It’s important to practice what one preaches. This helps test and validate the theoretical assumptions, and to incorporate additional insights so that the model and recommendations can be refined and ‘made live’. I have been talking a lot about breathing of late. This includes how it can help give one a semblance of control over the Autonomic Nervous System functions that govern homeostasis, and which thereby impinge upon brain networks and cognitive functions that involve attention, and ability to perform tasks (or conversely spawn anxiety and negative thinking patterns).
Yesterday I went climbing. I have been putting it off to be honest for quite some time. I don’t seem to have the motivation I used to have. Giving in to this and finding reasons not to go has impacted on my confidence in a downward spiral. It was damp, so I put in place plan B to go for an evening walk instead, or ‘scope out other crags’.
But it turned out to be drier than I thought.
Ok, let’s do a climb that I have done previously, but which does not easily yield its secrets, is polished, and is something of a conundrum. At least there is familiarity on my side. And it’s towards the ‘harder grades’ so it is a challenge after all this time out, and meaningful for it. It requires good technique, problem solving, and a slightly bold approach. (This is very subjective as one person's hard climb is another's doddle, but when one has lost confidence in one's ability, even the easiest route can become insurmountable, and that's the point of finding ways to overcome that obstacle within yourself!)
I vowed not to get worked up, or panicky. As soon as I was on the route, low down, but struggling to figure things out, my legs started shaking. I could feel that old sensation of futility, frustration, and building anxiety. The 'why do I bother with this caper?' that threatens to undermine all future prospects of continuing in this game, if left to build momentum. So I decided, 'think about your breathing'. Think about the assertions made that it is possible to parasympathetically calm your system, clear your head, reduce your overactive default mode. And from that find a focused attention that will ‘help’ solve the problem, achieve the task, press on, ‘approach-centric’.
I breathed in through the nose, out through the nose. I repeated this a few times. I didn’t initially advance further up the route, but I did become more composed and keen to think my way out of this predicament, I frowned, puzzled, saw this as a problem to solve. I decided to commit to a position and press on upwards. Up I went, the next move worked as I balanced precariously on a toe hold, a pinch grip. I stood up and there was the next hand hold. I reached for it triumphantly.
And off I came!
Evidently my left foot, on which my weight was relying, as I reached up now complacent that I was past the hard move to grab at that right hand hold, shifted, and the small amount of friction gave way. Not to worry, I slipped only a few inches to rest on the rope. No big deal, that’s what ropes are for! Main thing is I had stilled the inner voice, lowered my increasing heart rate, and focused on the problem, tried a solution, made a small mistake.
Learning from the experience I attempted the move again, this time somewhat successfully. A little higher up I came unstuck again, at the ‘crux’. I repeated my earlier strategy, breathed, considered the problem more objectively. I mulled over various positions and strategies for quite some time. Frustration was building.
This time though it was irritation, annoyance, I became mightily p*ssed off. I could not see a way up at all. I could try and place a couple of fingers in a crack, spread my feet wider, a small nub leftwards for my toe to angle on. A right pinch onto a concave pocket with a small spike to pull on if I could only move holistically and not rely on a single point of contact. But it would be very committing and more than likely have the same result as before. I froze - undecided. Then the annoyance got the better of me. Galvanised aggression. I went for it.
Somehow I glid upwards, saw the large jug like block in the widening crack, stuck my hand in. Sorted!
Maybe not ‘composed’, but angrily, aggressively motivated nonetheless. And focused outwardly, on achieving the goal, using the features, the affordance, the perceptual cues and opportunities at my disposal to complete the task.
What we have here is a means to use some of the insights I talk about, concerning how we can intervene in natural reactions to a challenging situation. First by gaining composure, using breathing, forcing the internal system back to equilibrium, and with that still the racing mind. You need to establish that initial sense of control. This then better facilitates a focus on the problem at hand. Being stuck becomes just a perplexing, objective conundrum that a little application of the grey matter can help solve. Sometimes the mental effort with this more receptive, and intrigued, attitude is sufficient to make a solution pop out. Other times a little experimentation in the moment gives way to a gut instinct that this could be the right approach, and then it’s down to the committed decision to go for it. Of course, the consequences of failure can then hold one back, or worse propel one forward with the brakes still on, to inevitable consequence. Far better in this moment to ignite a fire inside, become dominant, aggressive even, take firm control and act assertively. The body will respond favourably, happy to be under command from a forceful leader when such a directive is necessary...
So, with this, and the big step forward gained from ‘having a go’ rather than being beaten before you start, you build impetus for future motivation. Failure in itself becomes a motivating force, something even to look forward to (safety factors all being considered of course). There is far more to be gained from having a crack, and wearing proudly the badge of failure rather than the self admonishment that comes from not even trying, or giving in to one’s anxiety. Simple tricks that come from such a fundamental ‘technique’, such as steady breathing, can work wonders. The key is to embrace the concept and use that as motivator to go find situations to put yourself in to see how the technique works. Explore its limitations! Obviously there is a spectrum of risk within which one has to make judgements and overcome anxiety and self-doubt. But the pyrrhic victories can accumulate from the day to day overcoming of small, (trivial even) obstacles which may become inflated in one's mind to the point where even getting out of bed can be a challenge. But there again, in really perilous situations this instilled approach might actually have exponential benefit, when you are frozen to the spot, paralysed with fear and its really important you rapidly gain control over a homeostasis in danger of going haywire! So why not practice these techniques daily, and recognise the situations where the panic begins to rise, the way forward seems blocked, but ultimately you can overcome by mastering your own reflexive responses to circumstance....The more you do it, the better you become and recognise your potential (stemming from first seeing your limitations and then working to surmount them. And the more you will relish the opportunity to place yourself in those situations where your system rises eagerly to the challenges that you will certainly grow from!
For what it's worth, my two biggest, lifelong fears and which have given me countless anxiety over the years since a small, perpetually worried child: heights and water. Yet I seem inevitably, inexorably drawn to both. Maybe I am just a sucker for punishment. Or I just like to find situations in which to employ techniques (such as breathing) to overcome these banes in my life!!!
[As it happens I used this technique earlier today whilst underneath a boat in cold water. I was assisting on a job to fix the engine up, and volunteered to be the underwater component. It turned out to be a little more complicated than anticipated and needed me to remain stationary in the cold water for a lot longer than had been expected, already cold from an initial foray that didn't quite work out, repeated, and not quite knowing when I would end. I could feel panic rising and cramp setting in. My buoyancy wasn't quite what it needed to be as I didn’t set up my kit for such a protracted exercise. So, as I could not imagine a more fitting environment in which to do so, I breathed. Slowly, steadily, relaxed, brought myself (and my shivering) under control. Focused on the simple task of holding myself steady and my hand pressed upwards against the hull and the small hole I was keeping sealed to prevent water entering the engine compartment above. My world shrank to the purpose of the task. I remained calm. Eventually the task came to an end, the signal came from above and I was freed to come back to Terra Firma. So it works! Explains why am so knackered today after two stressful stints, and completed tasks!]
I write about various subjects.