By David Carey: Chief of Staff – The Dark Side of Running
It is often the stated aim amongst fitness professionals – to achieve “Health and Wellbeing”.
The former I would suggest is more easily defined than the latter. If you exercise regularly, eat well and opt for positive lifestyle choices you would have to be pretty unlucky to suffer from poor health. So that concept seems pretty black and white. But what about wellbeing, we often see this word tagged onto the word health, and many lifestyle programmes promises its participants such achievement.
The World Health Organisation defines wellbeing as a state in which an individual realises their own potential, can cope with the stresses of life, can work productively and contribute to their community.
Achieving wellbeing has been the concern of philosophers since Socrates but in recent years, wellbeing has moved from the realm of philosophy to that of science. There has been a growing body of research into how people can develop it.
The NHS have established 5 steps to Wellbeing:
- Be active– you don’t have to go to the gym. Take a walk in nature, go cycling, try stand up paddle boarding.
- Connection– connect with people: your family, friends and neighbours. Cherish developing new connections but not forgetting to work at the old.
- Keep learning – develop new skills and knowledge, this creates confidence and a positive outlook.
- Give to others– even the smallest act can count, whether it’s a smile, a thank you or merely a kind word.
- Be mindful– be more aware of the present moment, including your thoughts and feelings, your body and the world around you. Some people call this awareness “mindfulness”. It can positively change the way you feel about life and how you approach challenges.
Ok, so I get the first four. Perhaps I would like to understand why connections, learning and giving are so important to generating health and wellbeing. I only have to watch TV and I see plenty of celebrities who look extremely healthy and seem incredibly happy with their lot in life. Yet I don’t see all of them embracing these 5 steps. Anyway for this blog post (and others) I would like to consider the final concept Mindfulness, and really try and understand how being “aware of the present” can really help create health and wellbeing.
So for a day job I am a Human Performance Specialist and work with a diverse group of people to enable them to do and achieve more. One group I work with is military aircrew and I use a range of methods to support them improve their performance and training methods. I often ponder whether the techniques are applicable to Mindfulness and whether they should be utilised by fitness and lifestyle professionals.
Mindfulness, suggests an understanding on the mind, and in turn this means an understanding of how the brain works. What makes us plan to get up at 6 am for a training session only to hit the snooze button on the alarm clock? Why do I feel such inner turmoil when I decide to go for a run but then it starts to pour with rain? What drives me to train harder when I am with others? Why do some people give up and others push themselves to the limit?
Dr Steve Peters, Psychiatrist to the Sky Cycling Team and Liverpool Football Club, says the “psychological mind” is made of three sections of the brain, the frontal, the limbic and the parietal. In his critically acclaimed Mind Management Theory, the interaction between the frontal and limbic sections of the brain is fundamental for many athletes to perform at their best, but can it help an Ordinary Joe to achieve the NHS’s concept of mindfulness.
Manage the Chimp
The limbic section of the brain is common to many animals and enables creatures with this evolutionary advancement to react quickly to threats and opportunities without unnecessary thought. It’s our Fight or Flight Mechanism. It’s what makes people jump away when surprised by a barking dog or what creates adrenalin when an argument becomes heated. The frontal lobe is the human part of the brain, this is the location where we generate cogent and logical thoughts.
Dr Peter’s says that the frontal part of the brain is where you, the human, lives, unfortunately the power of the limbic brain can often override the human brain. Sometimes this can have quite serious consequences or might simply be the reason why you press snooze on the alarm clock.
The limbic part of the brain has evolved over millions of years and as Dr Peter’s argues still lives in the jungle, running from predators or fighting for food, territory and a mate. For this reason, he calls this part of the brain the Chimp and the relationship between the Chimp and the human brain is critical to personal success.
Recognise when it is taking over, Dr Peter’s writes. The voice in your head that says “just 30 more minutes” is not you, it is the Chimp, but it is you that presses snooze. Dr Peter’s says that you cannot ignore the chimp, it is just too powerful, it’s been keeping us alive for thousands of years. We need to work with it and persuade it that it should trust the human. When the alarm clock goes, why should the chimp want to leave, its warm and its safe. We must stop it hijacking our thoughts and engage with it rationally. Before pressing snooze remind yourself why your training session is so important, remind yourself that you would be letting down your training partner, and think about the goals you have committed to and might now miss.
A friend of mine always saves a banana for his train journey home, because he knows at this time of day, when he is tired and low in sugar the Chimp will force him to buy chocolates. The banana he says acts as a useful distraction and once his body receives the sugar rush the potential Chimp hijack disappears.
Fundamentally the Chimp is not you but you are responsible for managing it. Recognise when it hijacks your thoughts, understand its different drivers, learn how to engage with it and keep it under wraps until you really need it. The better at this you are, the more able you will be to manage and cope with everyday stress, adopt a healthy lifestyle, and build and maintain positive relationships.
Dr Steve Peters is not the only performance specialist to investigate inner struggle; back in the 1970s Tim Gallway developed his own theory when coaching tennis to aspiring young professionals. Through analysis of his students receiving and managing feedback he developed an alternative approach to coaching, which has today gone way beyond sport. Gallway works with businesses all of the world, bringing his brand of self-development to organisational change and human performance.
The crux of his theory relates to 2 internal Selfs. You will rarely notice their communication but in performance related circumstances an internal dialogue can be identified, at least this is what the Inner Game Theory suggests. Gallwey postulates that our experiences can manifest themselves in positive and negative ways, to interfere with our performance and influence our choices. He describes our experienced based personality as Self 1 and our true potential, or you without self-limiting beliefs, as Self 2. Gallwey has designed sports coaching models that limit the effect of a negative Self 1 and endeavours to re-train Self’s 1 often critical relationship with Self 2.
It seems a little bit out there doesn’t it?
But it’s used by professionals in sport, business and wider self-development programmes. Think back to when you last played sport, learned a new skill or found yourself giving a presentation, there will be internalised statements presented to you by yourself, sometimes seeking to help and at other times being a hindrance, according to Gallway how aware you are of the Inner Game can be the difference to success in the Outer Game.
‘I can’t’; ‘I’ll never be able to’; ‘I am not good at’, are all very common Self 1 internalised statements. If I challenged you as an adult to learn (for the first time) to ride a bike, the messages that Self 1 sends to Self 2 would be just like these and according to Gallwey are potentially detrimental to our learning, performance and general outlook.
Not long after reading one of Gallwey’s books, I was playing squash and after making a poor shot I shouted, well screamed. “David that is awful”. This is a toxic Self 1 in action. Self 1 is directing this verbalised but internal statement to David or Self 2. So how damaging is this? Some Cognitive Behaviourists would argue it’s as bad as your coach shouting the same from the viewing gallery.
So how do you keep a clear mind? Recognise when self-talk is limiting you and opt for positive thoughts. How you talk to yourself affects the chemistry in your brain. Criticism is associated with the stress hormone cortisol, which reduces the ability of the frontal lobe to function effectively. Positive language releases dopamine, which is linked to confidence, as well as noradrenaline, which enable your frontal lobe to fire more effectively. Just like a nutritionist advises not to eat rubbish food, do not ignite the wrong chemicals in your brain.
The simple answer is, just like the Chimp that hijacks decisions, recognise when Self 1 is limiting the potential of the real you, Self 2. There are times that listening to Self 1 is very important, but often it is critical, if not sometimes toxic. Human potential, your potential, is huge; but its achievement is more likely to be stunted through internal interferences rather any external obstacles in the real world.
Mindfulness encourages us to connect with our thoughts and feelings, to learn to understand how we react to stressors and make decisions – recognising when the frontal lobe is not in control is the first step to regaining control. Mindfulness wonderfully compliments our pursuit of healthy and active lifestyles. To maintain exercise regimes in the cold of winter, to continue with healthy eating on holiday, or to sign up to your first marathon requires a strong mind. Appreciating the interferences of a critical Self 1 or a powerful Chimp are ideas which could make quite a difference.
Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power – Tao Te Ching.
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