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Flipping the switch - taking back executive control to thrive under pressure

All too often we give over control to that default setting - the voice of self-doubt holds sway. We are in a reactive mode, stressed out, fighting fires not making the most of mental faculties designed to help us achieve more. This is where we can learn to flip the switch and turn on the executive functions that give us evolutionary advantage. Drawing on adventure contexts to help us manage our stress circuits and seek out challenging situations where we can thrive and innovate.

I champion an Adventure Neuropsychology approach to inspire and motivate others in the face of adversity and the challenges of life. This draws on escapades I have experienced as well as observing those who prevail in adventurous predicaments to provide insight into the mindset necessary to thrive under stress. As well as a basis in cutting-edge neuroscientific research into how the brain operates in extreme environments to optimise performance.

Being in control is about regulating emotional responses so as not to be reactive and seeing threat all around. It’s also about using the mental faculties to weigh up options, draw on experience, be more flexible, and use good judgement. In effect being less dominated by old patterns of thought and behaviour. And being more adventurous, embracing challenge and risk for greater reward."

Regaining control

The other day I decided to get out for some fresh air as I’ve been busy cooped up of late working on concepts around training mental fitness. Naturally this would involve an element of risk, as behooves the CognitvExplorer way. I found myself ensconced on a cliff face, waves crashing below me, feeling super exposed. I’d manouevred around and below a boulder wedged in place at the top in an awkward position that required a cautious move to circumvent.

Sometimes when I find myself in such positions it necessitates a problem-solving approach on the fly, involving ropes and knots, and uncertainty. If you ever fancied a challenge, try figuring out how to tie a knot onto a rope you are dangling on over a precipitous drop, and relying on doing it right as your safety depends on it. It’s not the first time I have had to figure things out in this way. One knows what to do, but self-doubt creeps in, and in the real-world things are not always as straightforward or consistent from one situation to the next.

Maybe I am a glutton for punishment, but there is something exhilarating, and terrifying, about testing your ability and knowledge in places where the stakes are high. There was this time where I got somewhat ‘stuck’ on a vertically roped section of the Eiger, nearly 10000ft up. On my own. As the cloud descended and inclement weather posed a very real threat to my composure...

I’ve been talking a lot about stress and ways to manage it. This has particularly focused on turning down the so-called default-mode or ‘default setting’ as I like to call it. That’s the ruminating self which is the source of doubt, distraction, whimsical daydreaming. We too easily slip into this default setting, and it monopolises our attention, preventing us from being productive, achieving goals, being the best version of ourselves. I enliken it to the perils of ‘doom scrolling’ where hours go by in mindless engagement with social media that gets us nowhere very fast.

The flip side of this, and my purpose as a performance neuropsychologist, is to activate the mental processes that get the job done, make best use of resources, and maximise motivation towards purpose.

This is about being in control. Executive control.

The CognitvExlorer approach is holistic, incorporating high performance with mental health. This is where I refer to mental fitness as a concept that addresses both ends of the spectrum. In the companion piece to this article I will outline the notion of psychological first aid – how we can take control over stress in situations that can be taxing, or even traumatic, and ensure that those higher brain centres remain online, allowing us to remain cool headed under pressure and think our way out of highly stressful situations.

I’ve been studying executive functions for a long time. These are the higher brain processes that give us that survival edge in the evolutionary scheme of things. The ability to innovate solutions to problems, to be flexible in the advent of changing circumstances, and inhibit automatic responses which might be instinctive – fight or flight – yet are not the best course of action at the time. An example may be blindly running away from a fire in a burning building, becoming trapped in a dead-end corridor when a better option could have been chosen. Evolution bequeathed us these mental functions to confer an advantage in adaptation, problem solving and decision-making. Yet stress regresses us to the primal self that shuts down these processes. Often in response to situations that might seem threatening to survival but do not require being so reactive (deadlines, emails, notifications, being late for a meeting...).

My research, and practice, is an integrated approach to identifying the psychological blockers that disrupt our ability to operate effectively. Fine tuning the mental engine can optimise the driving experience! Where is the source of blockage? How can we clear this? What can we do to direct resource where it is needed to achieve success? Adopting a challenge mindset can confer physiological benefits that prevent resources being used to fire fight when we could be innovating new solutions, planning ahead to new opportunities.

Drawing on adventure-related scenarios and activities, we can get a good workout of the so-called stress-circuits, learning to balance intensity with composure. Some stress can be good for us, teaching resilience, adaptivity, and motivating us towards higher aspirations and capability.

I’ll be outlining moving forward how the CognitvExplorer approach facilitates this optimising of performance in those who take part in workshops and adventure sessions to learn ways to tune up the mental engine. To ‘flip the switch’ as it were, from the default setting to a place of ‘executive control’. In other words, going from self-doubt to self-proficiency. Being in control is about regulating emotional responses so as not to be reactive and seeing threat all around. It’s also about using the mental faculties to weigh up options, draw on experience, be more flexible, and use good judgement. In effect being less dominated by old patterns of thought and behaviour. And being more adventurous, embracing challenge and risk for greater reward.

I’ve been hosting workshops and sessions to diverse groups, in varied settings. Helping people come to terms with fear of heights, taking teams up into the mountains to push their perceived boundaries, and working with youngsters on cooperative challenge activities that require cooperation and mental skills. I’ve been developing a concept which will encourage individuals to take a literal Leap of Faith (stay tuned for more on this!). The programme is tailored to the needs of clients and is always about how this is relevant to their own contextual experiences.

I’ll explain in the next piece how this relates to psychological first aid – a key tool in the tool box I believe is vital for us all, be it in life, or in the context of unexpected situations that can unfold when we go into the wild. I’ll talk about some incidents I have been involved in, and how engaging the executive control centres can make all the difference in life threatening situations as well as in circumstances where stress can get the better of us.

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