By Dotsie Bausch, Olympic Cycling Silver Medalist
It has been said that basic human emotions evolved in response to the ecological challenges faced by our early ancestors. It’s widely believed that emotions are so primitive that they are hardwired within us – with each basic emotion corresponding to a distinct and dedicated neurological circuit. According to Dr. Neel Burton; the concept of ‘basic’ or ‘primary’ emotions dates back at least to the Book of Rites. This first-century Chinese encyclopedia identifies seven ‘feelings of men’: joy, anger, sadness, fear, love, disliking and liking.
In the 20th century, Paul Ekman identified six basic emotions (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise). And Robert Plutchik, known for the psycho-evolutionary theory of emotion, identified eight emotions. He grouped these into four pairs of polar opposites: joy-sadness, anger-fear, trust-distrust and surprise-anticipation.
Today, we most widely recognize six basic emotional states that are the basis of our complex emotional systems – better known as our hardwired emotions. They are: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust.
However, basic emotions function as building blocks, with more complex emotions being blends of the basic ones. For instance, contempt could amount to a blend of anger and disgust. The blending of our basic emotions is a result of our soft-wiring.
So, the difference between hardwiring and soft-wiring? Hardwired means genetically programmed and soft-wired means learned. We are born with our hardwiring; it’s nature. We learn or develop our soft-wiring; it’s nurture.
As people prepare for an important event – whether a life event, an athletic performance or a live presentation – our emotional state can vary greatly and affect our mood. Emotions are short-lived feelings that come from a known cause, while moods are feelings that last longer than emotions and have no clear starting point. While one can experience a wide variety and range of emotions, we usually feel two kinds of moods — positive or negative.
Simply put: bad moods are anger; good moods are joy; depressive moods are sadness. So our emotions and our response to specific situations affect our mood. The good news is, our moods can be manipulated or changed based on our willingness and ability to redirect our thoughts. This comes into play and is a very important skill when we are about to compete in a sporting event.
I was filled with fear of competition throughout the final part of my Olympic track cycling career. My nerves would become so profound in the days and hours leading up to competition. I would literally imagine myself going to the bathroom and hope to find a magical eject button that I could press to thrust me out of the belly of the velodrome…causing me to disappear from existence.
I was mostly afraid of failure and of letting my teammates down. My fearful emotion affected my mood so strongly that I wanted to disappear. I knew I had to work on conquering this fear with my sports psychologist, or I would never be able to produce a positive Olympic performance.
What it came down to for me was how I viewed my emotions of fear and anxiety and how they related to my performances. I had to figure out how to convert the emotional state of fear into an emotional state of anticipation and pleasure. I did this by creating, what my sports psych called, “three minutes of opportunity.”
My event, the team pursuit, lasted a little over three minutes. Instead of viewing the event as something I was deathly afraid of messing up, I learned to view it as an opportunity to produce a performance that I was proud of. I spent hours meditating on how I wanted to feel when the event was over. Did I want to feel disappointed that I had not given myself the chance to even try, or did I want to feel proud that I had given it my all?
Many sports psychologists treat emotion like the enemy, something that should be numbed. The problem with this approach is that while you may succeed in the short term by suppressing negative emotions, you will also suppress the positive emotions that help you perform in that magical place athletes love, called THE ZONE.
There are a variety of ways to improve our emotional state, which then effectively improves our mood. Improving our emotional state and changing it from, say anger to joy, all depends on how you view a situation. For example, learn to view a cutthroat teammate or business associate not as personally attacking you (which makes you feel angry and hurt), but instead view his actions or reactions as reflections of his own inner pain, fear and unhappiness.
Learning that people’s core reactions are often never about us, but about them – their histories, hard and soft-wiring, and inadequacies – is a powerful lesson.
Some other techniques to help us boost your emotional state can include:
- Learn to reduce the fear of the unknown;
- Eat and drink healthfully and in moderation; Meditate;
- Become more organized, and set weekly time-management goals;
- Get enough sleep to maintain energy and increase productivity; and
- Learn so say NO to avoid overextending yourself.
It’s also very helpful to develop skills focused on understanding how you may manifest, experience and react to: failure, burnout, motivation, identity crisis, concentration control strategies and self-confidence/self-esteem development.
There are many ways to improve your emotional state and therefore your mood. The key is to pinpoint your weakness and find and focus on the areas of emotional states that challenge you most often.
Don’t try to tackle them all at once. Take them on one at a time, and peel back the layers on why you keep returning to those unwelcomed emotions. You may prosper if you hire a good sports psychologist or you may find your answers in reading, practicing and digging deep to understand better why you feel the way you feel.
As we know, knowledge is the key that unlocks most doors. Good luck on your inner journey – the most important one we ever take.
About Dotsie Bausch: An Olympic silver medalist from the 2012 London Games, Dotsie Bausch now works with professional athletes and serves as an influential advocate and a leading voice in sports technology, health and wellness. While also an eight-time U.S. National Champion, former world record holder and two-time Pan American gold medal winner, Dotsie is a major advocate for a compassionate, plant-based lifestyle. Choose Veg recently named her one of the "20 Badass Veg Women Who Are Making History.”