We All Have Thoughts That Spiral Out of Control. This Expert Has the Secret to Easing Your Mind
The brain is incredible. In our changing world, it always adapts, responding to new tasks, stimuli, and expectations. Just look at today: We’re living with advancing technology, increasing workloads, global threats, and the need to pivot on a dime. And our brains get us through it all.
Yet as brilliant as this organ is, it’s susceptible to pitfalls, like catastrophization. Mental health challenges are growing, says Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, MD., and much of these are related to the fast-paced change and uncertainty we face. “It’s all so new, and so different from the world of work that we evolved to live in,” adds Kellerman.
The encouraging news is that we’re not doomed. In Tomorrowmind: Thriving at Work with Resilience, Creativity, and Connection—Now and in an Uncertain Future , Kellerman and Martin Seligman, Ph.D take us through how we can tap into our brain’s resilience to overcome the challenges of today and thrive—both at work and in life overall.
The Sunday Paper spoke with Kellerman about the unique situations our brains face and the ways we can unlock our cognitive abilities. Plus, she offers a tangible practice to help us cope with catastrophization.
A CONVERSATION WITH Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, MD
You and Martin Seligman write that “our brains are still best adapted for foraging.” Considering this, why is today’s world particularly challenging for our brains?
Our brains evolved in relationship to a world of work that had a five-hour workday. There was lots of time for a leisurely exploration of nature. We also had varied activities in our lives. Some days we were gathering, some days we were breaking down the conquest of the hunt from the day before. So we have these capacities for creativity and agility.
We’ve now had a major labor transformation since then. I’m talking about things at the scale of shifting from foraging to agriculture and from agriculture to factory life with industrialization. We’ve had to figure out how to use these same forager brains in new labor environments. And there are lots of mismatches that are going to come up because it's not the environment that we evolved in.
In today's world, some of the sources of mismatch include this rapid pace of change. We are wired as animals to be wary of change because it could be a threat. But today's changes are very different. They're more complex and ambiguous. There’s great uncertainty; we don't know what the changes are going to be. So we’re constantly getting the signal of change, which in many ways triggers fear and concern, yet we don’t have an immediate way to put that to rest because we don’t know what’s going to play out. This becomes challenging, and it puts us at risk of chronic stress and burnout.
But we’re not doomed, you say. What’s making you hopeful?
Today, we have a major advantage over our previous generations as we try to navigate this mismatch. That advantage is behavioral science. We understand how our brain is wired to perform versus the reality that we're in today. We have the science to step back and see what the skills are that we need to counter the potential negative outcomes. We can use this very powerful brain to overcome those mismatches. It’s the first time in history that we've been able to use what I think is our most powerful technological advancement: the understanding of our brain itself to help us get to a better outcome. From all the studies Martin and I conducted, together with the broader team at BetterUp Labs, our research reveals the skills that we need to thrive in this environment.
You found that there are five skills most essential for a thriving brain today, which you put into the acronym PRISM. What are those?
The five components are:
Prospection. This is our ability to imagine and plan for the future in an environment of constant change and uncertainty.
Resilience. This is our ability to bounce back from change—at a minimum without being harmed by those challenges and at a maximum to grow stronger because of the challenges.
Innovation and creativity. In today's world where so much is being automated, the work that is left for humans to do is inherently more creative. There's a lot more novel problem-solving involved.
Social support. We know that in the workplace, we need to collaborate. It's a huge part of almost every job today. All of that requires effective relationships. We also know that we need social connection for our well-being.
Mattering. This is the motivational fuel to do all of this work. We need to know and believe that our efforts matter, even when we have to change course, even when we have to walk away from something we were doing for 18 months and do something completely different. We need to stay connected to a sense of purpose.
Why is mental resilience so important?
Resilience is the most foundational skill. It’s essential. There's no wrong time to build resilience. If things are calmer, it's a great time to build up the skill set. If things are in crisis, it's a very important time to make sure you have at least some of the tools available to help you get to the other side.
We’ve found through the data that more resilient people are high in five specific areas:
- Optimism: Being optimistic helps us stay motivated to keep trying.
- Emotional regulation: When we receive and listen to our emotions without being controlled by them. We take some distance and reappraise, rather than react from an emotional place.
- Cognitive agility: The ability to flex back and forth between opportunistic scoping of the environment and a focused initiative in one area. So we think: What are all the possibilities? And then which am I going to pursue? Then we flex back to all the possibilities as we need to without getting stuck in any one place.
- Self-efficacy: This is our self-belief that we can overcome things and we can make progress on things we're trying to make progress on.
- Self-compassion. This is about applying the same playbook of kindness and compassion we show to friends to ourselves.
What is a common pitfall of low mental resilience?
Catastrophization. This is when we immediately think of the worst possible outcome and get hooked on it. Catastrophization is a result of low optimism, poor emotional regulation, and low cognitive agility. People who tend to catastrophize are much more likely to develop negative consequences, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
How can we work to overcome catastrophization?
Here is an exercise to help unhook yourself from catastrophization:
Let’s say it’s an early Friday afternoon at work, and you get a message from your boss's assistant asking to talk to you at 4:30. There’s no context provided—just be there. Lot of people may have an automatic thought, which is: I'm getting fired. It’s a very sudden and shocking thought to have, and it can hit in a way that feels like truth—to the point that catastrophizers might call their loved one, or might want to start to work on their resume. They might start physiologically feeling what it feels like to be about to get fired. But all that’s happened is that you received a message.
What you want to do is to step back and say, "Okay, this is an environment of uncertainty. Something is happening here. It could be a big deal. It could be nothing at all. I need to get myself back into a more cognitively agile mindset about the possibilities."
To do this, you can draw a horizontal line on a page. On the far left, write the worst possible outcome. On the far right, you write the best possible outcome. In the middle, you write the most-likely outcomes.
So let’s say you've already plotted your worst possible outcome, which may be getting fired. Then you must flex to the opposite extreme and challenge yourself to see what is the best possible outcome. This is where we allow ourselves to be optimistic, and we're stretching the muscles here. So what is the best possible reason you could suddenly need to meet with your boss? You might be getting a raise. Maybe you’re getting promoted. Then, in the middle of the line, you write what's the most likely reason my boss needs to meet on a Friday afternoon. This could be much more mundane things relating to your operational pieces or execution check-ins.
When we do this, we allow our brains to realistically evaluate the possibilities. We return to a more centered perspective. And we unhook ourselves from the sort of emotional valence of these fears about the worst-case scenario. We also let ourselves connect with optimistic possibilities, which are healthy for us to keep in mind and help keep us motivated instead of shutting down.
This can be applied to really any situation of uncertainty.
For those of us who struggle with catastrophization and spinning thoughts, what do you say?
We often don't realize that we have belief systems around negative thinking and that they don’t serve us. To be able to think ahead to a negative outcome and prepare for it, we feel like we're protecting ourselves. And because of that, we may feel resistant to optimistic thinking. For myself, this is something I've had to overcome: feeling like if I let myself be optimistic, then I was leaving myself open and vulnerable to not being prepared for something bad. But it’s important to understand that optimism is where our motivation comes from. Optimism leads to longer lives and healthier immune systems—all of these healthy and important things.
Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, MD, has served as chief product officer and chief innovation officer at BetterUp, founding CEO of LifeLink, and an advisor to healthcare, coaching, and behavior change technology companies. Trained in psychiatry and fMRI research, she holds an MD with honors from Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a BA summa cum laude from Harvard University. Tomorrowmind is her first book, which you can order here.
Question from the Editor: How does Kellerman's exercise land with you? Can you foresee yourself leaning into more optimism? We'd love to know in the comment below!