• Brad Stulberg

Panic or Prepared? The Importance of Embracing Reality

Imagine that you are about to take on a difficult challenge. Maybe you are lined up for your first marathon, or about to step on stage to give a speech in front of thousands of strangers, or sitting down at a desk waiting to take a test that could determine the entire trajectory of your future life. Regardless of the situation, the uncertainty of the endeavor causes fear, nerves, and anxiety to rise. In this moment, what do you think is better? To downplay the difficulty of the task? To tell yourself that it won’t be that hard or painful. Or do you think it’s better to fear for the worst? Go in with the anticipation that this will be the most difficult and demanding task that you’ve faced. Fortunately for us, researchers have studied this phenomenon and given us a theory, and likely answer. Take my favorite sport, running. Researchers have developed a theory of pacing that relies on comparing expected effort versus actual effort. If the pace feels much easier than you expected, you pick it up. If it feels more difficult, you slow down. This is what I casually refer to as the mismatch theory of effort. When our expected effort is different from the actual effort, our brain course corrects. The degree of mismatch determines the reaction. If there’s a large mismatch between expectations and reality, our brain overcorrects. For example, if you went into a race thinking it was going to be a cakewalk, at the first sign of pain and fatigue, it’s as if the brain goes “Hey! What is this! This isn’t supposed to be here!” As a result, instead of trying to figure a way through the pain, we tend to shut down. Go into protective mode. The answer then is to always expect it to be incredibly difficult then, right? If we expect an immense challenge, and it’s easier than expected, we’ll pick up the pace and perform better! Wrong. If our expectations swing too far in the other direction, our brain goes into what I call, “what’s the point” mode. The task is going to be so far outside of our capabilities, that there’s no point in using our full reserve to take on the challenge. We’re doomed before we start. Which brings me to the point of this analogy. We’re used to thinking about confidence as some form of bravado. Pumping ourselves up as if we can tackle any challenge that comes our way. But to me, confidence is embracing reality. It’s decreasing the mismatch between expectations (or perceptions) and reality so that you know what it is you are about to encounter and that your mind and body can prepare the appropriate response. In The School of Life, they echo this definition, “The capacity to remain confident is therefore to a significant extent a matter of having internalized a correct narrative about what difficulties we are likely to encounter.”

In the world’s current climate, this holds true when evaluating our response to different threats. It’s easy to tell everyone to remain, ‘calm’, and label anyone who has any concern as being “panicked.” but what if they are just embracing the reality of the situation? Whenever you tell someone to “calm down” or “relax” the message you’re sending it that either they look horribly stressed or that there is something to be worried about. It’s why telling someone to be calm generally causes the opposite response. Instead of downplaying or overreacting, we need to work hard to embracing reality. That means understanding the demands of the challenges you face.

There’s a difference between panic and being prepared. And to me, that difference is explained in the mismatch theory above. Being prepared means accepting reality so that you can understand how to face a challenge head-on. — Steve

Brad Stulberg   |   bradstulberg.com   |  bradstul@gmail.com