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Short circuiting stress with Adventure Challenge

Updated: Nov 14, 2022

I recently attended the Adventure Mind 2022 conference and hosted some Adventure Challenge Mindset workshops. Adventure is a valuable means to promote mental health and wellbeing, to stretch us from the comfort zone and provide personal growth. I invited attendees to join me over the edge and face some fears (abseiling down a building), whilst demonstrating simple principles around breathing and mindfulness that can help calm the stress response. Backed up with cutting edge science and useful to take back into everyday life. I intend to take this further out on the road and into the wild, as an approach to help people manage stress and inspire growth!

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.

“when we breathe in and out, we alternate activation of these two systems: in – arousing/sympathetic, out – calming/parasympathetic...Around 3-4 seconds in, 5-8 seconds out can activate more of the calming/parasympathetic influence in just a couple of minutes practice...By becoming aware of the mechanisms that drive our behavioural responses to stress, we can begin to recognise, become mindful of a tendency to over activate the stress circuits. Longer term this isn’t good for health, immune function, predisposing towards heart disease "

Balancing the seesaw of stress


What makes your palms sweat, or your knees knock?


Exposure to heights?


Public speaking?


I decided to combine the two this week, delivering talks on how to control the stress response, whilst dangling over the side of a building...

So far so Dave I suppose you might say!

I was at the Adventure Mind 2022 conference, organised by Belinda Kirk, who has kickstarted an Adventure Revolution!


The focus of the gathering of like-minds from practice and research, was to explore and expand the connections between adventure and wellbeing. To grow the movement and embed adventure thinking far and wide. Adventure, challenge is good for us! We need more of this to offset the proliferation of mental health issues that plague society.


For my part I focused on stress.


Our stress circuits are in danger of being burnt out. In a constant state of fight-or-flight, prompted by the constant pressures we face. Be that swamped with information all doom and gloom: the cost of living, war. But also, more mundane everyday demands that perpetually wind us up – emails, traffic jams, social media...


I ran some workshops in which I invited people to come over to the edge and undertake an abseil down the building, to face fears, and embrace a challenge mindset. Facilitated with an adventure challenge such as this, we can see potential stressors as opportunities to gain some control over our stress response. I demonstrated some simple techniques including mindfulness and paced breathing. I explained the (neuro)science behind these ideas, based around the Autonomic Nervous System which has two branches that either stimulate/arouse or calm us down.


When we activate the fight or flight response (sympathetic system), by perceiving threat all around, the seesaw is tipped over into that high alert state, the brain can shut down and we act on instinct. All being well when chased by lions to get the hell out of there, but not so appropriate when stuck in heavy traffic or losing our sh!t when late for a meeting!


At the other end of the tipped scale, the calming system (parasympathetic branch) helps us rest and digest to restore equilibrium and healthy functioning.


I referred to my work with extreme sports people including BASE jumpers and skydivers. These ‘adventure types’ can find calm within the storm of anxiety that they are confronted by at the edge. This is a consequence of ‘autonomic balance’ wherein the calming system is activated even whilst on high alert! Indeed they can go into a state of excite and delight rather than fight or flight. Adventure can help us access this state as an alternative to getting overwhelmed with stress.


I explained how, when we breathe in and out, we alternate activation of these two systems: in – arousing/sympathetic, out – calming/parasympathetic. The heart speeds up, and slows down, with each beat and each breath cycle. This is reflected in measures of heart-rate variability (and can be monitored using off the shelf wearable chest straps and the like).


Participants practiced a breath technique in which we prolonged the out-breath relative to the in-breath (Laborde et al., 2021). Around 3-4 seconds in, 5-8 seconds out can activate more of the calming/parasympathetic influence in just a couple of minutes practice. In our hyper-tense existence, we can become too shallow and rapid in our breathing, so slowing down from an average 12-20 cycles per minute, to 6-9 can exert better control and balance over this tendency towards stress. Incidentally, research corroborates that techniques such as this can help people make better decisions, be that in business (De Couck et al., 2019), or life, as the higher brain centres remain online, rather than switching off and acting without thinking.

By becoming aware of the mechanisms that drive our behavioural responses to stress, we can begin to recognise, become mindful of a tendency to over activate the stress circuits. Longer term this isn’t good for health, immune function, predisposing towards heart disease.


With a little mindset coaching, coupled with exposure to the affirming, stimulating and empowering stimulus of adventure challenge, we can take back control over our stress circuits and be in the driving seat!

The workshop participants were invited to face their fears and approach the edge, abseiling back down to the ground, equipped with some extra knowledge of how to approach stress, and adopt a challenge mindset. Handy to take back into stressed out lives!

Adventure Mind is all about connections, building a collective impassioned to change the world. We need more adventure in our lives. There are great initiatives afoot, particularly in the Social Prescribing space. Social prescribing involves using non-clinical interventions to tackle the mental health crisis, and alleviate strain on the NHS. One speaker asserted this about saving the NHS, such is the stress on it’s resources – and people!

The workshops I hosted are a launch pad for taking my own particular approach further into the wild. I am looking to collaborate further with partners, organisations, social enterprises to promote the benefits of adventure challenges in a social prescribing context. This also includes looking at ways to measure the impact of this, on enhanced mental wellbeing, and in terms of 'autonomic health' and individual stress reactivity (in conjunction with my research affiliation at Liverpool John Moores University).


Many people came up to me afterwards and expressed their appreciation, seeing benefits for this approach and the insights offered. Outdoor professionals integrating some of the thinking into practice when instructing others. Organisations supporting mental health needs in the community. Individuals overcoming their own stresses and fears and sticking points in life.

I look forward to connecting further with people to take this approach, and more besides, out into the wild, into the business world, across the mental health and welfare space, and of course in conjunction with the Adventure Mind community.

Please contact me to take the conversation forward and join me at the edge to see what potential lies beyond!



Tel: 0777 270 6807



References:

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.


Kirk, B. (2021). Adventure Revolution: The Life-Changing Power of Choosing Challenge. Piatkus


Laborde, S., Iskra, M., Zammit, N., Borges, U., You, M., Sevoz-Couche, C., Dosseville, F. (2021). Slow-Paced Breathing: Influence of Inhalation/Exhalation Ratio and of Respiratory Pauses on Cardiac Vagal Activity. Sustainability. 13(14):7775.

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