Saturday, October 22, 2011

STOP the Lizard from Running your Show

The key to acute stress management is to STOP our primitive reptilian brain from controlling our actions. As Timothy Gallwey says, that would be like letting a dime store calculator (our reptilian brain) tell our supercomputer (our human brain) what to do.

Our primitive reptilian brain knows of only three strategies when faced with a threat - fight, flee or freeze.

Most of our missteps are the result of not stopping the lizard in us from running amok. The results are usually very disappointing.

We have several tools to consciously engage our human brain i.e. to switch from lizard mode to human mode.

Timothy Gallwey suggests that one tool when faced with acute stress is STOP. Instead of letting your lizard brain spring into action, taking along your whole body, we:

S – Step back. Imagine you are a helicopter or a fly on the wall observing what is happening to you and others in this situation. Stepping back gives us the detachment to see situation in a larger perspective. Often, just by stepping back, the situation looks less threatening or the solution becomes self evident.

T – Think. Ask what really is going on?  What is causing this situation that brings you acute stress?

O – Organize. Make plans to deal with the situation. Choose one of the plans.

P – Proceed. Take action to deal with the situation.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Our Breathing is our Body's Tuning Knob

Our Autonomic Nervous Systems or ANS controls the vital functions of our body such as our heart beats, breathing, digestion, contraction of blood vessels, contraction of muscles, body temperature, and so on.

Our ANS does all these work that keeps us alive without us consciously controlling or even being aware of it.

When our five senses pick up stimuli, it first goes to our reptilian brain and activates our ANS. When it senses danger it prepares the body for the fight, flee, or freeze response. For example, contracting muscles on our skin that gives us goose pimples. Blood is drawn to our heart, making our extremities like skin and fingers feel colder.

Fortunately, there is still one body function that we can still consciously control. By consciously controlling our breathing, it is possible to manage of our ANS and all the other functions like heart beats, and contraction of blood vessels.

Our breathing is like our body's tuning knob.

When we deliberately slow down our breathing rate through rhythmic breathing, we also slow down our heart rate, and lower our blood pressure.

Rhythmic breathing is the simple yet effective key to manage our bodily reactions to acute stress.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Anchoring your Rhythmic Breathing

In her book, The Unthinkable, Amanda Ripley tells of the ingenious technique of Charles Humes, a Toledo city police officer.

Humes found that every time he turns on the siren of his patrol car, adrenalin rush would cause his hands to sweat, shriek with a squeaky, high pitched voice, and other classic distress symptoms. His speech and his thinking would be incoherent. Humes was a danger to himself and to others.

Humes learnt rhythmic breathing which greatly reduces his distress symptoms.

Humes also devised a clever way to practice his rhythmic breathing. He would play a sound recording of a patrol car siren while practicing rhythmic breathing. He would practice rhythmic breathing together with the siren recording for 10 minutes everyday.

After a month, every time he turns on the siren in his patrol car, he automatically goes into rhythmic breathing which calms him down.

In effect, Humes has anchored his rhythmic breathing with the whine of the siren. The whine of the siren which used to put Humes in distress, is now the trigger to automatically go into rhythmic breathing.

Can you find such a natural anchor for situations that distresses you?

Try the anchoring method Humes uses.

Be in the Moment

When our body feel the effects of adrenaline like racing heart rate, flushed face, cold sweat and so on, we often unconsciously turn our attention inwards. This is often accompanied by negative thoughts.

Our internal dialogue quickly descends into a vicious inward spiral and we lose our connection with our surroundings.

Going into our heads may be useful in certain situations such as when taking a written examination, reading a book, or playing a chest game. But being lost in thoughts is certainly not an appropriate mental state when facing serious physical emergencies such as fighting a fire, or trying to resuscitate an unconscious victim.

The first step in avoiding losing ourselves in internal dialogue is to be conscious of our drifting into this state.

Techniques involve deliberately choosing to turn our attention outwards i.e. get out of our heads. We deliberately make ourselves more aware of and connect with the things in our surroundings.

To be externally focused is known by various names such as being in the moment, present, in uptime, and being mindful.

Learning to switch to external focus at will is an important skill in dealing successfully with acute stress.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Visualize your Breathing Rhythm

When breathing with the diaphragm, use visualization to regulate your breathing.

I visualize waves coming in onto the beach and going back out to the sea.

When I breathe in – taking in air through my nose while gently expanding my belly – I visualize a wave coming ashore. I let the wave come all the way in ashore as I draw in my breath.

When I breathe out – releasing air through my nose while gently pulling in my belly – I visualize a wave retreating back into the ocean. I let the wave go all the way out to sea as I release my breath.

I find this visualization helpful in getting the rhythm of breathing with the diaphragm because:

·        The serene imagery of waves gently tip toeing ashore and retreating has a calming effect on me

·        The imagery of waves allows me to follow the natural rhythm of a wave arriving and receding on a beach as I breathe – this feels more natural than regulating my breathing by counting the seconds as I inhale and exhale

·        As waves have its own powerful, stately rhythm, my breathing rate slows down to be in synch with its rhythm.

Waves imagery works for me. Some other visualization may work better for you. Use what makes you feel most natural and comfortable.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Mindful Breathing

Breathing with the diaphragm or diaphragmatic breathing is one of the set of techniques you can use to quiet your negative self talk or what Timothy Gallwey calls our down putting "Self 1".

Here’s how to breathe with the diaphragm

Breathe in through your nose while gently pushing out your abdomen. You should be able to feel your abdomen moving outward.

Breathe out slowly through your nose while gently pulling your abdomen inward to empty your lungs.

Breathing with the diaphragm is known by various names such as diaphragmatic breathing, deep breathing, conscious breathing, stomach breathing, belly breathing, abdominal breathing and rhythmic breathing. The US Green Berets elite force calls it "combat breathing" and "tactical breathing".

When we were newborns, we naturally breathe with our diaphragm but most of us lose this as we grow up.

As we grow up we resort to shorter, rapid, shallower breathing with the chest which is more like gasping and panting.

Breathing with the diaphragm has both mental and physical benefits.

After years of shallow panting, deeper breaths seem unnatural and feel awkward. Deep baby breaths now need conscious effort. And here is the thing - this conscious effort, takes our minds away from the negative self talk that is chattering in the background at the moment of truth.

When we breathe with our diaphragm, our breathing rate is slower. And with this, our heart rate, and blood pressure also goes down. We automatically calm down.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Quiet your Negative Self Talk

Timothy Gallwey, in his classic The Inner Game of Tennis spoke of our two minds. He labelled our analytical and often critical mind, “Self 1”. Gallwey labelled the mind that is in our body, our muscle memory as “Self 2”.

Gallwey calls “Self 1” the “teller”, and “Self 2” the “doer”.

Often our body or “Self 2” is well rehearsed, intuitive and experienced, and knows what to do.

However, “Self 1” likes to tell “Self 2” about what to do, what is wrong, and is more often than not, very critical and harsh towards “Self 2”.

This results in inhibitions, self doubts, and confusion that degrades performance.     

Gallwey recommends activities that keep the noisy “Self 1” occupied, so that “Self 2” is left alone to perform at its best.

In tennis, Gallwey recommends closely watching the ball, its stitches, and the way it is spinning.

Another way to quiet “Self 1” is to turn its attention to our breathing. Besides the physical benefits of taking deeper breaths, focusing on breathing has positive effects on our “inner game” of peak performance.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Role Model: Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger

On 15 Jan 2009, a US Airline Airbus 320 took off from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport heading for Charlotte, North Carolina.

Less than three minutes into the flight, the Airbus flew right into a flock of migrating Canada geese.  The birds slammed into the engines, instantly knocking out both power plants.

Suddenly, the airliner with 155 people on board was flying low without power over New York City skyscrapers. 

The pilot Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger felt the pressure instantly in his body: “It was the most sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach, like falling through the floor.”

Capt Sully quickly sized up the situation and took charge. His first thought was empowering – he focused his thoughts on his intention to save lives: “I had to be certain we could make it.”

Weighing his options quickly, Capt Sully decided that his best chance was to ditch the engineless plane in the Hudson River. Capt Sully recalled: “I quickly determined that we were at too low an altitude, at too low air speed, and therefore we didn’t have enough energy to return to LaGuardia.”

Capt Sully visualized his desired outcome and broadcasted his intention: “We’re gonna be in the Hudson”.

In a calm voice which reflected Capt Sully’s mastery over his emotions he announced over the intercom: “Brace for impact because we are going down”.

In the state of being Centered, Open, Aware, Connected, and Holding it all together (COACH state) Capt Sully masterfully lined the engineless Airbus with the Hubson River, and executed a perfect ditching that kept the airplane intact, saving the lives of everyone on board.

The “Miracle on the Hudson” was possible only because Capt Scully was at his peak performance – playing in the Zone at the moment of truth.

It was critical that the airplane was perfectly level when it touched water. Had any one of its wing tips hit the water first, the aircraft would cartwheel, and it would all end disastrously. "I needed the wings exactly level at touchdown. I needed to make the rate of descent survivable. I needed to touch down at a nose-up attitude. And I needed to touch down just above our minimum flying speed. And all those needed to occur simultaneously,"

As it turned out, Capt Scully laid the stricken Airbus down so gently that one passenger described the bump he felt “wasn’t a whole lot more then a rear end (car collision)…”

Capt Sully acted with conviction throughout the entire episode, carrying out his duties to the last detail. After laying the Airbus on the water, Capt Sully coolly walked the aisle of the airplane twice to make sure that all the passengers were off the plane before he left the aircraft. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Energy Flows where Attention Goes

Positive thoughts strengthen, and negative thoughts weaken you.

Here’s a simple demonstration that proves it.

Hold your arm straight out to your side.

Have someone else attempt to press your arm down while you resist while you try to hold your arm in place.

First, think of yourself eating and enjoying your favourite food. Notice the strength of your arm in resisting the press down.

Next, think of the time when a meal made you sick or nauseous. Notice how much weaker you are than when you were thinking happy thoughts.

Examples of thoughts that weaken us are regret, shame, guilt, self doubt, apathy, and fear. Examples of thoughts that strengthen are love, joy, trust, confidence, gratitude, generosity, and acceptance.

Be aware of the thoughts in your mind as they determine your relative state of weakness or strength in dealing with the task at hand.

Pick and put on your thoughts like you pick and put on your clothes to be at your best.

Cast off negative thoughts that weaken you. Select and put on thoughts that uplift your spirit and help you raise to the occasion.

Role Model: Major Heather Penney

In the bright and sunny morning of September 11, 2001, Major Heather Penney was suddenly ordered to scramble her F-16 fighter jet. Her orders were to shoot down a hijacked Boeing 757 airliner heading for Washington D.C., if it refused orders to land. Her mission mate was Colonel Marc Sassesville.

Unfortunately, the F-16 fighters were not armed with missiles. In those innocent days before 9/11, the possibility of having to shoot down hostile aircraft was considered so remote that air force fighters on alert were not armed with missiles.

But that did not stop the F-16 pilots, who quickly came up with a plan.

They decided that Major Penney would ram the 757’s tail with her F-16. “I’ll ram the cockpit” said Colonel Sassville. And, that was that.

“Let’s go!” Col Sasville barked.

The two pilots chose thoughts that energized them as they scrambled their jets into the air, and did not let the fact that they had no missiles derail their mission. No ifs, no buts.

Major Penney did considered whether she should eject from her F-16 fighter just before impact but she quickly dismissed the idea. “I mean you only got one chance, you don't want to eject and have missed, right?” she reasoned.

Major Penney visualized the outcome she wanted. “My concern was how do I minimize collateral damage on the ground” she said with calm professional assuredness. By shearing the tail off the 757, Major Penney would be sending the airliner vertically down. It would have a smaller impact area, thus hurting fewer people on the ground.

Major Penney said that she was so engrossed in her mission that she “had no time for emotions.” What she had done was she had mastery over her emotions, and had chosen the emotion of fierceness to accomplish her mission. 

Major Penney did not even let the possibility that her own beloved father - whom she is very close to - who was then a United Airlines pilot flying the Flight 93 route might be in the cockpit distract her. Major Penney said “I couldn’t think about it. I had a job to do.”

Major Penney (and also Colonel Sassville) was obviously Centered, Open, Aware, Connected, and Holding it all together (in COACH state) in the midst of an extremely stressful and chaotic situation. The two pilots, the ground crews, the air controllers were all connected, working as a well oiled team. The pilots' minds were clear, receptive, and alert, allowing them to hatch the plan on-the-fly as they dashed to their waiting F-16 fighters on the tarmac.

Major Penney, acted with conviction as her F-16 screamed down the runway which she believed would be her last mission. She said she felt the adrenaline, and her only thought was on accomplishing her mission that day. There was also a strange serenity - that of one who was totally composed. “I genuinely believed that was going to the last time I took off,” she said.

Epilogue: In the end, Major Penney needn’t have to make the ultimate sacrifice that she was so prepared for. The passengers on board the ill fated Flight 93, took matters into their own hands, overpowering the hijackers and thwarting their plot by crashing the 757 in an open field in Pennsylvania.

Hi, I would like you to Meet your Fears

Consummate performance is the outcome of a virtuous chain of empowering events.

This chain is triggered by a moment of truth e.g. coming face to face with a tiger, facing an interview panel, standing on a stage about to give a speech, or running up to the ball to take that decisive penalty kick at the soccer finals.

We are often thrust into these moments of truth. What happens next is determined by the choices we make. It is these choices that decide the outcome.

The virtuous chain leading to consummate performance starts with empowering thoughts. It is followed by empowering visualisation, by empowering emotions, and an energised body which is in turn followed by powerful actions culminating in consummate performance.

Whether we are a champion, advanced beginner, or a novice, peak performance is delivered at the end of this virtuous chain of events which we control.

Like any chain, this chain too, is only as strong as its weakest link. It can be broken anywhere along the chain. And, when the virtuous chain snaps, peak performance is impossible.

What would weaken and break the chain? The main enemy is fear, and fear comes in many guises.

The links in the chain leading to consummate performance may be broken by any or a combination of the following forms of fear, and the consequent negative thoughts:

Root Cause of Fear
Nature of Negative Thought

Learned fear response
A learned fear response is linked to a past bad experience e.g. being stumped during a speech, missing the goal in a penalty kick. Thinking that history is going to repeat itself. Often one bad experience is enough to develop a phobia.
Low self esteem

Secretly believing that you don’t deserve your status, that you are unqualified for the task at hand, that you are a fraud or impostor. “I don’t think I’m good enough to lead this team.”
Interpersonal anxiety

Fear of disapproval by others. Imagining the criticism of others e.g. “Look, she is so slow”, “She is not ready, is she?” “We over rated her ability.”

Loss of confidence due to diminishing interest or passion for the task at hand. “I’m not sure whether I still have what it takes to pull this off.”
Physical injury or issues

Performance anxiety due to physical injuries or issues e.g. a swollen ankle in the kicking leg when about to take that decisive penalty kick. “My ankle is killing me. Hope I can still kick the ball hard and straight. I don’t know.”

Pause, and listen to your self talk. Our fears and negative thoughts reveal themselves in self talk.

Be aware of your fears and the negative self talk that may be weakening your virtuous chain, and sabotaging your performance.  

By having greater awareness of the root causes of fear that generates the negative thoughts that weaken us, we can apply specific techniques to overcome them.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Adrenaline: Everyone Gets the Same Shakes

Everyone gets the same bodily shakes and tremors when facing acute stress, so how is it that some people thrive under pressure while others disintegrate in panic?

To answer this question, we need first to have a basic understanding of how our brain functions.

Our brain is made up of three layers, each layer representing an era in our evolutionary heritage. The lowest and earliest layer is our Reptilian brain, followed by the middle layer, our Paleomammalian brain, and topped by the newest layer, our Neomammalian brain which makes human beings uniquely powerful. The functions of the 3 layers are as follows:

Brain Layer

Reptilian brain or Basal ganglia

Basic survival instincts of fight, flight, and copulate. Also controls our autonomic functions like breathing and heart rate.

Paleomammalian brain or Limbic system
Emotions involved in feeding, mating, and parenting. Motivated by pleasure and avoidance of pain.

Neomammalian brain or Neocortex
Human abilities of language, reasoning, abstraction, conceptualisation, and planning.

Whenever our five senses pick up information which our Reptilian brain assessed is a potential danger to our life and limb, it triggers our endocrine glands to churn out an instant dose of adrenaline hormones. This spurt of hormones is pumped around our body through our blood streams. The adrenaline rush produces the effects of:

Physical Changes

Survival Function
Raised heart rate
Increased action potential
Increase breathing rate
Increased action potential
Blood leaves digestive system
More blood for muscles
Blood leaves extremities
More blood for muscles
Blood goes to major muscles
More energy to fight or run
Less heat when fighting or running
Decreased general focus
Increased primary focus

Every one of us human beings feels the same bodily sensations. This adrenaline rush is a relic from our evolutionary past when our ancestors have to be constantly alert in order to survive the threats from predatory big cats, bears, wolves, snakes, and even hostile humans. These bodily reactions prepare our bodies to either fight or flee.

While all of us get the same shakes from our adrenaline, it is up to each one of us to interpret what the sensations mean, and hence it leads to different reactions and outcomes.

The bodily sensations are neutral. How we interpret the bodily sensations is based on what we believe is happening to us, and around us.

People who excel under pressure believe that their raised heart rate, increased breathing rate etc are signs that their body is “primed”, “revved up”, “pumped”, “juiced”, “amped up”, “charged up”, “energized” for peak performance. They feel an empowering surge of confident energy as they begin their task.

People who crumble under pressure, believe that these exact same bodily sensations are warning signs that “things are going out of control”, “things are falling apart”, “I am not good enough for this”. Power and energy is drained from their mind and body.

When you believe that your shaking body is a prelude to disaster, your mind and body weakens, and your performance suffers.

When you believe that your shaking body is a purring cat ready to pounce, your mind and body are strengthened, and your performance is enhanced.

Pause, and choose your beliefs when you feel that adrenaline rush. It makes the difference between being calm or panicking.

Try it. You will be amazed how a simple switch of thought like this could make all the difference.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Power of Visualization: Onami the Great Wave!

Onami was a powerful sumo wrestler who lived in Japan about 100 years ago.

Onami was so strong and skilful that he was able to beat his own teachers during wrestling matches in private training. Indeed, Onami never ever lost a practice match.

However, Onami had a problem of stage fright. Crowds made Onami nervous.

He was unable to perform at his best during public matches in front of large audiences. During public matches, Onami was beaten even by his own students and also by untalented wrestlers only half his size. Onami’s stage fright became so serious that he lost twenty consecutive matches.

Troubled by his stage fright problems, Onami consulted a Zen master.

The Zen master told Onami, “Your name means Great Wave. Imagine you are a Great Wave. Visualize yourself sweeping your opponents aside like a powerful unstoppable wave.”

Onami did as the Zen Master adviced. He spent the days and nights visualising himself as the Great Wave, an earth shaking wave, big as the ocean itself, sweeping his hapless opponent aside and into the air with great unstoppable power.

When the day of the competition came, Onami went into the ring of a public match with this mental movie of himself as the Great Wave. The moment the referee started the fight with the wave of the fan, Onami the Great Wave surged forward with tremendous power like a rushing surf. He swept his stunned opponent away with an unstoppable shove.

Visualization is a powerful yet simple method to manage your emotions and your body for peak performance when facing acute challenges such as during a crucial contest, final examinations, an interview, or during public speaking.

For example, when making an inspirational speech, imagine in detail that you are the awe inspiring, charismatic Martin Luther King. When playing goalkeeper during a soccer match, imagine in detail that you are a agile, pouncing cat. You can imagine anything you want as long as it gives you energy and power at the crucial moment of truth.

Try it, you will be amazing.