Why You Should Treat Negative Emotions Like Pain – 80/20 Endurance

Why You Should Treat Negative Emotions Like Pain

Try not to react merely in the moment. Pull back from the situation. Take a wider view. Compose yourself. –Epictetus

Have you seen that television commercial for Advil, the one targeting active folks like us, with the tagline, “When pain says you can’t Advil says you can”? This slogan encapsulates everything that is wrong about the modern medicalization of pain, reinforcing the notion that pain is a bottomless precipice when in fact it is a tool and strengthening our dependency on doctors, medicines, and therapies to manage pain. It is the same message that made possible our current opioid crisis.

Not all athletes have been successfully brainwashed by this sort of messaging, thankfully. There are many who deal with pain the same way everyone used to deal with it before its modern medicalization, which is by using it as information about the relative proximity of physical limits, working around and through it to gain fitness while respecting those limits. Such athletes use pain the way a person might navigate through a pitch-black maze by tracing a hand along a wall. In this metaphor, the wall, which symbolizes pain, is not saying “You can’t,” it’s saying, “I’m afraid you can’t go any further in this direction, but I can show you a way forward.”

One thing about pain that is common to the experience of all athletes is that it gets their attention. Some react to it skillfully, others less so, but all athletes react to pain consciously and overtly in one way or another. Not so with negative emotions. Very often athletes get trapped inside negative emotions such as worry and discouragement. In other words, they experience these feelings without seeing themselves experience them. Or, put yet another way, they feel worry and discouragement and so forth the way animals do instead of gaining perspective on them. Any old beast can feel, but only humans (and chimpanzees, and dolphins) are capable of thinking about their feelings, or metacognition, but we don’t exercise this capacity as often as we might.

Negative emotions are both caused and causal. For example, a bad workout might trigger worry in an athlete, and this worry might in turn cause the athlete to repeat the workout two days later in search of a better experience. In this way, negative emotions are much like pain. They signal a problem, affording the athlete an opportunity to fix it. However, when athletes experience negative emotions only from inside them, these emotions end up controlling their decisions. Emotion-driven decisions aren’t always bad decisions, but they aren’t considered decisions. By contrast, when athletes gain metacognitive distance from their emotions, the possibility opens up to consider various responses. Obviously, your chances of taking the best course of action are better if you select the most promising of, say, three options than if you automatically do the one thing your ruling emotion tells you to do.

I’ll give you an example from my personal experience. In the early spring of 2019 I received reports from other triathletes planning to participate in Ironman Santa Rosa that the water in Lake Sonoma, where the swim leg of the race would take place, was frigid. Folks were freaked out and began to hope that the lake would warm significantly in the remaining weeks before the event. At 0.001 percent bodyfat, I can’t stand cold water, but at that time I was neck-deep in writing The Comeback Quotient and I had a new appreciation for the importance of not allowing my emotions to rule me. So instead of freaking out, I simply braced myself for a cold swim, enjoyed others’ anxiety as a competitive advantage given to me on a silver platter, bought a better wetsuit, and made a couple of trips up to the race site to practice swimming in the frigid water there. I am certain that my response to the situation helped me swim better than I would have otherwise, and that many of the worriers were harmed by their emotion-driven response.

I don’t mean to boast about how awesome my mental game is so much as make the point that real, positive change in how negative emotions are handled is possible. Some athletes, it seems, are practically born treating negative emotions the same way they do pain. I’m not one of them. I got to the point where, save for the occasional lapse, negative emotions never rule me by working at it consistently over time. And you can too.