You Got This — Mantras and the Science of Positive Self-talk
Before joining the Navy SEALs, Richard “Mack” Machowicz seriously questioned his chances of surviving BUDs training — then he got a life-changing piece of advice. He was told that a person could only be defeated in one of two ways: if they give up, or if they die.
This revelation gave Mack newfound confidence for the challenge that awaited him, but it was too heavy to take into battle. In typical special forces fashion, he “field stripped” it into something more compact: “Not dead, can’t quit!”
Several months later, wet, starved, sleep-deprived, and exhausted, Mack is running through the morning haze on a beach in Coronado, California. The finish line is several miles ahead, but the infamous “drop on request“ bell keeps pace alongside him on the back of an SUV. With hardly any strength left in him, he glances at the bell. Suddenly, he recalls the mantra: “Not dead, can’t quit!”
Like a magical incantation, the words fill him with renewed vigor. Mack decides that while his lungs continue to draw breath, he’s going to push forward — toward the finish line, and not the “DOR” bell.
But I promised you science and not magical aphorisms. So what really happened?
The straight dope-amine
The stress from weeks of grueling SEAL training had begun to wear on Mack, elevating his stress hormones (cortisol and epinephrine [aka. adrenaline]) and diminishing his serotonin. Then, a strenuous endurance run began adding adenosine (the sleep compound which coffee counteracts) to the mix (1). The result of these compounds was decreased motivation (1,2), increased perceived fatigue (3), and a greater perceived effort (2,4,7) with regards to the task before him.
The mantra did nothing to replenish Mack’s actual energy (liver and muscle glycogen stores), which continued to run down at a steady rate, but it did give him an acute hit of dopamine (5,6). Positive self-talk has long been studied as a physical motivator, but recent studies have isolated dopamine as the specific mediator. Not only is it one of the strongest pleasure hormones in the body, but dopamine also reduces perceived effort (3,8) and buffers the effects of stress hormones like norepinephrine.
Of course, Mack knew none of this at the time. To him, “NDCQ” was simply a useful device that helped him realize his dreams: becoming a SEAL, a Naval Special Warfare Scout Sniper, and an instructor of Land, Mountain, and Arctic Warfare. Not bad for four simple words.
The key ingredients
The concept of a mantra goes back at least 3,500 years in Vedic traditions, where it was believed to hold religious and spiritual powers capable of taking one’s consciousness to higher planes. Even if we ignore the numinous aspects, we can still draw some parallels between these mystic rites and the key elements that made the words in “NDCQ” so transcendental for Mack: relevance and resonance.
No matter how clever the mantra, to be effective in the given moment, it must be relevant to that moment. “Do no harm” is as concise and direct as a mantra gets, but while it may guide many a doctor towards good judgment, it has nothing to offer Mack in crossing the finish line. The more specific a mantra is, the more relevance it will hold under specific circumstances.
Take, for example, a situation where one is torn between two sides of a moral issue. One might try to weigh the pros and cons or do a cost/benefit analysis to arrive at a decision. Here, even a cliché like “what would Jesus do?” could help guide the thinker to the heart of the ethical dilemma: the ethics! Suddenly, the choice becomes obvious.
No matter how clever the mantra, to be effective for a given person, it must resonate with that person. Prior to that critical moment on the beach, the mantra's words had already struck a deep chord in Mack. For him, the wisdom of “NDCQ” held a strong spiritual valance. Similar but more generic sentiments like “just do it” could not have had the same effect.
Before an idea can resonate, it has to be internalized — fully. For example, most of us are vaguely familiar with Nietzsche’s words about fighting the abyss and looking into monsters. But can these words truly resonate until someone has seen the dark side of humanity — walked among criminals as an undercover cop or seen the reality of war as a combat veteran? Sometimes, in one crucial moment, words that we’ve carried all our lives and never given a second thought can become our guiding principles.
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.”
― Henry Ford
A mantra can do more than just flood our brains with pleasure hormones. For example, Henry Ford’s maxim is an elegant reminder that you can’t succeed unless you try. Sometimes all we require is the motivation to take that proverbial first step. As Wayne Gretzky put it: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
As I said earlier, mantras are not magic. Quoting Einstein won’t make you a genius. However, the right words may help you to “think different” when you need a little creativity, or to “just do” any “it” that needs doing. By orienting us toward our inner strengths, and at once, to something greater, mantras help us in life’s crucial moments when a simple nudge can make all the difference.
Powerful words, steeped in mystic traditions, capable of producing sublime personal change under opportune conditions — mantras are not magic… right?
- Davis J. M., Zhao Z., Stock H. S., Mehl K. A., Buggy J., Hand G. A. (2003). Central nervous system effects of caffeine and adenosine on fatigue. Am. J. Physiol. Regul. Integr. Comp. Physiol. Rev. 284 R399–R404. 10.1152/ajpregu.00386.2002 [PubMed]
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- Hatzigeorgiadis A., Zourbanos N., Galanis E., Theodorakis Y. (2011). Self-talk and sports performance: a meta-analysis. Perspect. Psychol. Sci. 6 348–356. 10.1177/1745691611413136 [PubMed]
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- Van Cutsem J., Marcora S., De Pauw K., Bailey S., Meeusen R., Roelands B. (2017b). The effects of mental fatigue on physical performance: a systematic review. Sports Med. 47 1569–1588. 10.1007/s40279–016–0672–0 [PubMed]
- Michely J, Viswanathan S, Hauser TU, Delker L, Dolan RJ, Grefkes C. The role of dopamine in dynamic effort-reward integration. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2020;45(9):1448–1453. doi:10.1038/s41386–020–0669–0 [PubMed]