Ideasroom

Taking back control under lockdown

The University of Otago's Patrick Boudreau explains how 'adventure psychology' can help you cope with self-isolation

Imagine being halfway up a sheer vertical face of rock. Gripping ledges smaller than the width of your iPhone with the tips of your fingers and edge of your toes. If the rock gives way, a rope less than 10mm thick will help prevent you from plunging to your death. Climbers and other adventure athletes are never certain that they will reach the top of the mountain, land safely at their dropzone, or avoid being crushed by a big wave. Nevertheless, adventure athletes regularly take advantage of this uncertainty to climb the highest of mountains, freefall from the edge of space, and accomplish a myriad of other astonishing feats (see this link for great adventure films that are currently free).

Adventure is all about taking a step into the unknown and it goes without saying that with Covid-19, we are all stepping into unknown territory. Adventure psychology may therefore be a perfect tool for helping us cope and even thrive under these uncertain conditions. Three mental tips used by adventure athletes may be particularly helpful for dealing with uncertainty and associated feelings of anxiety.

Focusing on what is in your control

When wingsuit-wearing BASE jumpers are flying in formation through mountains they are not thinking about the move that their teammates will have to do in order to avoid crashing into each other. BASE jumpers are only thinking about what they can control. 

Think about what is in your control right now. Do you have control over what you can make for tea? What about how you will be spending the afternoon? Your starting point is establishing what is in your control. The second step is taking action. Start reading that book that has been on your shelf for the last year. Add an app that prevents you from looking at social media posts that make you anxious. Start playing that instrument that was gathering dust or tune into one of thousands of free yoga sessions being made available online. 

Taking one step at a time

Advanced and elite rock-climbers focus on the rock that they are touching and the next move that they will have to make. Based on a study currently being prepared, successful climbers put aside thoughts of defeat or success to focus on the moment. When a climber starts feeling anxious, the best way for them to thrive is to concentrate on the next move ahead. In a similar way, you can focus on taking one step at a time. Perhaps, you can focus on setting up a routine that includes daily exercise, healthy cooking, play, and self-growth. Concentrate on doing one thing at a time.

Making use of flow states

When adventure participants achieve their most astonishing feats they tend to report being in a state of flow. Psychologists describe ‘flow’ as a state of mind that is extremely pleasurable, effortless, and allows you to feel in control. It is similar to a meditative state but requires that you take action. In a review published earlier this year, we found that novelty and uncertainty helped adventure recreation participants enter this state of flow and achieve optimal psychological well-being. 

Take advantage of the novelty that you suddenly find yourself in to enjoy some new or rediscovered activities that can provide you with moments of flow. You might decide to paint, write a story, or try tai chi. Based on our research, in addition to novelty, there are other things that you can do to help you enter such a state flow. Instead of making a fixed goal like, “I have to complete a certain number of minutes of practice each day”, set yourself some open goals like, “I am going to see how well I can perform this song”. To increase your chances of getting into flow, also make sure that you are also progressively increasing the difficulty of whatever challenge you are undertaking. 

Adventure psychology seeks to understand why and how some people undertake adventures and how those experiences impact their lives. In turn, knowledge of adventure psychology can help us cope with the uncertainty many people are currently feeling. Focus on what is in your control, take it one step at a time, and enter a state of flow. However, to reduce the unprecedented strain on the health system, please be kind and avoid adventure sports like surfing, mountain biking, or rock-climbing until we have defeated this pandemic.

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