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Challenge mindset - Part two: Be (para)sympathetic to stress

Updated: Mar 30

Approaching a stressful situation as a challenge rather responding to it as a threat can energise us and facilitate a positive experience. This draws on sympathetic nervous system resources balanced with parasympathetic activity to keep a cool head. We can tap into this capacity when the going gets tough and our toes are threatening to fall off (see Part one)...



In my blogs I put forward ideas from Adventure Psychology to help people figure a way to thrive in uncertain times, and make sense of the crazy world. By adopting an Adventure Mindset (I'll gradually reveal how) you can approach the challenges of life with an adaptable resolve, and embrace the chaos knowing full well that it's a wild ride so you might as well enjoy it!

research indicates that adopting a challenge mindset can differentially affect how the body releases energy to facilitate performance....It is believed that more parasympathetic activity occurs in challenge states to positively influence heart rate variability – allowing for a ‘cooler head’ under pressure and longer term positive growth from the experience...it is important for the longer term to impress on oneself... that this was a positive experience. Future responses will draw on that strength rather than defaulting to aversive, instinctive appraisals."

Stamping out the threat response


There are times in life when one finds the capacity to keep going forwards. Something inside seems to wither and die, such is the nature of trauma. But the way I see it, this is opportunity for growth and reconstitution, and the basis for forging resilience.


Research looking at traits of those who perform well under extreme stress, including ‘adventure-types’ who willfully put themselves in distressing situations that tax their limits notes that a ‘challenge mindset’ is important. This involves appraising situations in a positive light to see potential for learning and self development. An instinctual reaction might be to perceive a situation as threatening and inherently stressful. But a challenge mindset sees hope, optimism, but most of all opportunity.


My approach involves understanding the mechanisms that underpin the mental states accompanying situational responses, but also linking this to the psychological traits associated with thriving in adverse conditions. Being psychologically strategic can pay dividends in influencing behavioural outcomes by affecting how neurophysiological resources are distributed.


Indeed, research indicates that adopting a challenge mindset can differentially affect how the body releases energy to facilitate performance. As I have talked about before, the stress response involves both sympathetic-adrenal-medulla (SAM) and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axes. These facilitate fight-flight response as well as adaptation to effects of stress longer term in addressing homeostasis. However, when a situation is perceived/appraised as a threat this can have a deleterious effect in diverting resources away from executive functioning and towards more instinctive or aversive behavioural response. Longer term after effects can be negative, leading to post-stress trauma, and disrupted immune function (ill-health). However, when the situation is viewed as challenge, there is greater proportionate activation of the sympathetic system component axis with catecholamine release, facilitating enhanced blood flow that allows for efficient energy supply to the brain and muscles (and decreased vascular resistance). Meanwhile, threat activates HPA with tempered influence of SAM, preventing efficient energy supply. It is believed that more parasympathetic activity occurs in challenge states to positively influence heart rate variability – allowing for a ‘cooler head’ under pressure and longer term positive growth from the experience.


With such knowledge of and confidence as to neurophysiological benefits, we can seek to approach situations with this means of appraisal when the going gets tough. It’s something I try to do when confronted with gruelling exercise regimes as well as in situations where stress otherwise threatens to overwhelm. Sometimes it is indeed about ‘just getting through it’, but it is important for the longer term to impress on oneself and in the memory banks that this was a positive experience. Future responses will draw on that strength rather than defaulting to aversive, instinctive appraisals.


At 6000m in the Bolivian Andes, acutely aware that my toes had turned numb and were potentially susceptible to the same cold-injury experienced the year before in Greenland, I critically appraised the predicament and drew attention to my concerns (voicing them out loud as much as trying to make others understand this – articulation/expression is important). I stamped my feet to try and warm them up. I evaluated my position – I was about to make the final push for the summit, so it was not really feasible to turn back. I felt diabolical anyway. I could let this further issue overwhelm me and sap my reserves further, or I could just push this to one side and revel in the accomplishment so far and press on to the top. In any case the sun would be coming up by then and it would warm up a little. I had control over these decisions, and this is vital in maintaining one’s executive authority over baser reactions.


This was a challenge and I would remember this for a long time. I had suffered for it and that suffering was to be viewed as purposeful...


Getting to the top of a mountain is really just half the achievement, it’s getting down that counts. I have fragmentary memories of standing at just shy of 20000ft watching the sun come up over a vast landscape of snowy peaks and crevasse-fields. Caring little for the ‘nice view’, I just wanted to keep moving, follow the sun, get down and feel better!


Somehow, I found the energy to do so. Back at base refuge some 12 hours or so after setting off in the dark I was able to find some satisfaction at the enterprise and enjoy the feeling of having pushed on through. With the passage of time, I saw it as a great experience because of the punishment and challenge that represented.


I got back to La Paz to find my partner waiting for me (he was meant to depart for Chile whilst I was away but had stuck around to welcome me back). He was excited to announce he had been talking with a guide and had arranged for me after a day or two's rest to go out on another expedition, this time involving a couple of days transport by mule, to climb an ice pyramid that was significantly more technical. He said the guide hadn’t led the route, but that “Dave will be more than capable of doing so”.


I thought to myself, “jeez I only just got down from this one I could do with a holiday!”. It did sound exciting though.


It was then that I took off my boots and socks still wedded to my feet.


The toes were a mess, the big one on the left foot had turned black around and under the nail...


It’s ok. It wasn’t frostbitten again, just battered and bruised and in need of being put up for a few days.


I never did get to climb the ice pyramid am afraid. Instead, I went off on another random journey - into the high altiplano on a 4x4 trip. I had a bad bout of bronchitis that came on swiftly as I headed off to 5000m and stayed up there for a week or so. It would have been a bad move to try and go back up into the mountains in this state, frustrating though it is that I never got to sample that next challenge.


I came home a stone and a half lighter for my 3 week excursion in Bolivia.


But at least I still had my toes.



References


https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20140916-how-to-train-a-tougher-mind


MJ. Turner, MV. Jones, D. Sheffield, JB. Barker, P. Coffee (2014). Manipulating cardiovascular indices of challenge and threat using resource appraisals.Int J Psychophysiol. 94(1), pp.9-18.


Qi, M., & Gao, H. (2020). Acute psychological stress promotes general alertness and attentional control processes: An ERP study. Psychophysiology, e13521 .


Uphill MA, Rossato CJL, Swain J, O'Driscoll J. Challenge and Threat: A Critical Review of the Literature and an Alternative Conceptualization. Front Psychol. 2019 Jul 2;10:1255. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01255. PMID: 31312151; PMCID: PMC6614335.



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