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Your Thoughts Work For You – Which Ones Do You Need To Fire?

Written by: Natasha P. Trujillo, Ph.D., Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 
Executive Contributor Natasha P. Trujillo, Ph.D.

Do you know what it’s like to be anxious? Let’s start there. Excessive worry about basically every conscious part of your life. The worry takes over as if it is your demanding, arrogant boss. You are restless or on edge, seemingly keyed up even though exhausted. Fatigued easily. Trouble concentrating. Irritable. Tight… your body is so tense! Inadequate sleep. Does any of this sound familiar?


woman wearing blue shirt looking up with hand on chin

In my work with elite athletes and performers, one of the most consistent problems we address is how their thinking can take them hostage, playing tricks on them in malicious yet unlikely ways. They conjure up the absolute worst-possible-case scenarios and give full credit to those thoughts, often feeling powerless, worthless, and plagued with dread about their next performance. What if they do poorly? What if everyone sees it? What if they aren’t supposed to be there after all?


I firmly believe that a little self-doubt and anxiety are actually useful thoughts and emotions But, they must be within reason. How you define reason is up to you. This process becomes a strong focal point in my work with high performers. Research also supports this concept: the Yerkes-Dodson law explores the relationship between stress and performance and has confirmed over the years that a moderate amount of arousal best aids performance. Thus – you want to find the middle ground of having some anxiety, but not so much that it takes over, leaving you feeling worthless and hopeless.


Another talking point I have noticed is that many of the what-if thinking patterns people have are both overly self-critical and highly catastrophic in nature. We humans are gifted at fantasizing about the most horrific outcomes possible. The creativity in our imagination to contemplate our lives falling into complete ruin if we don’t execute a task with pristine perfection is astounding. One of the first questions that I tend to ask people in these situations is combined with a simple reflection: Wow, no wonder you’re tense and stuck in your head, what would it be like if you were able to consider what-if thinking that didn’t ruin your life and destroy your identity along the way? The response is usually met with laughter and a small lightbulb moment, followed by recognition that we don’t have to anticipate when good things happen as much, because we don’t have to adjust and cope with such conflicted feelings.


Although this is true – allowing our thoughts to embody such harsh, negative rhetoric that cuts us down is not the optimal way to elevate potential or raise self-esteem. Instead, I propose that you must employ your thoughts to work for you, and choose which ones are rewarded and given raises based on how they actually impact your behavior in the moment and help you to feel more confident. Confident in the sense that you are capable of solving problems and tolerating distress, and we can do hard things. I do not mean confident that you won’t even encounter any problems because everything will go perfectly – that is not realistic, and I caution that building confidence on this premise is prone to leave you with a problematic foundation.


10 tips for harnessing your thoughts


Self-awareness

The first step is being more aware of how you actually think and what you say to yourself. Recognize and label thoughts as adaptive or maladaptive – pointing out when a “what-if” is catastrophic and distance yourself from it. Explore how your thoughts change in and out of performance environments and when you are alone vs. with others.


Challenge and reframe

What’s the validity of your thought? Examine if you are confusing something that is possible with something that is likely. There’s a difference! Reframe and replace the thoughts by coming up with counterpoints that are both adaptive and realistic. If you are saying you are going to fail something, go ahead, and consider what it’d be like to be successful – you’ve been working towards success day in and day out, haven’t you?


Focus on the present

Being fully engaged in the moment reduces the opportunity your mind has to wander into the depths of your imagination for poor outcomes. Instead, you are living in the now and only dealing with the information each second is delivering to you in front of your eyes. Mindfulness and meditation practices are useful in strengthening this skill. Be patient with yourself, this is often one of the most difficult to build.


Control the controllables

Although not a pleasant thought, you have to understand and accept that you don’t have full control over most things. If you accept this in an adaptive way, it can be empowering because it helps you focus your attention on what you actually have to say. Controllables often include your preparation/process, your mindset, your attitude, your mood, and your effort.


Visualization

Let your imagination work for you! Repeatedly visualize successful outcomes. As you train this skill, you can convince your brain that your visions are a more likely outcome through consistent rehearsal. It helps prepare you in the moment to execute a task the way you want, partially relying on memory. You can expand this to visualize how you can problem-solve in the moment or work through challenging situations adaptively, that way you can handle unforeseen setbacks with confidence.


Desensitization

What scares you? Gradually expose yourself to the feared situation in a controlled environment. Use other tools in the moment to regulate your distress and work through the triggers. Over time, you will be in better control of the anxiety and less reactive to the scenario.


Develop a pre-performance routine

Routines can help anchor your mind and decrease the potential for wandering thoughts. Create a pattern that helps you center yourself and elicit a sense of activated readiness. You can trust in your preparation, each part of your routine helping with focus, confidence, and pleasure.


Limit external pressures

Although you can’t control all of this, you can use your awareness and what is within your control to decrease or eliminate external noise. Outside of your performance, work towards having a balanced life with adequate rest, recovery, and diversions from your craft. Overtraining or focusing solely on one thing can actually backfire, worsening what-if thinking.


Relaxation

Engage in techniques that can quiet both your mind and body tension. Tools such as breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, massage, and meditation can all help induce calmness.


Affirming self-talk

Use honest and realistic affirmations to boost confidence and counteract harmful thinking patterns. Notice I didn’t say positive. The key here is thinking adaptively, and building a relationship with yourself that is both real and empowering. It is okay to recognize self-doubt and that the task at hand is hard, but you can speak to yourself in a way that reminds you of what you have control over, what work you have put in, and that you can do hard things. You will try your best because you care, and you’ll leave it all out there.


It's essential to recognize and recalibrate your what-if thinking patterns to ensure your thoughts don’t become obstacles in your pursuit of excellence. You have worked hard, you will continue to work hard, and your potential deserves nothing less.


Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn, and visit my website for more information about my practice. Visit my upcoming book website, And She Was Never the Same Again, to subscribe for important updates on its release in Spring 2024!



 

Natasha P. Trujillo, Ph.D., Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Dr. Trujillo is a counseling and sport psychologist dedicated to helping individuals, teams, and organizations build awareness of self, others, and the world to reach their full potential in and out of their craft. She owns a private practice where she seeks to educate, consult, and provide mental health and sport psychology services that are evidenced-based and collaborative. She works primarily with athletes, performers, and high-achievers to help them find balance in their pursuit of success and acceptance of their own humanity. She strives to help people learn how to simply “be”, and get better at what they do. She has specializations in grief/loss, eating disorders, trauma, anxiety, & identity development.

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