For the past few weeks, I’ve been using an app called “Couch to 5K,” which is pretty much what it sounds like: a program that promises to turn schlubs like me into runners. The gist, for the unfamiliar, is that you start off the first week mostly walking with a little bit of running, and then the next week decrease the walking and increase the running, and then do it again a little more and a little more until eventually you’re running for miles at a time.
And you know what? Running hasn’t gotten any more pleasant. A little less physically awful, maybe, but I still wouldn’t call it fun or passably enjoyable or a thing I can do without getting really cranky first. But a new (very small) study published in the August issue of the journal Motivation and Emotion seems tailor-made for people like me, and maybe you, too, if you also hate exercise. Its advice: The whole thing becomes a little more tolerable if you practice a technique called “cognitive reappraisal,” which involves emotionally detaching from a situation to experience it in a more neutral way.
It might be fair to think of cognitive reappraisal as the opposite of distraction: Instead of forcing your thoughts elsewhere, you engage fully in whatever the issue happens to be, just from another point of view. The study authors, for example, told runners to imagine they were a scientist studying running, or a journalist writing about it — a mindset that required them to be fully present and focused on the uncomfortable sensations they were experiencing, but that also required them to dissociate a little bit as they did so. And doing so, it turned out, was more effective than distraction as a strategy for making it through the study’s long, difficult runs. (Ninety minutes on a treadmill, to be exact.)
Researchers have already suggested a wide variety of uses for cognitive reappraisal: It can be a handy tool in things like getting over an ex, combating stage fright, and turning down your self-doubt. In each of these contexts, the underlying principle is the same: Don’t try to push things out of your mind; instead, leave them front and center, and examine them critically. The key is to observe without emotionally reacting. But I wonder, too, if it might work kind of like the way a word starts to sound like gibberish if you repeat it enough times: think hard enough about whatever’s plaguing you, and it begins to lose its potency.
And I’m — kind of convinced? Granted, this latest study focused on experienced runners over, say, a bunch of amateurs struggling to make their way through a 5K training app, but this amateur has tried distraction plenty of times, and it hasn’t made the experience much better. Maybe the problem is that are too many sensations to ignore, and trying to push them away will always be a futile exercise. Cognitive reappraisal, then, feels a little bit like the lazy person’s path to success: You’re just leaning into the inevitable, and finding a way to make it work for you.