MENTAL HEALTH AND EXTREME PERFORMANCE
CognitvExplorer is committed to putting an understanding of how the brain works under stress and challenge into real world context.
Working with adventure charity enterprises as well as extreme sports practitioners brings unique opportunity to apply insights from fundamental research to help individuals gain that mental edge.
The mechanisms involved in managing one's response to stress in order to not just cope but thrive operate across the spectrum of experiences: whether, overcoming bouts of depressive rumination and anxiety, or striving to accomplish higher goals in life. More in depth information on the scientific basis for this can be read here.
Without a doubt we appear to be in the midst of an mental health pandemic.
Evolution has bequeathed us with the capacity to adapt to our environment, to be resilient, flexible, and most of all...ADVENTUROUS!
Maybe it's time to re-acquaint with this mindset.
Wilderness environments can be overwhelming, challenging, threatening, but this nevertheless provides stimulus to provoke response.
There is increasing appetite for challenge, to get back to basics - fitness boot camps and obstacle courses, bathing in icy water, ultra endurance races. People seem to THRIVE on these activities. This is because it is hardwired into us to respond to environmental stimulus, both psychologically, and physiologically. And as CognitvExplorer's research focuses on, neurally as well!
How can we use insights into brain function in adventurous environments to enhance ability to cope and offset mental health issues?
Be outward focused - look outside of yourself to break the cycle of ruminating thoughts: by focusing on the sensory aspects of the outside world, your brain switches 'networks' to turn off the internally focused 'default mode' and instead adopt a more goal-oriented viewpoint, seeking meaning and salience in the external environment
'Lose yourself' - by taking a step back and focusing on a task, or being engaged with the outside world, the 'default mode' turns down, and as this is the supposed 'seat of the self', the self fades into the background
Mindfulness is a tried and tested technique (such as meditation and simple awareness of thoughts coming and going) that helps one stop being caught up in thoughts, identity, circumstance
Be stimulated by the enormity of nature! Finding a viewpoint that provokes 'awe' (something known as the Overview Effect) overwhelms the brain's tendency to fit everything into neat categories. We have to expand our mental models to accommodate the vast information found in nature, thereby provoking an expanded mind and potential growth...
As is the trend these days to plunge into icy water or engage in adventure races in harsh conditions, seek out adverse weather (wear the right clothes!), go wild swimming, have a cold bath! Do something out of the ordinary', if only to break free of existing habits and inhibiting expectations!
Facilitated Adventure Mindset Experiences can help people get to grips with some of the concepts we use in Adventure Psychology to overcome mental challenges. Get in touch to embark upon a journey into the wild with us!
Or go more in depth on the rationale, with multimedia inspirational imagery, through a speaking engagement tailored to your organisation's needs.
CognitvExplorer has a wealth of adventurous experience immersing in extreme environments around the world, from high altitude mountains, to Arctic ice caps, above and below the water.
This includes studying how the brain functions under environmental stress, and the adaptive mechanisms that come into play when challenged and stimulated. Much early research has focused on how brain processes are affected during exposure to oxygen-starved conditions as may be found in high altitude mountain locations. Whilst relevant to the performance of mountaineers and workers (such as miners in the High Andes of South America), this also has bearing in everyday life, understanding how efficient and effective brain 'power' may depend on how we maximise our own abilities to take in oxygen through proper breathing techniques (and noting how illnesses such as Covid-19 impact on blood oxygenation in the brain).
Working closely with extreme sports practitioners including BASE jumpers, uncovers insights into how individuals manage the mental processes that determine how life-threatening decisions are made 'at the edge'.
Everyone can benefit from such insights - to build better versions of ourselves that thrive in adverse, challenging situations and seize opportunities to excel in life!
What can we learn from extreme pursuits?
Extreme sports practitioners are all to often dismissed as 'crazy', different to the rest of 'us'.
But everybody is made up of the same Brain Stuff. The brain is not fundamentally different in a BASE jumper or an extreme solo climber, a cave diver or a round the world sailor!
What makes certain individuals thrive in extreme situations can depend upon how they approach and embrace the challenge, but is also dependent on how efficiently their brains organise and focus on the purpose of being there. There is also an element of progression. A BASE jumper does not simply decide one day to jump off a cliff, never having strapped on a parachute before. Instead there is a gradual progression built upon a foundation of basic training, building experience in 'safer' circumstances (such as learning to skydive and racking up jumps with instruction and safety measures). Decisions made on a cliff edge weigh up information borne out of long experience, cognitive and perceptual abilities to evaluate conditions, consequences and outcomes, then take measured risk.
This accommodates a framing of context and stress, and confidence in the ability borne through previous exposure and skill development, knowing that one is capable of performing, and thriving in that context. By becoming exposed gradually to stressful environments, uncertainty is reduced, familiarity increased, and the brain is allowed to adapt and learn to stretch its faculties into new and stimulating territories. It becomes more adept at making decisions given this opportunity to expand its models and overcome limiting expectations derived from previously unknown variables.
The good news for everyone else is that we can all learn more about how to re-organise our mental approach in situations that involve risk and stressful decision-making. Based on knowledge about how such individuals organise their mental activity to focus on the task at hand. The result is an approach to generally learning to optimise performance in daily life
How can we apply learnings from extreme sports practitioners to enhance performance in everyday life?
Re-evaluate risk: every day we encounter risk, be it in crossing a busy road, deciding to go for a job interview, or making a financial investment. It is a mix of uncertainty due to lack of knowledge and expectations of not being able to rise to the challenge that hold us back, but if we look more closely at the situation we can understand what knowledge we are lacking, seek to address the gap and become more assured in taking the risk - seeing it as an exciting challenge!
Seek to put yourself into situations where you know you can fail safely...so that the onus is taken off succeeding - before jumping off the cliff, you can approach the edge cautiously (I show people methods for safely securing ropes to 'bombproof' anchors then gradually encourage them to trust the system knowing that it is perfectly safe - soon people want to hang over the edge and 'thrillax'!!!)
Know that challenge is meant to provoke a response, and that this can be strenuous, but that it is good for you! So accept that you will be tired, maybe a little emotional, but that you will come out refreshed and strengthened by it - the Hero's Journey acted out for real!
To find out more contact CognitvExplorer concerning further guidance, ways to facilitate adventures and talks that can be delivered on this subject of optimising performance through adventurous mindset...