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How Mentally Strong People Manage Their Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors

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How Mentally Strong People Manage Their Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors

The only things we can control in life are our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. If we can manage those, we can achieve our goals and gain success in life. To have this level of control, we need to learn about the science-based patterns behind our emotions and thoughts and how to manage them. If we know how our minds work, we can be intentional about influencing our thinking and feeling patterns. We can evaluate reality more clearly, make better decisions, and improve our ability to achieve our goals. Thus, we gain greater agency and the quality of living intentionally.

How do our minds work?

Intuitively, our mind feels like a cohesive whole. We perceive ourselves as intentional and rational thinkers. Yet, cognitive science research shows that in reality, the intentional part of our mind is similar to a little rider on top of a huge elephant of emotions and intuitions.

Roughly speaking, we have two thinking systems. Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize for his research on behavioral economics, calls them “System 1” and “System 2.” However, I think the terms “autopilot system” and “intentional system” describe them more clearly and intuitively.

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The autopilot system corresponds to our emotions and intuitions. Its cognitive processes take place mainly in the amygdala and other parts of the brain that developed early in our evolution. This system guides our daily habits, helps us make snap decisions, and reacts instantly to dangerous life-and-death situations (such as saber-toothed tigers) through the freeze, fight-or-flight stress response. While it helped us survive in the past, the fight-or-flight response is not a great fit for modern life.

We have many small stresses that are not life-threatening, but the autopilot system treats them like tigers. This produces an unnecessarily stressful everyday life experience that undermines our mental and physical wellbeing. Moreover, while the snap judgments resulting from intuitions and emotions might feel true because they are fast and powerful, they sometimes lead us in the wrong direction, in systemic and predictable ways.

The intentional system reflects our rational thinking and centers around the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that evolved more recently). According to recent research, it developed as humans started to live within larger social groups. This thinking system helps us handle more complex mental activities, such as managing individual and group relationships, logical reasoning, probabilistic thinking, as well as learning new information alongside patterns of thinking and behavior.

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While the automatic system requires no conscious effort to function, the intentional system takes deliberate effort to turn on, and it is mentally tiring. Fortunately, with enough motivation and appropriate training, the intentional system can turn on in situations where the autopilot system is prone to make errors, especially costly ones.

Comparing The Systems

The autopilot system is like an elephant. It’s by far the more powerful and predominant of the two systems.

Our emotions can often overwhelm our rational thinking. Moreover, our intuitions and habits determine the large majority of our lives, which we spend on autopilot mode. That’s not a bad thing at all, since it would be mentally exhausting to think intentionally about every action and decision.

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The intentional system is like the elephant rider. We can guide the elephant deliberately to go in the direction that matches that of our actual goals.

Certainly, the elephant part of the brain is huge and unwieldy. It is slow to turn and change, and it stampedes at threats. However, we can train the elephant. Your rider can be an elephant whisperer. Over time, you can use the intentional system to change your automatic thinking, feeling, and behavioral patterns. In this way, you will become a better agent in terms of taking charge of your life and reaching your goals.

I hope this information fills you with optimism. You can use these strategies to get what you want and achieve success in life!

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Featured photo credit: Naser Khan/Flickr via flickr.com

More by this author

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky

Cognitive neuroscientist and behavioral economist; CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts; multiple best-selling author

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Last Updated on January 13, 2022

How to Use Travel Time Effectively

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How to Use Travel Time Effectively

Most of us associate travel and time with what we’re going to do one we get to our destination. Planning and mapping out what to do once you arrive can certainly make for a more pleasurable vacation, but there are things you can do while you are on your way that can make it even better.

Sure, you can plan for the things you’re going to do on your vacation while you are travelling en route – but what about making use of that time for other things that you don’t usually do when you’re at home? You don’t need to have your gadgets with you to do it, and you can really connect with yourself if you take the time to manage your life while heading towards your vacation destination.

Here are some great tips to help you with your time management while you travel, some of which are more conventional than others. Nonetheless, you can find out what works best for you and apply them accordingly depending on when and how you are travelling.

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1. Take Your Time Getting There

As I write this, I’m on a flight to San Francisco. Flying is the fastest way to get from place to place, and for many people it’s really the only way to travel.

But I’ve often taken the train or ferry on trips so that I have extra time without distraction to get more done. I’m not worrying about navigation or lack of space to do what I want to do. Instead I’m able to focus on getting stuff done during the time I’ve got without feeling rushed. For example, when I took the train from Vancouver to Portland, it was an eight hour trip and I managed to get a ton of writing done and closed a lot of open loops. It also was less expensive than flying, which was a bonus.

Sometimes taking the long way to get somewhere on vacation can be the best thing for you to get somewhere with your life.

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2. Go Gadget-Free

This is going to be a tough one for a lot of you. But why do you need to bring your gadgets with you when you go on vacation? It isn’t be a bad idea to leave all but one of them behind, and only pull out that one when you absolutely need to do so. In some countries, you’d be wise to be discreet with them anyway since flaunting them in front of those that are less fortunate than you isn’t a good practice. While it may not seem like flaunting to you, in different cultures it can definitely come across that way.

If you can’t go gadget-free, then at least go Internet-free. If you use a task management app that requires syncing across your multiple devices to be effective, remember that if you only have the one device with you then it can be the “master device” for the time being and will store your data locally anyway. Just sync up when you get home.

3. Reflect and Prepare

Finally, going on any sort of excursion gives you the perfect opportunity to reflect on where you’ve been. The fact you have removed yourself from where you usually are can give you a perspective that you simply can’t get when you’re at home. You may want to journal your thoughts during this time – and by taking more time to get to your destination you’ll have more time to dig deeper into it.

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After a period of reflection – however long that happens to be – you can then begin to not only prepare for the rest of your travels, you can prepare for the rest of what happens afterward. The reflection period is important, though. You need to really know where you’ve been in order to properly look at where you want to be. Time away from things gives you that chance.

Conclusion

Traveling isn’t always about where you’re going and how quickly you can get there. In fact, it’s rarely about that at all.

More often it’s where you’re at in your head that will dictate how much you benefit from traveling. So don’t just go somewhere fast. Instead, take your time on the way there and take the time to connect with not only where you are but who are while you’re there.

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If you do that, you’ll have a better chance to be who you want to be when you leave.

Featured photo credit: bruce mars via unsplash.com

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