Getting back in the saddle; How to take back the psychological reins!

This week has been ‘one of those’ weeks for me.

I have recently returned to horse-riding, dusting off my boots after 10 years of virtual dormancy save for the odd casual trek here and there.

As a young rider, I was fearless, competitive and brave – all of the requisite hallmarks for a progressive rider. I was confident in my ability and I never shied away from a challenge. On the inevitable occasion where things didn’t go as planned, I dusted myself off, hopped back in the saddle and powered on, all the more determined for the mishap.

As an adult rider, I am astonished at how my ‘riding personality’ is utterly polarised from that of my younger self. I am cautious, self-conscious and (arguably) overly self-critical. I was always a careful, diligent and respectful rider in my youth, yet I the confidence in my ability was strong and rarely wavered. Now, my default mindset is self-doubt and a confidence deficit.

Horses, being the majestic, clever, intuitive creatures that they are, are acutely attuned to our emotions. Even though we may be able to thinly veil our fears and doubts from other riders and instructors, there is no chance of blinkering a horse to the underlying emotional reality.

This fear has translated to my riding performance. As a result, I find myself in a negative loop whereby the fear is causing a disconnect between myself and my mount, which has resulted in a situation where the horse, picking up on these emotions and nervous energy, is acting on this psychic charge and running with it – quite literally. Due to my dip in confidence, my skills and capabilities as a rider are being blunted, and I am not asserting myself as a rider. After the initial incidence, the fears bubbling under the surface were effectively validated. This in turn caused a downward spiral whereby my fears and anxieties began to escalate, and the next day, the same issue occurred once again, reinforcing the issue and compounding my nervous energy ten fold. And so the cycle has continued for the past three days – just yesterday in front of an arena of fellow riders, all witness to my ill-controlled jaunts and rushed catapult over the simple combinations.

So, what to do? Dismount and hang up my hat?

No chance.

Fighting back the sting of embarrassment, and admittedly a bruised ego, I tried again. Same result. And again. Same result. AND AGAIN.

Each time I tried and failed. Each time I bit my lip and fought to crush the butterflies and snakes of fear and shame rising from the pit of my stomach up through my chest. Each go-round chipped and gnawed that little bit more at my radically diminished self-belief and what was left of my tattered confidence.

As I untacked my not-so-trusty steed, sympathetic nods and supportive words passed from my fellow riders, my spirit pooled in my boots. I had tried so hard, I had showed up, I had refused to give in to fear and doubt and embarrassment.

And yet, and yet.

After I got home, I began to approach the situation with a fresh mindset. Rather than wallow in my defeat, I decided to take a step back and view this from the perspective as if this were a challenge presented by a client. What advice would I offer?

I contemplated what I know of Goal-Setting Theory, Deliberate Practise, Grit and Growth Mindset. I thought of the application of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, of negative thoughts, of breathing exercises and of visualisation. I thought on the complexity, reach and impact of our psychological meanderings on our behavioural outputs. When I reframed my equestrian challenges in the context of this knowledge, the emotional charge began to mellow and the obstruction to rationality began to dissipate.

I began to consider the fact that this problem, of the horse running with me and my relative inability to control the situation effectively, has only become an issue this week. Prior to this, in the weeks I have been riding since returning to the sport, I have not experienced this issue at all. I began to tease this out and accept that perhaps my equestrian excitation may perhaps be a manifestation of nervous energy stemming from outside sources, adapting and translating to other areas of my life, namely my riding technique/confidence. It is true that animals, and particularly horses, are incredibly sensitive to such energies, and this subconscious transference has resulted in an embodiment of challenges arising in a different ‘arena’ to that from which it stems (pun wholly intended, no apologies!). This got me thinking about my work with clients, and how in many instances, the issue as presented is merely the surface value of what is really going on, and as we delve into the challenges at hand, the intrinsic root of those issues can often be far reaching and oftentimes stem from covert or unacknowledged places.

I began also to break down the cycle of events, much akin to the ‘Hot Cross Bun’ Five Aspects Model developed by Padesky (1986). Identifying the manner in which I was processing these incidents and how I was ultimately managing my reactions was insightful. I teased out some integral issues that were contributing to the recurring cycle which had been established, namely my self-admonishment following an incident and thereafter my negative biases and visualisation preceding the subsequent attempts. Though I was persevering insofar as making another go at the exercise, I realised that my mental preparation for these subsequent attempts were seriously lacking, and proving detrimental to the process. I have simply been repeating the same action without making any alterations to the approach. As Albert Einstein is attributed as sagely positing, ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results’. I realised that where visualisation is an integral part of success, so too it can be the pivot of ones downfall when used, subconsciously so in this case, adversely. I had been picturing things going wrong before I had even started. I have been replaying the negative sequences over and over in my mind so that these unfavourable outcomes had taken root. I also identified that my goal had moved from completing the technical exercise successfully to simply ‘not falling off’ or ‘surviving’ through the attempt. My focus had been utterly sullied and my performance was suffering as a result.

I have decided that over the next week, I will be placing particular emphasis on positive visualisation and focused, specific goal-setting in conjunction with diaphragmatic breathing (see my last article for more on this!) and working on those outside psychological factors feeding into my confidence levels in all areas.

Sometimes, we just need to step outside of ourselves a little to gain the perspective we need to adjust, recalibrate and dive back in with a fresh mindset!

Use your breath to improve mental clarity, boost energy and improve sleep

Diaphragmatic breathing, more commonly known as ‘deep breathing’ or ‘belly breathing’, occurs when the inhale and exhale of breath is controlled by the contraction and relaxing of the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the primary respiratory muscle and is the dome shaped muscle separating the thorax (chest) from the abdomen. The diaphragm plays a key role in effective breathing, and helps to give more power to empty your lungs, in turn creating more space for inspiration (taking air into the body). When we breathe deeply, the diaphragm is working effectively, evidenced by the expansion of our belly as we inhale through our nose, and the contraction of the belly as the diaphragm pushes the air back out. A good example of this technique at work is to observe the breathing patterns of a new born baby, you will notice how their chest rises and their belly expands gently as they inhale through the nose to fill the lungs, and the belly contracts as the air is pushed back out in exhalation. However, as we grow and begin to navigate the challenges of life, this instinctual breathing technique devolves and, more often than not, we find ourselves in a position where active effort must be undertaken to reinstate it.

Thoracic breathing, more commonly known as ‘shallow breathing’ or ‘chest breathing’, occurs when only minimal amount of air is drawn into the lungs through the mouth and rapidly expelled to various degrees of severity. In more serious cases, this rapid, shallow breathing is called tachypnea or where rapid but deep breathing occurs, this is called hyperventilation. Such breathing anomalies can occur due to stress and anxiety among other causes, and can have negative effects on both our physical and our mental wellbeing.

One such way in which this change in breathing impacts on our wellbeing is the influence which it has on our sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The interconnection can lead to a negative cycle whereby stressors detected by the SNS releases hormones which trigger certain responses, such as increased blood pressure, heart rate and – you guessed it – rapid, shallow breathing as the automatic nervous system (ANS) prepares the body to ‘fight, flee or freeze’. In turn, our breathing patterns communicate with our SNS to indicate a potential threat, with shallow breathing interpreted as a possible sign of trouble, causing the SNS to relay the message back to the adrenal glands and so the cycle continues in a negative spiral. Traditionally, our body’s acute stress response would be triggered in the face of genuine threat, enabling the body to react and preserve itself from danger. Once the threat was removed, the response would slow and our systems would equilibrate. However, due to the culture in modern society, our bodies are subjected to perpetual stressors, and so our systems are not afforded the time to recuperate, and this is further damaging our ability to regulate effectively as a result. The long-term effects of shallow breathing can be detrimental, including fatigue, headaches, aggravation of respiratory problems, may result in panic attacks and has been linked to severe cardiovascular illness.

Where shallow breathing alerts the SNS to distress and sets off a chain reaction that perpetuates maladaptive breathing habits, deep breathing, on the other hand, works to communicate with the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), which controls our relaxation response to calm signals to the ANS. The phenomenon whereby breathing acts as both a product of the messages received by our nervous system and an influence in those messages is part of what is commonly referred to as the Breath-Brain Feedback Loop.

Learning to control our breathing and taking active steps, such as implementing breathing exercises and breath ‘check-ins’ throughout the day to identify and correct your breathing technique, is imperative for our mental and physical health and offers huge benefits to our fitness, psychological resilience and our overall wellbeing. Diaphragmatic breathing can assist in lowering blood pressure, reducing heart rate and decreasing stress as well as centring our mental focus, improving sleep quality and fortifying our self-awareness and capacity for relaxation and mindful enjoyment of life, and boosting energy and mental clarity. Recent research also suggests that nasal breathing (breathing through your nose) is linked to cognitive functioning and can improve memory and that breathing through your nose in times of stress or panic may help to respond more quickly to the threat in your environment.

Try to incorporate some breathing exercises into your morning and night-time routines, to set yourself up both mentally and physically for the day ahead and to unburden yourself of the rigours of the day to prepare for quality rest, respectively. Yoga and meditation also focus on the regulation and control of breath and work towards establishing and re-learning effective breathing techniques. Over time, these efforts will become second nature, and will hopefully feed into a more balanced lifestyle in which the automation of our instincts become reinstated somewhat.

The following exercise known as the ‘Three-part breath’ when practised regularly may help to adapt thoracic breathing and encourage diaphragmatic breathing instead, and the associated benefits discussed above. This is a nice simple exercise and a good way to start if you are new to breathing exercises.

 

  1. Find a calm and quiet space.
  1. Sit in a comfortable chair with your back straight and supported with both feet on the floor or lie on the floor with a straight spine.
  1. Inhale deep through your nose and imagine the air filling your belly from the bottom up, allowing the belly to expand. Feel the breath fill slowly, right up through your rib cage, up through your chest until you are completely full.
  1. Slowly exhale in the opposite direction, allowing the air to escape first from your chest, then down through your rib cage and up from your belly. Contract your abdominal muscles to squeeze out every last drop of air to make as much space as possible for the next inhale.
  1. It may be helpful for the first few times to place one hand lightly on your belly and the other hand on your rib cage to encourage and connect with the direction of the inhalation and exhalation.
  1. Begin by practicing for one minute and then gradually build this up to five minutes.

And remember, when life throws challenges your way, Just Breathe.

 

References

 

Calm Clinic. (n.d.). Hyperventilation: *The* Anxiety Attack Symptom. Retrieved July 19th, 2018 from https://www.calmclinic.com/anxiety/symptoms/hyperventilation

Gorman, J. M., Askanazi, J., Liebowitz, M. R., Fyer, A. J., Stein, J., Kinney, J. M., & Klein, D. F. (1984). Response to hyperventilation in a group of patients with panic disorder. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 141(7), 857-861. http://dx.doi.org/10.1176/ajp.141.7.857

Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School. (n.d.). Understanding the stress response. Retrieved July 19th, 2018 from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response

Holt, P. E., & Andrews, G. (1989). Hyperventilation and anxiety in panic disorder, social phobia, GAD and normal controls. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 27(4), 453-460. https://doi.org/10.1016/0005-7967(89)90016-8

MacKinnon, M. (2016). The Science of Slow Deep Breathing. Retrieved July 19th, 2018 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/neuraptitude/201602/the-science-slow-deep-breathing

MacMillan, A. (2016). Take a Deep Breath: Inhaling the Right Way May Improve Your Memory. Retrieved July 19th, 2018 from https://www.health.com/mind-body/breathing-memory-fear

Rapee, R. M. (1986). Differential response to hyperventilation in panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95(1), 24. 24-28. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.95.1.24

Rifkin, R. (n.d.). How shallow breathing affects your whole body. Retrieved July 19th, 2018 from https://www.headspace.com/blog/2017/08/15/shallow-breathing-whole-body/

Young Diggers. (n.d.). The fight or flight response: Our body’s response to stress. Retrieved July 19th, 2018 from http://www.youngdiggers.com.au/fight-or-flight

Zelano, C., Jiang, H., Zhou, G., Arora, N., Schuele, S., Rosenow, J., & Gottfried, J. A. (2016). Nasal respiration entrains human limbic oscillations and modulates cognitive function. Journal of Neuroscience, 36(49), 12448-12467. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2586-16.2016

 

 

 

Are you a Boss or a Leader?

In an article published by Harvard Business Review (2018), some of the top ‘People’ people at Facebook discuss employee retention and share their findings on the key factors that managers should focus on to retain top talent and nurture loyalty.

The research identifies 3 key ways that managers can enhance the experience of their employees and ultimately retain top talent:

  1. Enable employees to do work they enjoy
  2. Help employees play to their strengths
  3. Carve a path for career development that accommodates personal priorities

As the old adage goes, ‘People quit bosses, not jobs.’ I find the theme of unsupportive and limiting management styles a common one in coaching my clients, and the impact that this can have on an organisation (burnout, high turnover, drain on time and economic resources, disillusionment, loss of cohesion and declined performance) is monumental.

Some people may have good natural inclinations for people management, but more often than not, and even with ‘natural talent’, management skills need work. Simply promoting a stellar performer into a management role is not a recipe for success. We must appreciate the importance of supporting and developing our managers, so that they can in turn cultivate a progressive culture from the top down.

If you are losing talent, productivity is diminishing or performance is dipping, it may be time to ask – are you promoting Bosses or Leaders?

I’ve written the following little verse to illustrate the point so that hopefully it may stick in your mind!

 

A Leader elevates, educates and motivates

A Boss intimidates, directs and alienates

To motivate staff one must contribute, encourage and be seen

Not simply bark commands from a corner office and harass one’s team

A Leader does so by example, by demonstration and design

A Boss penalises, criticises and micromanages your time

To get the best out of people you must give them room to breathe and grow

As a Boss, fear, doubt and resentment are the only seeds you’ll sow

To avoid high turnover, improve loyalty and culture innovation

Next time try collaboration, unification and open communication!

 

 

Gale, L., Goler, L., Grant, A., Harrington, B. (2018). Why People Really Quit Their Jobs. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved July 19th, 2018, from https://hbr.org/2018/01/why-people-really-quit-their-jobs

 

 

Calming the Chaos: Mindfulness in the Modern Whirlwind

Too many of us can get sucked into the chaotic pace of modern life, constantly racing to simply survive the day, living for the weekend, counting days, weeks, months to vacation or pockets of solace, a ‘break’ from our lives. We are conditioned to always look forward, to chase – qualifications, promotions, social and professional status upgrades, car, partner, marriage, house, children, better house, better car, better status – it never ends.

Until it does.

And therein lies the problem; our societal values are misguided. We need to educate ourselves and the generations to come on the value and importance of self-care, mindfulness and the capacity to acknowledge, appreciate and enjoy the process, the journey, the experience. Life must be lived in the present if we are to create a life of value and fulfilment. A life lived in the future brings only hollowness, and much as a car cannot run on fumes, nor can we humans run on empty. Failure to engage with our lives in a meaningful way, to truly participate in our daily routines rather than merely complete the day, encourages a mindset focused only on surviving, never allowing us the space to thrive and flourish.

Try to infuse the hectic flurry of your day with a little calm and peace. Here are some simple tips for calming your mind and establishing balance and mindful participation in your day:

 

  1. Take the time in the morning to start your day with a breathing exercise to centre your mind and fortify your mind and body for the tasks ahead.
  2. Wake up a few minutes earlier and have your coffee sitting at your table, reading a few pages of a book or simply meditating, rather than grabbing a coffee amidst the chaos of your commute.
  3. Implement a ‘technology curfew’ an hour before bed to free your mind of the associations of the day, and to give your body time to switch off and decompress to encourage more rested sleep to recover from the day.
  4. Practise gratitude by writing down or saying out loud each morning one thing you are looking forward to that day, and at night before you go to bed, do the same but this time something you were grateful for that happened during the day.

 

Simple changes can have a big impact, and provide a solid, manageable foundation for greater changes in the long run.

 

Life is more than a checklist.  

Decision-Making: Rational or Emotional?

Are you stuck in a rut, miserable in your job, unhappy with your weight/health/fitness levels, stressed out and fed up?

Are you making any changes to improve your situation?

Or are you trapped in the prison of inaction?

So many of us settle, ‘put up and shut up’ – or worse – continue to lament, whine and labour about how miserable we are, without ever taking any strategic action to change our situation.

There are several factors that influence our decision-making processes and the follow on from those decisions, namely our willingness and likelihood of effectuating the necessary changes to realise our goal and see those decisions through to fruition.

Status quo bias is a cognitive bias which deals with our preference for the familiar and a resistance to change. This bias can play a role in decision inertia (failure to make objective decisions based on the information at hand in favour of repeating old decision patterns, in other words staying the same rather than making an active informed choice) and is one of the underlying influences in our decision-making (or indecision) behaviours which can lead to stagnation, failure to capitalise on opportunities, and at times negative consequences, due to our aversion to change.

Research shows that people feel greater regret for unfavourable outcomes resultant of change than for consequences resulting from inaction and that “losses loom greater than gains” (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979,1982). Loss aversion is one of the primary tenets underpinning Prospect Theory.

Sunk Cost Fallacy builds on these theories and describes how our rationality in respect of decision making is interfered with by the emotional values we ascribe to the factual data. Put simply, we find it difficult to separate the knowledge of our investment (time, money, efforts) into something from the objective realities of its benefit yield. This may explain why you may find it difficult to move on from an organisation for which you have spent a significant portion of your working life, even if it makes you miserable. Why we don’t cancel that weekend break even though we are sick, because rather than taking the rational decision of writing off the deposit to reschedule for a time when we can maximise our benefit from the holiday, we proceed with the additional costs for a trip that we are not healthy enough to enjoy. Why we continue to eat beyond the point of enjoyment, often to a point of discomfort, when we order too much, rather than ‘waste’ food for which we have already paid.

Fear of change is great and caution of the unknown indeed serves a purpose in protecting our security and ability to meet with our obligations. However, when caution extends beyond rational consideration and our emotional responses begin to interfere with our ability to logically assess our situation, we wind up in a place of fraught inhibition. Over-cautiousness and hyper-sensitivity to our emotional impulses of fear, aversion and doubt can have a devastating impact on our ability to progress and to flourish. Failure to identify the difference between reasonable risk and carelessness can sensor our capacity to listen to our gut, to afford ourselves the opportunity to succeed, to develop and to learn, and all too often can cost us our happiness.

It is important to build the tools to gain confidence in our ability to decipher appropriate risk, and to have faith in our abilities to succeed. We are often much better at identifying our shortcomings and knowledge gaps than at emphasising our strengths and capacity for development and learning. If you have been feeling stuck or lost in your current situation, it is time to shift your focus and energy to clearly defining your goal and identifying the necessary changes that you must make in order to reach that goal. Dreams are destined to remain so if we do not take the tangible steps to translate those ideals into a goals, and to catalyse that transformation, you must have a plan; clear visualisation of where you want to be, the necessary requirements to effectuate that reality, identifying the skills and resources at your disposal and the steps you must take to bridge the gaps along the way. Not taking action is a decision to remain unfulfilled. Decide one way or the other – either own your decision to remain as you are, and take steps to improve your situation within its current confines, or make the decision to change your situation and commit to action. The worst thing we can possibly do in this life is to waste our opportunities by allowing life to happen to us. Take back the reins and assume ownership of your own direction.

Conservative analysis takes us only so far, and then comes confidence and self-belief. After all, as Erin Hanson so adroitly encapsulates the sentiment;

 

“What if I fall? Oh, but my darling, what if you fly?”