How A Change of Perspective Can Lead to Amazing Things: Challenge vs. Threat Mindset


Jane McGonigal’s book, “SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully”, is about harnessing the power of games to improve our physical, mental, social, and emotional resiliency.

As an avid gamer (or former avid gamer), the book spoke to me because I know just how easy it is to lose yourself in a video game. The state of focus that I would enter when in the middle of a World of Warcraft quest or while building a house in the Sims was a sight to behold. Nothing, not even food, could distract me from finishing my task. If only I could harness that power and apply it to something more constructive…

That’s what SuperBetter is about. She studies games and tries to get at the reasons why they are so good at grabbing and keeping our attention. She then takes those principles and applies them to self-improvement. Her goal is for you to not only live a better life, but a superbetter life.

The chapter I’m going to talk to you about today is about how the challenge mindset we use when playing games can empower us to feel more optimistic and determined to reach our goals.

The Challenge Mindset

Games put us into a challenge mindset. They focus on growth, as well as a specific goal. Whether it is to save the princess in the castle, build the biggest mansion, or get the highest score—we know that there will be a struggle, but somehow, we face it with no fear. No anxiety. We welcome the challenge, in fact, we seek it out.

This is because we are given a locus of control—we feel like we are in control of our destiny. We take responsibility for our failures and learn from our mistakes. This is something that I have found to be especially important in physical therapy. A patient who loses this locus of control feels “hopeless” and feel that none of their actions matter. This is the mindset that leads to depression and chronic pain.

However, there is a tool that we can use to regain that locus of control: cognitive reappraisal. Cognitive reappraisal is changing how we think and feel about a problem that comes up in our life, something that games do very well. Rather than feel anxiety when we are being chased down the football field by someone looking to tackle us, we feel excitement. The context of the situation creates a new perspective in the player that allows him to adopt a “challenge mindset”, which puts his destiny in his own hands. He is in control of the trajectory of his life, and he can rise to his potential.

Quicktip: Learn to use cognitive reappraisal in one minute. Ready? Next time you feel anxious about something (like a test, or interview), tell yourself you feel excited! Really believe it. You are excited to do this test or interview. The physiological arousal you feel in anxiety is the same as in excitement—the only difference is your perspective. This has been tested by a Harvard researcher, Alison Wood Brooks, and is a perfect high-yield nugget that can improve your life today.1

Threat Mindset

The “Get Excited” technique is a quick “hack” that displays how easy it is to change your perspective on a situation and shift to a challenge mindset that is focused on growth and positive outcomes. However, most people accept these physiological symptoms as feelings of anxiety and enter a “threat mindset”.

A threat mindset is one that is focused on risk, danger, harm and loss. You are suddenly called to prevent negative outcomes rather than to work to achieve a positive one. You seek to avoid challenges rather than to face them head on.

Can you see how this would be a detriment in your life?

Studies have shown that the ability to use cognitive reappraisal techniques lead to reduced depressive symptoms during high stress situations vs. those who did not use the reappraisal techniques.

Now while anxiety and excitement are similar physiologically, they are not the same. Let’s use this as an example: imagine that someone has a fear of heights after they fell off a ladder when they were younger.  Now, put that same person on the top of a ladder, and their anxiety will trigger their past experiences. Thoughts are linked to emotions through the amygdala, which can lead to a sequelae of negative symptoms.2 Their heart will beat faster, they will breathe more rapidly—the cortisol that is released into their blood will stimulate their sympathetic nervous system into a fight or flight mentality. This is not a good state to be in.

However, cognitive reappraisal can change the experiential link to one tied to excitement. You suddenly remember the time you were brave and jumped off the high dive into the pool, impressing all your friends. You suddenly want to succeed. The sequalae of symptoms is different—there is a balance of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.3 You aren’t thinking of injury or death, you are thinking of ways to recreate that moment of success. You are entering a challenge mindset.


How we perceive a situation can determine how we act and respond to a problem. By entering a challenge mindset, we can respond with a clear mind, untethered by the cognitive impairments brought on by anxiety. We play games with a challenge mindset. We actively seek out struggle and difficulty because we have a locus of control—our destiny is guided by our actions and decisions. We level up when we apply that same principle to problems outside of gaming. The author puts it best:

“The actual stressful circumstance you face does not determine whether you view it as a challenge or a threat. It’s how you choose to engage with the stress that makes the difference.”

Kaizen principles: Context, Narrative


  1. Alison Wood Brooks, “Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 143, no. 3 (2014): 1144-58
  2. Allison S. Troy et al., “Seeing the Silver Lining: Cognitive Reappraisal Ability Moderates the Relationship Between Stress and Depressive Symptoms,” Emotion 10, no.6 (2010): 783
  3. Jim Blascovich et al., “Predicting Athletic Performance from Cardiovascular Indexes of Challenge and Threat,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 40, no.5(2004): 683-88.
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