and then experience confidence.
- Fake it ‘til you make it. "Acting" successful can help you actually become successful. And if you have some screw-ups along the way, own those mistakes and learn from them.
There’s no magic trick to overcoming imposter syndrome, but you can use these approaches to help defeat doubt, believe in yourself, and celebrate success!
When working to build your concentration on one task, consider fixing problems and/or embracing new techniques. Ask yourself whether you’re trying to restore a level of performance that you previously achieved—or if you’re trying to boost your performance. Physical injuries, pain, medications, sleep deprivation, and addiction could distract you from the task at hand. Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can negatively impact your ability to focus too. Through successful treatment with a trained medical provider, your attention skills could likely be restored to previous levels.
If you’re aiming to enhance your focus capabilities and perform better than ever, you might want to try some mental performance techniques. These skills include goal-setting, self-talk habits, mental imagery, energy maximization, and organized routines to steer your attention. When developing a routine, you can become more aware of where your attention could go, and practice regularly guiding it to where you want it to go. As you develop practical habits, stay flexible and allow yourself to be spontaneous and adaptable when appropriate.
Fear of failure can prevent you from performing your best in many situations including combat, work, relationships, and daily life. Worry can take a bigger hold when you push it aside. For instance, while preparing to give a presentation and thinking, “I can’t be nervous,” you might actually feel more nervous!
As you face your fears, understand that fearing something will happen doesn't mean that it will happen. Ask yourself these kinds of questions:
- Why do I think I can’t be nervous? If I’m nervous, I’ll give a horrible talk.
- So if I’m nervous, I’m guaranteed to give a horrible talk? No, I’ve given good talks while nervous before.
- If nervousness leads to giving an awful talk, what’s the worst thing about that? I’d be embarrassed and people would walk away without having learned important material.
- What’s worse—embarrassment or people walking away without learning? I’d survive the embarrassment. People need to learn this stuff.
- Is this their last opportunity to learn? No, I’d take more steps to make sure they got it, despite an initially awful talk.
You might have noticed that you can “turn off” your busy brain by watching TV, but did you know there are other techniques that could help quiet your mind? You can download several MP3 audio files in HPRC’s Mind-Body Apps, Tools, and Videos.
- Introduction to Paced Breathing helps you learn to pace your breath and achieve calmness while staying alert.
- Paced Breathing Music guides you to pace your breath once you better understand the timed breathing routine.
- Autogenic Training, a mind-body exercise, shows how to use your mind to warm your hands, while also quieting your mind.
Remember it's okay if your busy brain turns on. But just as easily as racing thoughts creep in, let them creep out—while gently guiding your attention to something neutral such as your breath, or something important such as the task at hand. Whether it’s watching TV or using a mind-body technique, find ways to quiet your mind and be more focused when it matters.
There are exercises you can do to improve your mindset and your optimism, the belief that things will go well for you in a given situation. This is important because optimism is associated with health benefits such as:
- less risk of death from heart attack;
- lower risk of depression following events such as the death or illness of someone close; and
- better personal relationships.
Military training for contingency planning can help you identify what can or did go wrong as part of your important risk-assessment skills. However, when you transfer these strategies to noncombat life you may find focusing on potential problems hurts more than it helps. Balancing optimism and contingency planning can be difficult, but the good news is that you can learn optimism too. Here are some strategies to get you started.
Don’t make things harder for yourself by making excuses or creating excuses in advance. When you set a goal and the stakes feel high, it can be easy to make excuses when you fail in order to avoid negative feelings such as regret, shame, or guilt. Without thinking about why you do it, you may sometimes make tasks harder than they need to be so that ready-made excuses “protect” you from feeling bad. The downside is that you miss opportunities to learn from your experiences and test your “true” skills. This is called “self-handicapping.” Learn how to set yourself up for success instead. Read more here.