I'm a neurosurgeon. I use a simple hack to keep my anxiety in check during the pandemic
- Dr Mark McLaughlin practices neurological surgery at Princeton Brain, Spine, and Sports Medicine; he is the author of "Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon's Quest to Out-Think Fear."
- The pandemic has thrust the world into a state of panic, but Dr. McLaughlin says it's important to override that uncertainty and cognitive dissonance using this simple hack.
- He breaks down an unexpected event into specific components to map out where it exists on a four-quadrant cartesian coordinate system.
- Depending on where it lands, you can use cognitive dominance — or enhanced situational awareness — to transform cognitive dissonance into consonance, and improve your decision-making.
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With the daily challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the ongoing social unrest surrounding the nation's racial inequities, many of us are living in a constant state of fear and anxiety, whether we realize it or not. This unique intersection of high-stress circumstances has created tumult in which no one knows what to do or how to do it.
I can't think of another time in recent memory when I've experienced more cognitive dissonance — and I don't think I'm the only one. Cognitive dissonance is that mental discomfort you get when struggling to wrap your brain around two conflicting ideas that place values and actions at odds. It's that nagging feeling that something's just wrong.
For example, while people may realize the scientific value of social distancing to protect collective health and safety, they also just really want to get back to their regular lives. Others might experience cognitive dissonance around race and discrimination, realizing that things need to change yet feeling ill-equipped to make a difference. These competing realities make us conflicted and uncomfortable.
Bridging the gap between dissonance and consonance
As humans, we are programmed to seek consistency. Whereas our minds struggle with cognitive dissonance, we thrive when we're able to achieve cognitive consonance. It's a state of harmony between our values and actions when you feel confident that you're fulfilling your life's purpose. You're operating in a state of consonance.
To achieve personal excellence, everyone must travel that difficult road from dissonance to consonance. But you must create a bridge between these two opposing mental states and that requires cognitive dominance: Enhanced situational awareness that facilitates rapid and accurate decision-making under stress with limited time to make decisions.
When life throws us a curveball, it induces a natural fear response that can cause us to freeze or freak. But the more constructive way to deal with it is to override these primitive reactions by systematically analyzing unexpected events and taking action based on a more measured perspective. That's cognitive dominance, and it enables us to outthink fear and plot a successful course despite uncertainty. This journey from dissonance to consonance makes our lives more vivid and meaningful.
A simple system for outthinking fear
To combat the tendency to freak or freeze when calamity strikes, I developed a simple hack that trains your brain to engage in cognitive dominance under pressure. It's based on a four-quadrant cartesian coordinate system that will help you navigate the unexpected, think through fear and anxiety, and plan next steps when you don't know what to do.
I created and refined this system over decades of practicing neurosurgery in order to engage effectively with fear and enhance my professional performance. I also use this approach in my personal life — as a husband, coach, and father — and you can too.
When you experience an unexpected, stressful event, first break it down to its essential components. Ask yourself:
- Objectively, what are the unmistakable facts about what is occurring?
- Subjectively, what does this mean to me? How do I feel?
- Is this event consistent with my life goals and my purpose, or is it not?
Then, based on your assessment, determine where the event lands on this four-quadrant system, where the X (horizontal) axis is the objective axis and the Y (vertical) axis is the subjective axis.
An event that falls on the negative portion of the subjective axis creates cognitive dissonance. Events that are positive on the subjective axis support cognitive consonance. It's important to understand the qualities of each quadrant so you can quickly recognize which one you're experiencing.
The four quadrants of fear
These are the defining characteristics of each quadrant and where they're located on the map.
A subjectively negative + objectively positive event = calm before the storm
The bottom-right quadrant is an objectively positive situation that, for whatever reason, has you on edge. It's that feeling you get when you have a great job but fear the axe is going to fall any moment. Or perhaps your new job isn't the perfect fit you expected. In the calm before the storm, you experience a sense of anxiety about the future.
A subjectively negative + objectively negative event = all is lost
The bottom-left is the all is lost quadrant, when nothing makes sense and you experience hopelessness, sadness and depression. It's a terminal cancer diagnosis, death of a loved one, loss of your business. When all is lost you might struggle to find your bearings, turning to poor coping mechanisms like drugs and alcohol.
A subjectively positive + objectively negative event = birth of a new skill
The upper-left quadrant is the resilience quadrant. You experience an event that's negative on its face but offers positive outcomes. Perhaps you recently lost your job due to the pandemic, but pivoted to an even more rewarding career path. In the birth of a new skill quadrant, you are able to analyze an unexpected event and solve it. And because you've added a skill to your cognitive arsenal in the process, you can contend more swiftly with similar situations in the future.
A subjectively positive + objectively positive event = flow
We all want to be in the flow. In this quadrant, the event offers nothing but positive tools to get you closer to achieving your goals. It's the basketball player who can't miss a shot or the musician who nails every note without conscious thought. It's a place of high competence, performance, and craft. In these rare moments, it's best not to overthink things. Go with your gut to operate in the flow.
Use cognitive dominance to navigate these quadrants, so that you can travel from a state of cognitive dissonance to consonance. The next time you experience a stressful life event, map it in one of these four categories to assess your situation and improve your decision making. It's the next best step on your journey to excellence.
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