Stormproof - weathering adversity

Exposure to the elements can provided us with a sense of how capable we are, our limitations, but also our strengths. It's too easy to rely on habitual responses to challenging conditions, based on past negative appraisals of situations. To take back control we can try to innoculate against stress by exposing ourselves to potential sources of adversity. An explore-based mindset coupled with a positive evaluation of situations can help us prevail under future stress-inducing circumstances. So go on expose yourself!

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!

“Stormproofing yourself to adversity rests on taking some control over your behavioural options. It means being willing in life to go out into bad weather and see for yourself if it’s that ‘bad’ - or indeed a consequence of wearing the wrong clothes...You might find a perverse enjoyment in being exposed to this. It might turn into an ordeal, but in getting through it you will have learnt something that can help you in future – don't make the same mistake twice. "

Expose yourself (to the elements!)

We are currently being battered by the vengeful wrath of ‘Eunice’!

Batten down the hatches. Secure all loose objects (and your marbles).

How do you deal with the prospect of being laid waste to by the elements?

For the more anxious amongst us, with a tendency to worry about the future, perhaps based on past traumas, this can lead to a sense of impending doom. One strategy is to retreat inside and curl up (metaphorically) into a ball, waiting for the blows that will inevitably rain down.

How can we ‘stormproof’ ourselves mentally to cope with (or indeed thrive upon) adversity without becoming victim to circumstance?

Now it would be remiss of me to claim that there is a simple solution to overcoming deeply ingrained responses fostered by lifelong anxiety. But that is not to say that we can’t re-take a semblance of control over such responses and attempt to lay down new behaviours. Increasing our options under stress.

To build on a recent piece about exploration vs exploitation, we can think about how behaviours manifest as stock responses to situations. Prior experience determines how we act now. It's all too easy to repeat the cycle. To reiterate some science, brain areas including the amygdala prompt instinctive behaviours laid down in previous emotionally-loaded situations. We act without thinking. Run away, hide. Higher cognitive processes are turned down, and the options available are limited. In effect we are exploiting our existing knowledge.

As previously mentioned, over time (and age) we become less inclined towards exploring the environment in favour of relying on what we know already. The world shrinks, along with opportunities to change perspective and integrate new ways of thinking and perceiving.

The conditioned response can feed anxiety, leading to further ingrained responses. Yet exploration can allow us to find new connections and notice things that might reveal novel solutions. The world can expand once again...

Taking inspiration from adventurous situations and performance in extreme environments, we can learn something about how individuals stormproof themselves to adverse circumstances. This means developing a resilient and thriving mindset with exploration at its core.

It was Captain Lawrence Oates who famously said: “I am just going outside and may be some time”, whilst enduring the terrible conditions on Captain Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. He walked into a blizzard, never to return, sacrificing his life in the hope that it would prevent further burden on his comrades.

Now I am certainly not advocating we blithely abandon common sense and go revel in the outdoor maelstrom that is besetting the UK currently!

There is certainly virtue, however, in occasionally exposing oneself to more adverse conditions than we would prefer to experience. It is good to establish one’s limitations, operating on the edge of comfortable (and well beyond). It is also good to find out that one often is far more capable than might have been anticipated, and indeed that adverse weather conditions can be highly stimulating and ‘enjoyable’!

But the real virtue lies in being able to draw on these experiences in future when the sh!t really hits the fan. Alternate options to curling up into a ball indoors can become available instead...

On more than a few occasions I have been out in conditions one might be best advised to avoid. I often did so with the express purpose of testing my mettle, and embracing the suffering that can not be avoided! Some times it was indeed pure sufferance. From time to time there was a physical cost. On every occasion I learnt something new about myself and how to not make certain mistakes in future!

When I was young and daft(er) I had little time for specialist knowledge of clothing or equipment. I firmly believed, in my limited experience, that I could get away with wearing inadequate attire, and that natural physical capabilities and exuberance would see me through the worst conditions. A short sharp shock of near hypothermia taught a valuable lesson about wearing layers. I tried sleeping in a tent in sub zero conditions without a sleeping bag using just a blanket and a bin bag (bad mistake). I won’t be doing that again (unless I have no choice!). I’ve slept since in tents at significantly lower temperatures. My boots have frozen. My toes have frozen. I should have put my boots inside my sleeping bag. Lesson learnt.

I have been blown like tumbleweed down a mountain slope in ridiculous gusts. I struggled to put on my outer shell jacket on a mountain ridge for several minutes in high winds, prompting a couple of stressed looking individuals on their way down to approach and ask if I was in trouble. They were desperate to get back down as it was “crazy up there”. I cheerfully explained no I was in fact just on my way up. They looked more stressed at my response. I was exactly where I intended to be. I had reviewed the weather report and deemed it ‘just right’ to provide the challenge I was looking for to see for myself how bad it would be. I was extremely well prepared with a backpack full of clothing, food, emergency shelter. Was it fun? Well, that is an ambiguous term at times! The environment provided me with exactly what I anticipated, was prepared for, and got in abundance.

I have put a tent up in 70mph gusts of wind. It took me nearly an hour of carefully pegging it out, lying on it to prevent it blowing away. I determined that I would do this come what may. Luckily it stayed up in the night, though I have been in a tent when younger that actually blew away with me in it (it’s ok I came back)!

With a wealth of experiences revealing the degree of sufferance one can experience, there is a well stocked larder of possible responses available to draw on in future adverse situations. An important point I would say in this is to review a situation in the immediate aftermath (and where possible even during) with a positive evaluation regardless of how it actually felt.

If you escape the predicament howling with anguish, your aforementioned amygdala will retrieve that impression at a later date and instruct you to run and hide till it all blows over. However, if you grin like a maniac and tell yourself “THAT WAS WILD!!” in a positive way, then in all likelihood you will recall this as an affirming experience you voluntarily engaged with. The sense of control will pay dividends down the line and help you overcome amygdala-driven tendencies to inhibit higher thought processes which might otherwise engage strategically with the current environment. You will be disinclined to explore possibilities within the current situation due to blindly exploiting previous knowledge that might not be your best course of response.

Occasionally there will be experiences that are traumatic. Never again, you say. But memories fade over time, and with an exploration-driven attitude, you will be clamouring to return to the source of adversity in the future. In some high altitude mountain sojourns I came back drained, reeling from the struggle. It took some time to contemplate going back. But I found myself deciding to push things to more ambitious levels with a higher level of suffering! It was bad enough at nearly 4000m. Ok let’s see what its’ like at 6000m!! (Worse funnily enough. But more satisfyingly worse!!!)

It is important to keep the circuits involved in exploration-exploitation trade off strengthened and flexibly able to switch back and forth. Use it or lose it.

Stormproofing yourself to adversity thus rests on taking some control over your behavioural options. It means being willing in life to go out into bad weather and see for yourself if it’s that ‘bad’ - or indeed a consequence of wearing the wrong clothes...You might find a perverse enjoyment in being exposed to this. It might turn into an ordeal, but in getting through it you will have learnt something that can help you in future – don't make the same mistake twice.

Maybe wait till Eunice has blown her course before heading off with wild abandon. We have to have some common sense and choose our battles sometimes!

Of course, this talk of literal exposure to the elements is all well and good but can we carry over this mentality into normal life? The mechanisms I have been talking about are there to provide us with a capacity to interact with the world whatever the circumstances. Stress comes in many forms, from financial, to work demands, relationships and more besides. Nevertheless, stormproofing in a general sense is about exercising the circuits alluded to, and the balance between exploitation and exploration. Likewise, in order to become better versed in managing how we respond to stress, we can innoculate ourselves by heading out into the figurative storm. Look at the areas that stress and challenge you. If you are inclined to break out in a cold sweat, or feel like running a mile, maybe interrupt that thought and think about exploring this idea further. What about exposing yourself to this situation more rather than less, or viewing it through a broader lens?

Dip a toe in the water and see how you get on.

You may be out there some time...

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