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Freefalling out of the stress zone: Part one - excite, delight, thrive

One way to change your relationship with stress is to go and confront it head on, straight into the slipstream! Taking on an adventure challenge can help flip the switch from stress reactivity to cool-headed control in difficult situations. Whether it's jumping out of a plane or in everyday life, we can learn to be better at keeping our minds and bodies composed and ready to rise to the challenge. Are you ready for an adventurous solution?




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!

“The so-called “excite and delight” response occurs when individuals put themselves in stress-inducing situations of their own accord. Despite being in the highly aroused state that comes with confronting one’s mortality, they find pleasure and enjoyment in doing so....studying these extreme performers (as I do), shows that it is possible to re-balance the stressed out system and become more effective at operating in difficult situations. "

Loving the stress


When was the last time your heart skipped a beat?


Maybe you were scared. Maybe you were excited. Did your lottery numbers nearly come up? Or perhaps you spotted an opportunity you’ve been longing for, mulling the pros and cons...?


Mine skipped several beats last week: I jumped out of a plane.


How careless I hear you say...


Ever the ‘adventure scientist’ I put my money wear my mouth is (or should that be my heart in my mouth?). In order to understand stress, our response to it, and strategies to manage and control it, I seek out extreme adventures.


I measure myself (and others) with devices that can record brain waves, or heart activity.

With wearable sensors, we can track progress in our fitness, coupled with understanding the science behind this, to drill down into how we respond to stress. This can give insight into how to manage it better and become more resilient.

Many people look on in horror when you mention jumping out of a plane. Others ask “were you strapped to someone else?” No, I was not. It was drilled into me the day before in ground school by my good friend, and instructor, Hans, that it is imperative I get the drills right. It’s down to me to pull my parachute, and control the variables that contribute to safe flight (and landing). (Once the parachute has - hopefully - opened that is... )


I’m still here to tell the tale, which is testament to his excellent tuition!


There is nothing like being told that “if you don’t do it right there is a chance you will die” to strengthen one’s resolve, to focus on implementing tried and tested skills. I’ve had similar 'blunt' instruction before in other situations, such as technical diving. These environments can be somewhat unforgiving.

As part of my research (and application) into what makes people perform well under stress, particularly at the extremes, I determined to capture some data. Wearing a ‘brain machine’ was not feasible (it would likely have flown off) but monitoring my cardiac activity (with a portable device) is achievable. These can provide reliable data and are just the ticket for the type of research I do.

I’ve talked before about how our brains and bodies respond to stress. This highlights the ‘fight or flight’ response: associated with the horrified reaction described earlier and typically exhibited by those who think you are mad.


However, research has revealed that it is possible to modify this stress response - noted in experienced skydivers, amongst others.


The so-called “excite and delight” response occurs when individuals put themselves in stress-inducing situations of their own accord. Despite being in the highly aroused state that comes with confronting one’s mortality, they find pleasure and enjoyment in doing so. What appears to be going on here concerns our old friend the parasympathetic nervous system. This and its sympathetic counterpart comprise the Autonomic nervous system (which controls bodily functions such as blood pressure, respiration, heart rate - coming into play under pressure to enable survival and performance). The sympathetic branch is concerned with heightening arousal, and speeding up heart and breathing, getting you ready to run away or fight to the death. But the parasympathetic branch brings a modicum of restorative calm, aids in digestion and recovery typically after being stressed out.

The interesting thing with skydivers (as well as other extreme and adventurous types), is that they show an increase in parasympathetic activation whilst under the stress in their chosen extreme environment. Fear inducing situations normally prompt parasympathetic withdrawal as the sympathetic branch holds sway and instigates fight-flight behaviour. Yet increased activity in extreme sports practitioners appears to be important for maintaining a cool head under pressure.


Novice skydivers are less likely to show this, but over time they will as they become more experienced. This means that it is possible to train/learn this capacity with repeated exposure and increasing skill and familiarity with the environment.

This is a key point that we can take into other areas of life. Stress tends to provoke an urge to run away, driven by the sympathetic response. Our higher mental functions shut down and we react on the basis of fear and instinct. Longer term this can have negative effects on our future behaviours, resilience, and capacity to rise to challenges. Yet studying these extreme performers (as I do), shows that it is possible to re-balance the stressed out system and become more effective at operating in difficult situations.


In fact, research shows that viewing a situation as a challenge rather than seeing it as a threat, can facilitate performance and increase resilience. There is a marked physiological effect as energy reserves and blood flow are more efficiently distributed to brain and muscles due to this psychological strategy of looking at the situation opportunistically. It provides impetus to draw on one’s reserves and potential for positive action in the pursuit of goals.

I’ve put these principles to the test on more than one occasion when facing stress-inducing challenges. Not the least of which was in skydiving from 10000ft last week!


To find out how excited and delighted I was to do this, tune in for part two for an insight into the experience of freefalling for 4000ft, and what my brain got up to on the way down.



Don't be fooled by the 'Downhill skiing' - this was the closest I could find to 'skydiving' as a label for this recording of heart rate data (moment of jumping out the plane approximately indicated at 57 minutes)!



Reference


Allison AL, Peres JC, Boettger C, Leonbacher U, Hastings PD, & Shirtcliff EA (2012).Fight, flight, or fall: Autonomic nervous system reactivity during skydiving. Personality and Individual Differences, 53(3), 218–223. 10.1016/.paid.2012.03.019



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