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Feeling the pressure - pausing for thought

When it all gets too much it’s easy to fold under the pressure. But taking a moment in-between the breaths can halt the downward spiral and give pause for thought. It is remarkable what can be achieved when we take some control in taxing situations. In fact, exercising our stress circuits can make us more resilient, adaptable, even innovative. A good workout will benefit health and wellbeing in the longer run. An adventure workout can improve mental fitness and strengthen the brain’s connections between mind and body!



I've been setting out a philosophy in my blogs which promotes the concept of an Adventure Mindset as a means to thrive on life's challenges. This incorporates an understanding of how the brain functions under stress (from my research into cognitive neuroscience), with techniques and concepts from coaching practice that help people achieve goals and overcome sticking points. The ambition is to help folks unlock potential and live happier, more fulfilled lives! In short, being more adventurous in thought and action.

“taking a breath, pausing for a moment, can engage the brain’s connections in such a way as to regain some control over reflexive responses. This can help overcome a tendency to spiral inwards, stuck in a ruminative loop. It can also help engage the higher faculties that can think our way out of predicaments, or at least keep us focused on what we need to do. Or to come up with novel, innovative solutions to possibly insurmountable problems."

Extreme lessons - stress circuits


The Rescue’ and ‘Thirteen Lives’ tell an incredible story about ingenuity, risk and camaraderie. In 2018, twelve young men of the Wild Boars football team, along with their 25-year-old coach became trapped in the Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand.

What followed was a protracted and complex rescue operation over 18 days to get them out of the unexpectedly flash-flooded cave system.


The two films mentioned are really worth a watch.


Uness you are claustrophobic.


(The former is a superb documentary, the latter a valiant Hollywood treatment of the same.)


The extraction involved a cave diving operation over several kilometres of restricted passages, to find and eventually bring all the boys out. This involved anaesthetising each individual and transporting these ‘packages’, one at a time, back to safety. It’s all mindblowing really.


Of course, none of the boys were divers, let alone cave divers. Cave diving requires highly specialised techniques and resolve to negotiate the extreme hazards encountered. The decision to put them to sleep came fraught with the assumption this would almost certainly involve fatalities, weighing heavily on those involved.

It takes a special breed to voluntarily engage in highly risky practice that can place one far from help, responsible for one’s own survival should one of many hazards threaten to tax one to the limit. Let alone to do this voluntarily to help others who do not have the capability to get themselves to safety.


I’ve talked before about stress circuits and how we need to manage these to guard against burn out due to being overwhelmed by the pressures of circumstance. This calls to mind a course I took part in a few yards back with my friend Ben in Mexico.

It involved undertaking stress circuits. Underwater. As part of preliminary cave diving training.


The stress circuit, in cave diving parlance, refers to a series of drills in which you prepare for the worst that could happen. This equips you to deal with any problems that might arise in such an hostile environment. In a cave, a mulititude of things going wrong might include: losing visibility (such as your mask coming off / torch failing); running out of air in one or more of your tank; losing the guide line which is your means to find your way back out (life) or to become forever lost in the underworld (death).


The course was a considerable step up for me as, believe it or not, I have a thing about not being able to breathe underwater. Funny that.


I’d never been comfortable taking my regulator out, when swapping air sources or performing buddy drills. I could never hold my breath for longer than a few seconds underwater. Something to do with the pressure – more psychological than physiological.

Yet on this course I was required to do multiple things at once, including maintaining my ‘trim’ (a horizontal neutrally buoyant body position), signalling distress with a torch attached to one hand, whilst turning OFF my air source with the other and breathing it dry. Only once the last breath sucked in...nothing...was I to swap over to my alternate regulator and take in enriching air. One handed. (I should also mention that the instructor was also blasting air at me from behind to simulate a freeflow in the source I had to deal with. It was indeed bloody stressful!)


I lost some sleep over these drills – the nights before and after.


Yet I persevered, and had a small epiphany one day when it was suggested I should pause for ten seconds between swapping regulators. I discovered that I was more than capable of remaining calm and relaxed whilst breathing no air for a short period of time. This moment gave me assurance that I could be deprived of oxygen and still function. That I could take my time and thoughtfully approach the drill rather than doing it in a state of urgent near-panic.


There is a useful learning from this when life presses the stress trigger. Instead of reacting instinctively, out of control, being able to stop, remaining motionless, and carefully pausing for thought, before THEN acting decisively, is invaluable.


The stress response is apt to take over if you let it when pressured by imminent demands. In fight-flight mode, you may well act on reflex, perpetually fighting fires all around.


Yet a moment of pause, a halting of the breath, or slowing the pace of your breathing (and prolonging the exhale) can clear the head, giving space to consider your options. Parasympathetically speaking.


The story of the lads in the cave is truly remarkable. Not just for the bold ingenuity of the rescue. But particularly in the way the young men dealt with their predicament. They displayed amazing composure, not in small part attributable to the coach’s mentorship, teaching them meditation techniques to help them stay calm. They had already gone TEN DAYS without food, drinking less-than-potable cave water.

There was little they could do, no way out. Such circumstance could send a person into madness and a ruminative spiral, as the pressure from without forces itself within. Yet they were rational, calm, attentive to what they were instructed to do.


We often place ourselves under pressure, experiencing admonishing thoughts critiquing our performance, questioning our worth. The self turns in upon itself. The default mode is in overdrive, a ruminative loop. As our stress levels rise, there is also increased connectivity between these self-referential brain areas and those processing interoceptive information pertaining to bodily discomfort. If we are in this default setting, we are less able to focus attention outside of our self, in order to get on with productive tasks that could remove us from a sticky situation. It becomes hard to disengage from self absorption in order to focus on the world and the opportunities that can present.


Interestingly, the task-positive, executive control network is implicated in control of rhythmic activity of the heart (vagal mediation). And as we have seen, parasympathetic activity can slow the heart, and contribute to keeping higher cognitive functions online – being cool headed and able to get the job done...


What this amounts to is that taking a breath, pausing for a moment, can engage the brain’s connections in such a way as to regain some control over reflexive responses. This can help overcome a tendency to spiral inwards, stuck in a ruminative loop. It can also help engage the higher faculties that can think our way out of predicaments, or at least keep us focused on what we need to do. Or to come up with novel, innovative solutions to possibly insurmountable problems.


The Thai Cave Rescue provides inspiration and insight to us all. Indeed, there are many lessons from extreme situations like this that can be applied to how we deal with stress and adversity in daily life. This is what I specialise in from a research perspective, exploring the mechanisms that underlie human performance and capability under pressure. I also bring this understanding to bear on coaching practice, to help people manage stress, overcome obstacles to progress, and inspire innovative, breakthrough thinking.


One way in which I do this is to take people into the wild and facilitate adventure challenges which engage the stress circuits talked about earlier. Adventurous activities can stimulate the stress-response, whilst offering opportunity to take control and modulate autonomic system reactivity to the situation. With appropriate mindset coaching and some techniques I have alluded to, the stress system can get a jolly good work out! You might have sore stomach muscles after a cardio session, but you’ll have a stronger core for having done so! Likewise with the stress-circuit and a capacity to find some calm under pressure.


Don’t worry, it won’t involve being trapped in a cave or stranded on a cliff edge...


Unless that tickles your fancy of course!

Please get in touch if you want to be involved in a facilitated stress-circuit, or to explore possibilities in the corporate and team building space, through adventures, talks and workshops!



References:

Bauer, C.C.C., Whitfield-Gabrieli, S., Díaz, J.L., Pasaye, E.H., Barrios, F.A. (2019). From State-to-Trait Meditation: Reconfiguration of Central Executive and Default Mode Networks. eNeuro.;6(6):ENEURO.0335-18.2019.


Chand, T., Li, M., Jamalabadi, H., Wagner, G., Lord, A., Alizadeh, S., Danyeli, L.V., Herrmann, L., Walter, M., Sen, Z.D. (2020). Heart Rate Variability as an Index of Differential Brain Dynamics at Rest and After Acute Stress Induction. Front Neurosci.;14:645.


De Couck, M., Caers, R., Musch, L., Fliegauf, J., Giangreco, A., Gidron, Y. (2019). How breathing can help you make better decisions: Two studies on the effects of breathing patterns on heart rate variability and decision-making in business cases. Int J Psychophysiol. 139:1-9.


Schulz A, Vögele C. Interoception and stress. (2015). Front Psychol.;6:993.

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