"I've got this"...The Power of Self-Talk on Performance

(Original posting: http://kiptherapy.com/ive-got-this-the-power-of-self-talk-on-performance/)

Laurie Hernandez, gymnast at the 2016 Olympic games, knows this is her one chance. She has been practicing tirelessly to win a medal, but recognizes the unnerving obstacles: the 4-inch balance beam, the judges, her competitors, the millions of people watching her. The pressure is high.

How does she cope? As she presents to the judges, Laurie mouths “I got this” before mounting the beam.

And guess what? She does have it. Nerves don’t get the best of her. Just like she practiced, she sticks all of her skills and ends up with a medal.

Laurie is not the first athlete who has used motivational self-talk to get pumped up or to reduce nerves. In fact, it’s the secret to optimizing performance. Athletes have long recognized the power of thoughts on physical reactions and consequent behavior, which is why you often see coaches providing motivational speeches before games.

We don’t need to be athletes to understand the effects our thoughts have on our bodies and behavior. Have you ever watched a scary movie, and then imagined scenes from that movie? What happened to your body? Did you notice yourself getting tense, or your heart racing? Did you notice yourself scanning your environment for possible danger? Alternatively, have you ever imagined transporting yourself to your favorite vacation spot? Maybe try it now. Do you notice your body relaxing or your heart slowing?

Since just thinking about an event, even if it’s not actually happening, can affect our body sensations and our reactions, how we talk ourselves throughsituations can have enormous consequence. Think about how you talk to yourself before and during a performance. What do you tell yourself before your presentation? Before an exam? Before asking someone on a date? Let’s look closer at some contrasting examples.

How might “I’m going to blow this” affect your physical reactions and behavior? When you go into a performance with the assumption that something is about to go wrong, you’re likely to feel defeated and anxious, decreasing your motivation and effort levels. It can also alert your internal alarm system – more technically known as the “fight, flight, or freeze response.” The FFF response sets off a chain of physiological reactions to prepare you for life-threatening danger, so you can literally fight, run away, or freeze. This system cannot tell the difference between run-for-your-life danger and the sort of social misfortunes we envision may (or may not) happen! So when you think something along the lines of “I’m going to blow this,” you might notice your heart start to race. You might feel shaky, tense, and choked up. Your body expends energy preparing for the perceived dangerousness of the situation and then you start to get distracted by these physical sensations, making it harder to focus on the task at hand. This increases your chances of wobbling or falling off the metaphorical balance beam, turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not exactly helpful if you’re trying to present at a meeting, take a test, or ask someone out!

Alternatively, let’s imagine a new scenario. Before your presentation/exam/date proposal, like Laurie Hernandez, you tell yourself “I’ve got this.” You remind yourself that you’ve prepared and practiced this many times before, and you are ready for the challenge. This line of thinking might make you feel motivated, calm, energized. Since your body is not preparing for danger, it can harness its energy into the performance itself. When you notice nerves creeping in, you might remind yourself “I’m okay.” This comforting statement is surprisingly effective at turning off your body’s fight, flight, or freeze response, which can reduce the likelihood of experiencing excess physical reactions that get in the way of what you’re doing.

Thoughts are so powerful, which is why we need to mindfully pay attention to how we talk to ourselves and understand how what we say affects our physical reactions. Once we start to notice what we are adding to a situation before we go into it, we can make the changes needed to bring us closer to the outcomes we desire.

Rethinking New Year’s Resolutions

(Original posting on http://kiptherapy.com/new-years-resolutions/)

When you think of New Years, what comes to mind? The Time’s Square ball drop? Champagne and fireworks? Overpriced entry to a crowded bar? Despite the many different ways we ring in the New Year, we are all familiar with the gut feeling that since a new year is beginning, something about us must change. We must become skinnier. Faster. Nicer. Better. There is renewed hope (with an undercurrent of pressure) that we will finally stick to our New Year’s resolutions. This gut feeling related to a need for observable self-improvement did not sprout organically. Messages of personal change are everywhere. Just perusing the cover of any magazine published in December or January will remind you that NOW is the time to set goals for yourself.

Let me start out by saying this- having goals is not a bad thing. Goals are great. Goals are a huge part of my work as a cognitive-behavioral therapist. When you set specific, measurable, attainable, and timely goals, you can gauge whether you are on the right track towards something you want.

Yet, I’ve noticed a cyclical trend. Every December and January society tells us it’s time for change, and we create a list of goals for ourselves. Come February, we’ve fallen off course a bit. We beat ourselves up for going out to eat too much, for skipping a week at the gym, for gossiping. And then the hopelessness sets in. Most of us give up, telling ourselves, ‘I’ll try again next year,’ recommit the following December, and repeat the cycle. These goals lose meaning, and become more symbolic of something that we’re supposed to do, instead of something that resonates authentically.

There is a time and a place for setting goals. And the time and place is not December because you think you are supposed to and everyone else is doing it. This New Years I encourage you to try something different. Instead of setting goals, I invite you to set intentions.

Goals and intentions are different. While goals tend to be rigid and specific, focusing on a final outcome, intentions more gently provide the framework for how we want to live our lives. I view intentions as process oriented, rather than outcome oriented, reminding us to live mindfully in accordance with the values that are personally meaningful to us. Our intentions become a guide for our actions and our choices, bringing us closer to our most authentic self. Intentions can be fluid, and might change daily based on where you are in life and what you are struggling with. It’s important to form intentions that resonate with your needs at the present moment.

 

Setting Daily Intentions:

Find a place where you can sit comfortably without distraction. Set a 5-minute timer. You may choose to sit cross-legged or on a chair with your feet planted firmly on the floor. Scan through your body, allowing your muscles to let go of any tension they are holding on to. Take a few deep breaths. Check in with yourself. Notice how your body feels. Notice what feelings arise. Allow your experience to be just the way it is, without trying to change or fix anything. Once you are settled, slowly and compassionately ask yourself,

What do I really want in life?’

‘How do I want to live my life?’

Give yourself time and space to allow these questions to sink in, and be patient. It’s okay if nothing comes up for you at first. Sometimes it takes a while for a response to really resonate. Allow the thoughts, feelings, and associations to be there. Repeat the questions. Wait until the 5 minutes is up. 

 

It can be helpful to set your intentions after waking up, to ground and center the rest of your day. Some examples: “I wish to intimately connect with others, I wish to be excited by my life (no matter how ordinary it may appear), I wish to accept uncertainty and trust in the process.”

Once you’ve set your intentions, you can check in with yourself throughout the day to see if your actions and attitudes align with them. Intentions are about the process of living; there is no end goal. You always have the opportunity to become mindful of your current behaviors and attitudes, let them go for now, and begin again. For the examples above, when you find yourself mindlessly checking social media, you may remember your intentions. You may then decide to put down your phone and curiously pay attention to the world around you, or place your full attention on the conversation you’re presently having. When you notice yourself worrying about future uncertainty, you can remind yourself to trust in the process and bring your attention back to the present.

As the holidays approach, I invite you to reconsider the way you think about New Year’s resolutions. If you notice yourself redundantly setting the same goals as last year, or feeling pressured to change yourself in socially acceptable (but perhaps not meaningful) ways, see if you can let those go for now, and instead set intentions that resonate with your authentic self. In fact, you don’t need to wait until New Years. Start now!