I recently got the opportunity to speak to Annie Murphy Paul (author of The Extended Mind) about a concept she calls cognitive reappraisal. The basic idea is that our brains have the ability to give new meanings to actions and therefore change how we feel about them.
For example, let’s say you have to give a talk but have a fear of public speaking.
As the time approaches, you probably start to feel some physical changes in your body:
- your heart rate increases
- your blood pressure rises
- your breathing quickens
Your body is basically priming the pump to go into fight vs. flight mode.
Traditional thinking on emotional processing is that 1) actions are interpreted by the brain, 2) the brain chooses the appropriate emotion, and 3) the body acts accordingly. But the reality is a little bit different:
- Something happens
- We act
- Our brain pieces things together
Cognitive reappraisal recognizes the action (changes in the body) but intentionally redirects the emotion. So instead of being nervous (typically defined as a “negative” emotion), we can reframe it and choose to be excited (typically a “positive” emotion).
(Side note: all the verses like Philippians 4:4 ("Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, rejoice") start to make a lot more sense when you realize there's a space between what happened and your brain's interpretation of the event.)
I’m also reading a book for Bookworm called Unwinding Anxiety where the author (Dr. Judson Brewer) maps these fight vs. flight options with our behavior tendencies:
- Fight = Approach
- Flight = Avoid
The book also has a behavioral tendency quiz, where I scored 100% on the Avoid scale 😂. So I know exactly what that nervousness I described earlier feels like!
But I’ve also overcome my fear of public speaking by joining a Toastmasters group. I had a real-life example of how cognitive reappraisal worked before I even knew what that was, and now it’s got me thinking:
What else have I been avoiding that I should really be leaning into?
Last year I did a sensemaking workshop with Nick Milo (the replay is still available here) where we defined sensemaking as “the action or process of making sense of or giving meaning to something”. I love this concept, and I view cognitive reappraisal as an essential tool for sensemaking in my yearly theme of recalibration.
What about you? Is there anything you’ve been avoiding that you could redefine through cognitive reappraisal?
Until next time, keep making sense of things.
Recent podcast episodes
Author Annie Murphy Paul joins David & I to talk about playing with ideas, working in groups, and other ways to extend the mind.
At any point, we are one question away from a different life. In this episode of Bookworm, the author gives us 100+ questions from 40+ profiles of legendary achievers to help bring clarity, intentionality, and possibility to every aspect of our lives.
Rachel & I talk about making the most of your moments by fighting the urge to capture them all the time.
This Week's Sermon Sketchnotes video
(Almost) every Sunday, I take sketchnotes of my Pastor's sermon and post them to my website. Here's my sketchnote from February 13th, 2022.