Full Podcast Transcription - Episode 2
Lesley: Well, welcome back guys. It's certainly interesting times here in COVID isolation.
Lesley: Lockdown baby. We have had some pretty cool experiences, Simon and I. I have not washed my hair for three days.
Simon: Yeah, and it shows.
Lesley: Oh thanks very much. And you've been getting some man boobs.
Simon: What? I've been getting fitter actually because I've just come off the back of our foot and mouth March, foot and mouth challenge, which is for 31 days and, that 31st day, trust me is a--
Lesley: It's pretty tough.
Simon: You have to give up something that you put in your mouth too frequently; mine was alcohol for 31 days. And then you have to self-propel for 5K every day. So run, bike, row--
Lesley: And you very awesomely pulled your calf on like day two.
Simon: Well I wouldn't quite call it a pull. I'd call it a mild strain. So I've had a few days off and then I started to-- I substituted it with biking.
Lesley: Yeah, so that's been actually kind of awesome, right? We've gotten, say a great routine in the evenings. We've been going down into our garage or garage because we're in isolation and we've been doing a little bit of bike trainer workouts together.
Simon: It's funny watching Lesley, she's like a caged hamster, right? So when she's used to being outside so much and banging in 25, 35 hours of training a week and then you suddenly say, okay, you now have a 12 by 12 foot space. Imagine if you put a hamster who's high on cocaine into a confined space with treadmills and hamster toys. And it's literally like watching-- I should probably power the house by the frenetic activity that goes on.
Lesley: You probably should. But the good news is, I've not been able to drop you.
Simon: That's true. When all of our training is stationary, we stay in the same place.
Lesley: And our computers face each other. I tend to watch romantic comedies. And what you're on Narcos?
Simon: I've been watching Narcos: Mexico and then I'm going on to Ozark after that; my COVID Netflix video.
Welcome to the XTERRA podcast.
XTERRA is a global brand that champions the outdoor endurance communities in their pursuit of relentless adventure. For over 25 years XTERRA has been the home of authentic race experiences and trail-tested gear for your journey, all to help you live more. I'm your host, Dr. Simon Marshall, a performance psychologist, and I'm here with my cohost and pint-sized wife, Lesley Paterson, a professional triathlete with five world titles to her name.
Lesley: Hey, wait a minute, how come you get to do the intro?
Simon: Well, I know you can ask that. Well, it's just that you're kind of hard to understand sometimes.
Lesley: What, because I'm Scottish?
Simon: Well, yeah, sort of.
Lesley: That is so typical of the bloody English oh whatever, man. So wherever you're from, if you're a fan of endurance adventure sports, you've come to the right place. We talk everything from training your body and mind for outdoor shenanigans to gear, expeditions, travel, and culture.
Simon: Let's get started.
Lesley: What's been fascinating during this time and we don't just want to speak about COVID times. You want to parlay that into sort of how it impacts many mental issues that we deal with. This is almost like a microcosm, right? It's almost like a social study that we're going through right now. It bothers the sense of uncertainty about our futures.
Simon: It's awful.
Lesley: It is, isn't it?
Simon: I think, and that's, you know, we've spoken about this in the past, in the context, but particularly too with athletes about uncertainty and what uncertainty does to the human brain. There are very-- actually, there are a few sort of psychological states or should say environments that make the human brain want to crap the bed. And uncertainty is one of those. So an outcome that you're not sure what's going to happen. You're not sure how things are going to turn out.
Lesley: Obviously, we have uncertainty right now with this pandemic, but you have uncertainty in things like injuries. You know, if you have a race coming up, you don't know when you're going to get over an injury. Uncertainty in relationship sometimes, when you're going through bad patches, isn't that right, darling?
Simon: We're not going through a bad patch, are we?
Lesley: No, not at all darling.
Simon: But yeah, absolutely, and watching your career when you've had injuries that have been really difficult to diagnose, like Lyme related stuff or chronic fatigue related stuff. Is there an answer? Is this it for me now? Will I ever be the same athlete I was? Versus, breaking your shoulder or you know, doing something to your risks. It has a discrete beginning and endpoint, but when you don't know the outcome, your brain just does not like that at all.
Simon: And I think what's fascinating for me is, you know, scientists and psychologist working-- for years of working in health environments is helping-- usually in my old job helping patients or helping people with chronic diseases manage uncertainty. Oh my God, if this is what it's going to be like for me now for the rest of my life, Oh my word, what will I do? And managing that emotional roller coaster is really difficult. And there's actually a little window to the wiring of the brain in fact, about why we find those situations so difficult. In the covert environment, things are a little bit different. I mean, we know it is going to come to an end, but there is uncertainty about are we going to be infected? Am I going to lose my job? Or how am I going to cope with my income being cut in half or being eradicated?
Lesley: What's going to happen to my children, their education, is that going to have a long-term effect? Or you know, people with mental health disorders, even depression, anxiety, you know, what's the long term impact of that? Yeah, for sure.
Simon: Well, you know, uncertainty, we know has quite a profound effect on the body's immune response on our emotional life, our emotional world. And for that reason, unlike disappointment, which is far less severe and far less difficult to deal with than uncertainty. I mean, this is one reason why uncertainties used in psychological warfare, has been weaponized, right?
Lesley: For torture.
Simon: For torture. I mean, solitary confinement, interrogation techniques; it's all leveraging that the body and the brain does really not like not knowing the outcome. And the reason for that is much of our hormonal system, our hormonal response our nervous system responses, our immune system is built around anticipation, right? There's a whole bunch of mechanisms in the brain that change or up and down-regulate; different hormones, neurotransmitters in the face of thinking about the future, right?
Lesley: Because you don't know the future, then you can't have anticipation, so it sort of down-regulate. Is that what you mean?
Simon: It really is. I mean, think of example for athletes, that you're going out or you're doing an FTP test; a functional threshold, power test. The maximum amount of power on a bike you can generate for around 60 minutes. I mean, lets not get into the science of that, but when you ask someone to say, okay, I just want you to go all out as hard as you can, and I'll tell you when you're going to stop. That condition is far more anxiety-provoking than to say, okay, you're going to go for 20 minutes, or you're going to go for 60 minutes. I know how long I have to endure something for. In fact, the science of pain tolerance and discomfort tolerance is partly around how hard something feels, but more importantly, how long have I got to endure this for.
Lesley: Is that why you are so bloody grumpy when I take out for bike rides, and when you do it, it ends up being longer.
Simon: The worst situation for me is we go out on a run and you say, where are we going because I'm thinking, okay, the terrain is going to dictate how hard it is. But if you said, I'll just run, enjoy it, we'll just do this, that second piece of information, how long or where or to visualize how it's going to be like it is when I'm denied that. It increases the--
Lesley: Your anxiety.
Simon: Yeah, and my ability to cope with it. And I think under the conditions of the moment of isolation, we don't know how long they're going to be going on for. This is a bit like the unending FTP test, right?
Simon: And so it's no wonder that the human brain really doesn't like it.
Lesley: Yeah, and so, I mean, what things can be done to address - because ultimately there's certainly at the moment in this environment or in other environments like being injured, being sick, changing relationships, changing jobs, a lot of those uncertainty provoking vitamins. There's fear and anxiety that come from that. And so, you know, what are the long-term effects of having that fear and anxiety?
Simon: Yeah. Well, we know for example, that we can have a chronic elevated levels of cortisol, which is the stress hormone under these conditions. So for example, high levels of uncertainty is going to drive cortisol through the roof. Cortisol, as you know, it impacts our sleep, a whole bunch of--
Simon: Inflammation and a whole bunch of things. So, having hormonal or biological responses tied to anticipation or uncertainty is a key feature of being human, right? We don't actually want to override that to a certain extent because it's keeping us alive. It makes us vigilant. In fact, animals when they're placed under conditions of high arousal or uncertainty, you know, lack of food or whatever, their response is primarily vigilant. So in other words, they become more alert. This is the classic fight or flight response.
But humans have this rather remarkable ability because we have a very well-developed frontal cortex, which is that wrinkly part of our brain at the front that really helps us plan, think through; strategize. What it does is we can do some mental time-travel and this is the killer for us in terms of managing the discomfort of uncertainty. We're able to project into the future all of these scenarios, many of which are very unlikely to come true, but we have the capacity, the mental capacity to do that. So that the equipment that makes us both smart and intelligent is also the thing that gives us a lot of anxiety. So humans go through-- they're unlike animals which respond with vigilance, humans tends to respond with worry, rumination, excessive reflection, and a whole bunch of things. And so that's the mechanisms that start triggering and they're made worse if you have underlying conditions where you already do that lot. For example, if you have what we call high trait anxiety, your car idling speed; if that's a sort of a measure of your level of anxiousness.
Lesley: Which is interesting because that's a lot of, I mean, you've kind of spoken about this before; our sport. Our sport of-- endurance sport, triathlon, biking and so on at tracks.
Simon: Yeah, that's right. I mean, it's called a gravitational theory, right, that we gravitate towards certain sports that either like help us work through or they help us experience environments that we like very cognitively busy environments or very like physically numbing environments and so on, but absolutely. So as athletes we might have endurance athletes, if you have a higher level of anxiety, to begin with, or you have a mental health condition, you might have depression or some other unknown diagnosed disorder, then you're even more likely to have these reactions. These reactions even getting more exaggerated. And so you can look at some people on Facebook who are just like loving social isolation. Okay, they're only two weeks in. They might have had no immediate impact on their own health or the health of their loved ones. Their experience could be very different from someone who has lost their job, has had a grandparent died or a parent dies, is really worried about what the next three months or three weeks hold for them, outside of the relative trivialness or where races are going to be on.
Lesley: Or even if someone has, you know, trait anxiety that you're talking about, right? They're going to respond to the situation differently. And potentially even change or have damaging behaviors as a conflict.
Simon: Yeah. I mean, and even before behaviors, right? So, for example, we know that the ends of chromosomes called telomeres that largely drive the aging process. A bit of a simplification, but, so high levels of uncertainty actually change telomeres. They actually structurally change the ends of our chromosomes, which are determining largely how we age. So we're actually aging quicker, and our body's breaking down quicker in response to these viruses. But the ones that fascinate me the most are the psychological responses. I'm not oppression athlete, you are. So you are very also keyed into having a much more predisposed to having a higher immune response. If your immune response is compromised because the uncertainty does that have impact for your training and what you can tolerate and so on. For me who doesn't do that much training, my 5k a day or whatever, it's largely how do I cope with the sort of the rumination, the worry, and so on. I have quite high levels of trait anxiety as well compared to you, so I'm more like to ruminate.
Lesley: Are there sort of behaviors in terms of whether it's addictive behaviors or things that we might fall back on to cope with this or--?
Simon: There are, absolutely there are. But before we talk about that, I think one thing that I think is worth mentioning here is, so once we're in under periods of high uncertainty, we then get into the business of mental time traveling anticipation. There are whole areas in the brain; I can’t necessarily pinpoint them, but the function of areas of the brain to manage what they call anticipatory anxiety, right? So different parts of the brain get activated when we start anticipating things that may not be pleasurable, happy, or make us feel good, right? So anticipation is great if you're waiting for Christmas. So if you're waiting for your vacation or a piece of chocolate at the end of the day, but when you're under conditions of unfavorable outcomes. And most of the outcomes are under the current environment, aren't that pleasant to think about, okay, we might reconnect with our families while we're in social isolation. But after a couple of weeks, most people want to murder their children or they want to get divorced. Now, being a bit flippant, but you know what I mean? So there's not much good things to look forward to.
Lesley: No, and specifically for me, I can think back, on say, other circumstances not related to this environment we're in right now. But when I've been injured a couple of years ago I had a hip stress fracture about, it was six weeks away from the world championships. And thinking ahead about missing out was the worst emotion. I spent all year training for this period of time that I absolutely love when your body's fit, when you're feeling lean, when you get to go out and all the group rides, when you get to do all the races, when you really get to show who you are on the racing circuits, and then that's taken away from you. And I think the worst part for me. I remember we were going away with the family and I had envisioned, I had imagined all this wonderful time in my family doing all these little races out there, doing all this fun training, hanging out with them. And the thought of not having that was absolutely debilitating, and I cried my every living eyes out.
Simon: I remember.
Simon: And so imagine now if you're an Olympic athlete or Olympic contender, and even though it's been postponed and in the big scheme of things, it doesn't matter that much. But in the very here and now world of a professional athletes head going into an Olympic year, it's devastating. And there's a guilt associated with it being devastating because, oh my God, people are dying, and people are losing their job. And yet there's this little thing that is somewhat sort of a bit of a luxury. Yes, it's my job, but I think having some time to just wallow or let yourself sit with some of those feelings is--
Lesley: Because it's a lot of grief and loss.
Simon: There a huge amount.
Lesley: You know, not just in terms of athletic events, but you know, kids and their proms and you know people that have had sort of work commitments or big presentations. We've got a very close friend of ours, a film director, it's her first big film with a major star and that's all being shut down and who knows if it's going to continue. And so I think everybody in every different sort of walk of life is dealing with that loss and grief.
Simon: So one interesting thing, maybe interesting to me, I don't know, but interesting I find is a little bit about this biology of this anticipation or the uncertainty, and so most of us are familiar with a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is largely responsible, I shouldn't have said largely, we think that it's largely responsible for being the pleasure chemical, right? So when we do something that feels good, it's dopamine that's causing us to feel that way. And there are some behaviors that are universally rewarding. Meaning we get a high dopamine response across all species like sex is one of those. All species--
Simon: Sex, yeah, that's right. Married for 17 years; I remember that. It's totally derailed me there.
Simon: So all species have a dopamine response to universally rewarding behaviors like sex and so on, and food is another thing. But the conditions you're under mutes or changes that reaction. So if you are hungry, for example, and you think about food, your dopamine response is greater than if you've just eaten and then you think about food or you watch a food show. We've been hooked on this ugly, delicious show on Netflix. My enjoyment of that show varies--
Lesley: Depending on what you've eaten for dinner.
Simon: Whether I've eaten or not. If I watch it hungry, I'm just like salivating. If I watch it after I've eaten, it's okay. The show is not as great. So we get primed to feel a certain way. And so this is a little clue into the role of the actual more recent. Because of neuroscientific research about the role of dopamine and reward, and this has implications for this, for how we cope with uncertainty. So we get a strong dopamine response when we think about things in the future, right? So when we think about things in the future that are pleasurable, we get a dopamine response. When we're in a deficient state of that thing, if we haven't had food for a long time, if we haven't had sex for a long time and you think about it, you're going to have a higher dopamine response and if you just had it and so on.
We do this all the time, but this is now coming to bite us in the butt cheeks in terms of unpleasant things happening. So when we think about unpleasant things happening outcomes in the current environment, actually what it does is it obviously stimulates a little bit of that fight or flight response. And we talk about the amygdala, the part of your limbic system, your chimp brain; it's like a satellite dish for incoming stressors. When the amygdala gets activated, it actually has a direct impact on your dopamine receptivity, it's harder to feel pleasure when you're under conditions of fight or flight.
Simon: Because dopamine is directly impacted by amygdala activation, so now it's difficult to feel pleasure. So we might, for example, things that we used to really associate with being pleasurable. If we're under conditions of high uncertainty or we're anticipating bad things happening or not great things happening, it's going to be even harder to feel good when the good things do happen.
Lesley: Yeah. And we're experiencing that a lot and talking to our athletes or friends, right? There's this kind of overall feeling of depressiveness, even, and I hate to use that term because it's people that are not clinically depressed but just sort of feeling down, just kind of not wanting to get out of bed; just not happy.
Simon: Well, Dr. Kenza Gunter, who we talked to for this show, she's a clinical psychologist. Actually, she has a really remarkable background. She now works primarily in sport, but she's a clinical psychologist by training, has master's in forensic psychology, an Atlanta-based therapist. And she's got some quite important insights about the impact on our mental health under these conditions at the moment.
Dr. Gunter: I think one of the primary things that all of us are likely feeling is anxiety and fear, right? I mean, the idea of navigating this constantly changing situation, and navigating it with the rest of the world quite literally. I mean, the magnitude of this situation is one that many of us have never seen. And so to maintain some sense of structure and normalcy in the midst of a situation that is filled with so much certainty, so many unknown, and we don't quite know where the end is. It's this feeling of having to manage the situation without a known time limit. I think that's breathing a lot of anxiety and fear in all of us. And I think that as humans we like to have structure. We like to, I feel like we understand what's going on, have a sense of control and this situation is really challenging all of that.
And to your point about some of those secondary effects that people are trying to manage, I think those are effects that not only are concerning in this moment, but those have the potential to create some very long-term effects that people will have to navigate. I mean, if I think about those who may be losing their jobs, wondering where income is going to come from, those who may be infected with the virus, and to navigate what that reality is of dealing with being sick or unfortunately for those who have lost their lives. That really then brings up other issues of grief and loss that go with the very real and substantial changes that people may experience as a result of this situation. And so, I really do think it's just an extraordinary time that's really characterized by a natural anxiety and fear because so much is unknown, and we're all navigating this in real-time. So we're all just trying to do the best we can do.
Simon: Yeah, so grief and loss, right? Do you feel much grief and loss at the moment about the loss of your season this year?
Lesley: Do you know what, I think I'm so adaptable; no. Given I've been in the sport for 27 years, can you believe that?
Lesley: Yes you can. I know you've got the lanes to prove it when your face; me, however, I do not. I think it's because I have dealt with so much injury and illness over the last 10 years that I've had everything thrown at me, that now I get into a situation and I just kind of go into how do I get into the solution? How do I form a strategy to help me get through this
Simon: Decision-making, right, I guess, the time for it.
Simon: So when we try and make decisions about how to cope with things, what to do next, or you're just trying to project into the future about scenarios so that you can start planning, all of these responses are an attempt to reduce anxiety, right? We've got this anticipatory anxiety mechanism. We think about the future. If some of those things aren't really pleasant to think about those outcomes, we get anxiety, we get rumination, we start worrying about it. And your brain doesn't like that at all. There are whole mechanisms in the brain. One of those is called cognitive-- coping with cognitive dissonance. And all that means is that when you have dissonant thoughts, opposing thoughts, I do this, but I shouldn't, right? I drink too much. I really shouldn't. That's probably a poor example for me. I should do more exercise, but I don't, I shouldn't want to be more.
Lesley: I should stretch.
Simon: Yeah. Your brain, when it has to hold competing or oppositional thoughts, does some remarkable acrobatics to try and restore that equilibrium. So, on the one hand, you think, well, if I just have facts, truths, that would help allay my anxiety or fear. So am I, If I have anxiety about catching COVID 19 or about staying socially isolated or staying at home for another four weeks or another six weeks; my brain doesn't really like doing that. So what I'm going to do is to reduce that anxiety, we're going to use a coping mechanism. And the brain has a bunch of different coping mechanisms and we'll talk about some of those in a moment. But they're all designed to reduce the anxiety that really are contributed by having this cognitive is, your brain not liking it.
So if I'm faced with uncertainty, will I catch it? Are these the symptoms? Have I got it? We try and find facts and truth to try and confront those. But interestingly, if that doesn't fit, if those facts are true, don't sit with your existing world view or your belief about how the world works and what people are like. Instead of like changing your mind, which would be the adult human sensible thing to do, most humans, they actually become more entrenched in their existing opinions or beliefs, right? Because we're just trying to reduce, we're trying to make one side of those two oppositional forces win, right? Because we don't like anxiety, so this is why when we say, well, you know, and you've got to look at our political landscape at the moment. We're looking at often at the same fact if you want to air quote “fact”. And two people, sensible--
Lesley: Have a completely view point on those facts.
Simon: Completely different take on it because each of us are trying to force it into our own world view.
Lesley: Into our own beliefs, yeah.
Simon: So I think that has implications for how we're coping with the current crisis, right? So if I have a little bit higher anxiety generally, I'm going to be more-- have more anticipation anxiety. I'm going to probably be more likely to go down rabbit holes of worst-case scenarios. Whereas someone who is a bit more easy going may not do those things as much.
Lesley: Well, it's really interesting to see specifically, how our athletes have been dealing with this situation. How different people deal with uncertainty or obstacles. They either choose to kind of take it and utilize, you know which we might come back to a sense of a growth mindset. How can I take these circumstances and make myself better because of them? So getting into the solution, or am I going to get bogged down and kind of ruminate over it and, you know, everything's ruined. Everything's falling apart. So it's really--
Lesley: Yeah, catastrophizing, so we've really got a split going on in our athletes right now.
Simon: And you know, having to work at home right now, dealing with one of the common themes of the people that we've been dealing with and me especially, professionally helping people manage their reactions to this has been, okay, I'm now at home and how do I stay productive and how do I stay sort of on task and disciplined. Whilst that's great, we want to be able to do that, and we've got some ideas about how to do that. I think one part is about rethinking what actually the environment we're in and why we're in that situation.
Lesley: So one thing Dr. Gunter said is that we have to be more compassionate towards ourselves.
Dr. Gunter: Yeah, so the first thing that comes to mind when I hear that is I think we need to have a bit more compassion towards ourselves. I saw something yesterday on Twitter and I apologize that I don't have the direct reference for it. But the sentiment basically was, you know, we keep saying working from home, but in reality, we are all staying at home in order to maintain our safety in the middle of a global pandemic and still trying to work, right? Because this notion of working from home might suggest that we all chose to stop going into our respective offices and just work from the comfort of our homes, but that's not what's happening. And so I think when I saw that, I said, you know, that's a really good perspective shift to remind us all that having a bit more compassion because we all are managing something, right? We all are trying to navigate this crisis. And so when it comes to motivation, I think having compassion toward yourself, I think managing our expectations, it's really important.
I don't know if it's a realistic expectation to think that I am going to be as productive at home in this situation, in this crisis situation as I would be going to the office. One of the things that I've noticed for myself is I feel like I'm working harder at home because quite literally I could be working from the time I wake up until the time I go to bed with very little break in between. And that's very different than what my work life would be like if I were going to an office. Those natural transition points that might occur if I were commuting from home to the office. Or if I might get up from my office and walk down the hall and speak to a colleague for 15 minutes, that natural break is not present right now in my quote-unquote work environment.
My dining room table is my office and my dining room table and where I sometimes sit and watch TV, right? It's all in one. And so those natural breaks in the day, those natural transition points that allow us time to move from a work mindset to a more relaxed mindset of being at home; we don't have those. So we have to be really intentional about building that in and designating some work time and stepping away from work, in the same way that we have to monitor how much information we're taking in. I think it's really important for us to schedule breaks in our day to allow for us to have some distance from our work, even though we are at home.
Lesley: Yes, she's right, I really need to be kind to myself because sometimes I am just hitting myself over the head with a hammer all the time saying I'm not good enough; I need to do more. And it's just so fascinating to see how different people are coping with a specific situation and other obstacles like this in general.
Simon: Yeah. Well your coping skills are quite different than mine I think. So in psychology there are two types of stress management or coping styles as we call them. One we refer to as a problem focused coping and the other is called emotion focused coping. We all do both, but we tend to gravitate to one more than the other. So a problem-focused coping method, when there's a stressor from the outside, it doesn't have to be like physically on the outside. It could be just a thought that nags away at us. But one of the mechanisms that we often use is to try and make that stressor as less as or as least, as small as possible, right, so we target that. This is the-- well, I've got a lot of work on. I'm stressed, what's a problem-focused coping? I'm going to work harder and longer hours. I'm making the stressor go down. I'm actually tangibly focusing on getting the intre as low and as empty as possible, right, are task-focused coping. In sport, I'm scared of an open water swim start with big waves.
Lesley: I'm going to go out in the waves.
Simon: I'm going to learn how-- I'm going to be a better open water swimmer; so problem focused coping or making the problem lower or less. Now, and we all do that to a certain extent. The other method that people use is called emotion-focused. Now this is now just changing the filter. So I'm not changing at all, the size or the significance of the stressor itself at source, I'm just changing with how I frame it or interpret it. So this is where like meditation fits in. This is where talking things through fits in. You're not actually changing anything. And actually this is a little bit of a cliché in the way men and women tend to-- the old cliché about, you know, I don't want you to solve my problems. I just want you to listen to them. One person is coming in with a problem-focused coping. You're saying you're having a problem with this. Let's try and what can we do to reduce it? Whereas they're saying, I don't want to do anything. I just want to just talk it through. That really underlying that argument is actually that we use; one's using a problem-focused, one's using emotion-focused coping methods. So all of the--
Lesley: How does that work for me then? So I think you'll find that I'm the doer and you're the moaner. No, you're the girl and I am the boy in the relationship.
Simon: Wow, let's not go there. But, I do think that we all use both. But the great lesson we've learned from high-performance folks is that the best people do both. And this is why in stress management 101 is you start off with this stress audit. Okay, what are the strategies I currently use? Good walks and all, right, to cope with anxiety about the future. One might be I'm going to do more exercise, right? I'm going to get into a routine so I make sure that I always do a little bit of this every day. That might be problem focused methods because I'm making sure that I'm still getting work done, I'm still entertaining and educating my children and all the things that are making those things. But the emotion-focused coping might be very healthy. Some of it might be a little bit more exercise. I can just like feel as though I get some separation from it, but some of it might not be right; eating, drinking too much. I notice you telling me about Mexico City and selling alcohol now.
Lesley: Yeah. So in Mexico City, I believe they've stopped selling alcohol from certain times or certainly not as available because they're worried about people developing drinking habits.
Simon: Right, well, you know, those emotionally or all of those things like overeating or eating just bad stuff, drinking a lot, watching porn; whatever. They're all in what we call a little subcategory, emotionally avoidant coping. So now you're not actually changing the filter, how you frame things; you're just numbing yourself to it, right? You're making yourself feel a bit better, but of course, the long term you're making yourself worse because obviously, those methods don't actually do much to solve the problem.
Lesley: So I mean, some of the-- I won't even call it bad behavior, that sounds terrible, but this addiction to information overload is certainly in this environment. I know I've been addicted to that kind of information, whether it's looking up injuries, how to solve them, how to fix some health issues, how to solve them, how it affects them, so you know, social media and the impact of that on our system.
Simon: Yeah, so you use social media or at least, you know, the internet, the interwebs largely as a problem focused coping tool, right. To find more about the symptoms that you have or treatments that might work or be effective.
Lesley: Other people have had, you know, issues the same as mine.
Lesley: Forms of empathy with those people, you know, that sense of community by finding other people that have had issues with it. But yeah, essentially trying to get to the bottom of why I have what I have and how to fix it.
Simon: And that I think is the sort of the double-edged sword of the internet or social media, right? Because of the one hand that's a strategy or technique for doing problem focused coping. We can learn emotion focused coping tools. I can learn meditation, I can read, you know, calming--
Simon: --Mantras or something. But it also is that you get caught up in what other people are doing, how they're coping; the social comparison to it. And social media, it has such a remarkable impact on our sort of physical and psychological wellbeing.
Lesley: Yeah, it really is such a different landscape now compare to bygone eaters.
Simon: Listen to Dr. Gina Merchant talk a little bit about that. So Dr. Merchant, she works primarily in sort of the interface of psychology and health, but with particular emphasis on social networks and how social media affects us.
Dr. Gina Merchant: It's an interesting question because historically the research in social media and health has focused on total time spent and that is really a inappropriate approximation of the effect that using social media has on one's health. So the research has grown a lot over the last five years and what we're starting to see is it's really about what you're doing while you're using social media. So for example, a lot of the younger, you know, tweens, teenagers, and adults as well, but really the younger populations, spending a lot of time focusing on the development of their sense of self and publishing photos and content that they are waiting for social approval of others. And that type of engagement with social media can be really damaging. Because if you think about when we were young, you know, obviously there were always pictures, we always had in the back of our head wondering what other people thought of us.
The way that that got memorialized was not forever. And so what the research is showing is that the long-term damage as people are trying to go through the self-discovery process when they're younger is a big problem. So I guess that is probably the most concerning as I look at kind of future generations growing up in a social media environment. I do think a positive for the younger adults and the teenagers is that there is such an expansive reach, right? So we live in a global society, but it is definitely more true now than ever that, you know, young children and teenagers growing up in India can get exposed to different cultural influences and share with peers that live; some are in a completely different country across the globe. And then, I would say for the older populations, middle aged to older adults, what we're finding is, it can be this vortex of our attention spans. And that takes away from other opportunities to engage face to face.
And it also burrows us into these silos, where I think that the internet and social media is going to give me exposure to new ways of thinking. But what actually ends up happening is that I have opinions politically or otherwise, and I start to engage with people in social media environments. And instead of expanding my world view, I tend to become further entrenched in what I already believe. And then the last thing I'd say to end on a positive note is that for the older adult populations, you know, it really is a new medium. And so when we think about the opportunity to connect with others and people that we might like grandchildren or just people that we used to fraternize with but we haven't seen for years and years, it does open up those opportunities in a way that's never been experienced before in the history of humankind.
Lesley: So social media is such a fascinating thing and it's so pervasive in our society and how we operate nowadays. And in fact, every evening you'll be interested to hear this. After dinner, I know in fact, it's before dinner; Simon loves to go to the bathroom for quote-unquote, a pee in which he--
Simon: Plays Scrabble.
Lesley: He plays scrabble, but he also gets on Facebook. He also scrolls through his social media.
Simon: I'm sorry, but women still do not understand the role a toilet plays for men. It harks back to the--
Lesley: Okay, whatever. So anyway, yeah, it's just fascinating I think how we consume it; when we consume it. What that tells us about our personality, who we are and how it then impacts our behaviors and who we are, right.
Simon: You mean whether you're a lurker or a stalker or a content sort of adder? It's interesting though, isn't it, how we use it? Like there were some things that you-- like Instagram for example, I go-- I don't even have an account, an Instagram account; you've got one, and so I can look through your account just to see what other people are doing, but I don't contribute anything.
Lesley: But I mean, I'll spend a good amount of time in the morning as I have my coffee. Just seeing what people are doing. I either get inspired by it, I get frustrated by it; I feel negative by it. There's so many different emotions depending on what types of posts are coming through my feed at any given time.
Simon: But what about how you use social media as it affects your health?
Lesley: So let's see what the doctor thinks.
Dr. Gina Merchant: When we think about the ways that we can engage with the technology; you can produce content, so that might be a blog post, that might be a video tech talk video. You can also engage producing content that's responsive to other people's content. So if you post a video, I start to comment or like, those are all digital traces that are me actively engaging in a way that you know, or researcher or others can see. Now, I can also engage with the content in a way that's not visible to others. So I can go in and start to view someone's Instagram feed if it's public, even if I'm not friends with them, and then I can start to click on pictures because they've tagged people. And what we know about the way, you know, humans are very drawn to novelty and we're also drawn to these aspirational things, right, marketers capitalize on this everywhere.
And so, it can be a very dangerous exercise once I'm in that online immersive environment to just keep going. A good example of this is the 'do it yourself' videos for like woodworking or cooking shows. There's been some really interesting research around people who don't go actually do these activities themselves, but instead spent hours and hours and hours watching other people do the activities. And interestingly, that gives people, if you ask them to rate their confidence in their ability to do these tasks-- So I start watching cooking videos. Somebody asks me my confidence in able to bake this cake, I would rate myself as very capable. But yet, if you actually asked me to go bake the cake, I haven't really learned how to bake a cake because I've just been watching someone else do it. So we give ourselves a false sense - in this context I'm talking about like my skill acquisition. And I think the tragedy really lies in the fact that I'm not going out in the real world and doing these things. I'm just giving my sense of self this illusion that I am acquiring a new skill or I'm somehow benefiting from my time spent with this technology.
Simon: What do you think about that in a sporting context? So now, you know, watching lots of videos about how to do XYZ, versus actually making yourself better at doing them.
Lesley: So I think people spend so much time doing that; one, they maybe think they're an expert when they're not. But two, it almost makes them feel like they're doing their sport instead of maybe focusing on the foundational things on just getting the work done. And so, it's almost like this kind of weird substitutes in a way for actually doing the work. At least that's what I've experienced.
Simon: Yeah. I mean some of the exercise videos you're actually going alongside doing them, right. You know, like watching a ten second video on how to make a cake, you actually going alongside them. But looking at it in things like Zwift, which is kind of a social media exercise as well, right? You're like social comparison and how do you stack up? And there's now, of course, there's not to target, just Zwift, you know, any online like social comparison group exercise format. Well, we can still get the competitive juices out. Do you think-- is that going to have a negative effect on us, could you do that too much of it?
Lesley: Well, I think you almost isolate yourself by doing some of that stuff. I mean, so many people are doing Zwift instead of maybe going out socially with other groups or interacting. Not at the moment, but I mean it's different in this scenario than it is in everyday life. But if we're talking about sort of non-COVID times, I think-- there's almost too much social comparison. People are--
Simon: I think that's actually one of the things that I'm most concerned about if we become obsessed-- not obsessive, but if we immerse ourselves in virtual experiences, I'm now going to do a daily bootcamp online or follow along, or I'm going to Zwift now four times a week or five times a week and you're not doing it. You, we can't physically do anything else then you're, so all of those environments are still-- they're still sort of quite curated as far as the content provider. And we've noticed because we'd done our six minutes six pack video. Yes, it's six minutes of doing these core exercises, but there's 20 takes for each one--
Lesley: To make it more perfect.
Simon: To make them look perfect. And when you're doing them, you're thinking, oh my God, why can't I do this for a minute? Or why can't I get this exercise? What you're looking at on the screen looks so simple, right because it's been edited down like that, and it's the same with Zwift. Unfortunately, in environments like, you know, online racing or training is the ability to manipulate information. I mean, the number of times that people are in Zwift meetups or races where, and you look at their watts per kilo (w/k) make them a world tour rider. Like, really you're either lying about your FTP or you're lying about your weight. And I imagine, you know, weight doping is probably the easiest one to do, right, in a--
Lesley: Which is super interesting because that leads then into that sense of impression management, how we project who we want to be seen as in the world. And by doing a lot of these things in social media online, we can kind of curate that information about how people view us, right?
Simon: I mean, it's a natural tendency for the human mind to want to shape other people's perceptions of ourselves. That's really what impression management; we're trying to manage other people's impressions of you. And in the real world we do that by the way that we interact, right, inter-personally or when we speak to bit on the phone or something like that. But most of those environments are fairly-- they can't be edited down, right? You know, no amount of editing is going to change your ability to speak in person for one minute about something or have someone make an impression of you. But, in a virtual world, of course you can do that. And so what we're looking at is; is the Heisman trophy real of people's lives on social media and this might extend to Zwift and online boot camps and all the other things as well, right?
Because we want-- our brain is craving, where do I sit in the social hierarchy of things or even a fitness hierarchy. You know, when you're confronted with new information, human brain, first thing, what does this mean? And the second question it asks, is this any good, right? So, we want to know, we're constantly comparing ourselves to others. That's healthy; we never, you know, I don't buy all these mean--, you know we talked about this in our book quite a lot. I don't buy into these means, but you shouldn't-- comparison is the thief of joy and it's nonsense. You're going to compare yourself. Your brain is biologically wired and will hit you over the head until you do it because it helps us understand where we sit in the world, right? Physically, intellectually, aesthetically and that in years gone by hundreds of thousand years determined whether we lived or died. But now it really doesn't, so we're left with this sense of our inferiority or I'm not as good. Now, I wonder if that extends to how we cope with COVID-19; the social isolation, right?
Lesley: Right, but can you have too much of that comparison, can it have a detrimental effect on who you are. If you spend all this time just comparing to other people and stop focusing on yourself and your own journey and you're always looking at others for a way to determine your own happiness, surely that's going to have a consequence.
Simon: And individual's vulnerability, right, to how the negative impact of these sorts of things will influence you differently based on how vulnerable we are based on certain emotional or psychological states that we have.
Lesley: So do you think there's some kind of moral obligation that we have when we're posting and when we're interacting on social media about what we see, who we see it to, how we're projecting ourselves, how we're commenting on all the people, because it has such an influence?
Simon: Yeah, I think we do. It depends on how, you know, sort of, how much you reflect about your responsibilities, about what this is for. But I think most of us are so caught up in the impression management porn, which is Facebook and Instagram and Snap and even TikTok now, that our brains are so wired to just look for things that make us feel good, sort of one eye open at things that make us not feel so good, but we still can't help looking at them because it reinforces where we're positioned. I think the bigger question is do the social media companies have responsibility to post? I think this is where some of the experts might be able to weigh in.
Dr. Gina Merchant: No, I absolutely think there's a moral responsibility. And I know this gets debated a lot in mainstream news and media, but I think we need to adopt a very similar approach that we do with public policy around other public health issues. So if, you know, I'm taking my neighbor's kid to Disneyland, I have a legal responsibility to seatbelt that child in the correct car seat or what have you. And I think the similar thing holds true for information around vaccines and other health issues. It's a convenient response in my opinion that the large social media companies like to put the burden on the user. And we know from again, information processing and just the sheer volume, you know, it isn't the case that the human is incapable at a fundamental level of learning or making the right health decision were they to be presented with the right information. It's the case that the information is presented so quickly and there's so much of it.
And so yes, I think the other example when it comes to elections and COVID-19. You know, as a society we make a decision about what is truth and we hold journalists and publications of major newspapers to a certain standard so that Civil Wars don't break out so that the public is protected. And we're seeing the effects of that not happening on platforms like Facebook. So Russia was able to come in and wage a digital-like war essentially against our democracy, and all of a sudden like, we don't have a responsibility to protect society. I feel like it's a convenient response because it's a hard problem to solve for, but we're just not facing it with the level of seriousness and gravity that it deserves.
Simon: So clearly we're responsible, personally responsible for our own relationship with social media, right?
Simon: I mean, it could be a while before we get tools coming down the pipe from the social media companies to manage and curate that for us. That's giving us trustworthy news and blah, blah, and all the other stuff. But until then, it's probably up to us, right?
Lesley: Well, we can choose to turn the television off. We can choose to have times where we don't look for social media or we can take ourselves off it, right?
Simon: Sure. But social media, you got to remember that these systems like Snap and TikTok and Facebook and Instagram; they're wired. They're built to sort of like hack into the brain's dopamine reward system, right? For example, if you have one of the things that we know, for example, in reward, anticipation, we've talked about that already. But if you know exactly what you're going to get, the reward and when it's less you get a lower dopamine response than if you're slightly uncertain, right?
So novelty in a reward, but you know, it's going to be positive, but there's novelty in it, has a much more powerful reward effect than knowing exactly what you're going to get. This is why gap, this why people, you know, play the slot machines, they're out money, right? It's this time, this pole of the one arm bandit, this is going to be my winning streak, is that sort of-- they call it a variable reinforcement schedule, which is most rewarding. And that's how social media gets us because never know what you're going to see, right? That's the great thing.
You get the little notification or someone's mentioned you in a post or you go on to TikTok or whatever and you'll see, who knows? You just know it's going to be enjoyable, pleasant, humorous, sometimes depressing content, but it's a mixed bag and that's why it's so powerful. So knowing-- trying to override our brains, craving for that, and it's built with knowing what those biological craving mechanisms are is really difficult, right. Other than say, take your phone away from you, or how do I actually start to-- what are the strategies that can be a little bit more parental over myself about it?
Dr. Gina Merchant: It's important to take a break. So I recently, anecdotally, but I actually was motivated and inspired by others, who, I've a friend who has struggled with a lot of mental health issues and she did what you said. So she uninstalled Instagram and does not have an account anymore. So for me, I didn't want to do that because I didn't feel it was that addictive and I was in that bad of a spot. But, I did take it off of my phone for 30-days and I didn't use it. And what that enabled me to do was once I decided, okay, 30 days are up, I'm going to re-engage with the platform. I just had a much more-- I had a much higher level of awareness of how much time I was spending on the site. And I also think that the time away allows you to open your eyes and stop having this tunnel vision about your own world.
You just-- by sheer nature of not literally having your face shoved into the screen, can see the world around you from a different perspective. I also think Instagram, TikTok, and these ones where they're very heavily oriented towards contributing rich content, like photos and videos, you no longer feel compelled to be in your habitat, so to speak, and recording what's happening and then publishing that so that others can view it. And instead you just immerse yourself in what is happening around you and that gets held onto as a memory, which again, was the way that all of us experienced the world before social media came around.
Lesley: Okay, so I mean I definitely have my strategies to move away from the impacts of things like social media. I turn the programs off for short periods of time. I don't look at them, I take my phone away, I put it on airplane mode-
Simon: You ask me not to mention certain competitors.
Lesley: I do, as I'm coming up to races, right? A lot of athletes do this, they'll turn it off and they'll not engage and they'll put a little word saying, I'm not going to be on social media for the next week. And I think, ultimately, it's about creating a platform, creating an arena where we can make ourselves more mentally resilient to all of the influences around us. And especially given this kind of time right, where our brains are under a lot of stress.
Simon: Right, I think, you know, in the physical equivalent here is, you know we talk about FTP a lot, and even though there's not the time to go into the limitations of that. But as a general rule, we say, okay, if I know my functional threshold power is such a key part of whether I can persist and do this and reach a goal psychologically or emotionally; what's the equivalent mentally? How do I, what's my brain FTP or what's my emotional, psychological sort of fitness. And there have been some attempts to try and figure that out. I know that a lot of the training platforms are Training Peaks, Today's Plan, and a few others are always trying to include metrics of like subjective well-being and hopefully to convert those into like quantifiable scores. So you can see just like we would do on all the other training metrics. But some of the psychologists have identified a few key traits that seem to be the hallmark of the closest thing to a brain FTP.
And they call it actually psychological capacity or psych-cap, and some of this research issues a little bit contentious. It comes out of a field in psychological positive psychology, which is also a contentious area of study for reasons that we don't need to talk about here. But, there are some elements in there that I think are really noteworthy. And one of those is that psychological capacity, resilience if you want to-- it's not actually resilience, but the ability to be; what skills, mental and emotional skills do I need to be mentally healthy and robust in a uncertain environment? Maybe that's the way of putting it.
The first one is hope, right? Hope is one of the four key elements of psychological capacity. And hope is really about, yes; it's about having thinking that there's something positive down the line coming. But what really separates the capacity part is your role in that process. So in other words, where, for example, hope differs in optimism, optimism is a second element of a psychological capacity. I just have a positive outlook. I have a general sense that things are going to turn out okay; which is optimism. Which is important to have and there's a whole bunch of studies that show that you're--
Lesley: That's me and not you.
Simon: Are you half full or half empty person, and healthy levels of optimism are, help your immune system, psychology well-being, blah, blah, blah, all that. But the 'where' hope differs is that it puts you in a central place in having that positive outcome. I can be completely optimistic about the future, but absolutely do nothing about it. Just let the future happen and it'll turn out the way it turns out. But with hope it puts you front and center.
So what are you actually going to do about it to be able to have the outcome that you want, which is why it's an important part of psych-cap, right? So it would be okay, you want to have-- I want to come out of all this, so have some fitness still having you know, a job, I still have things that make me happy and confident and enjoy life. So what actually can I do to make sure some of those things, and this is where problem-focused coping comes in, right, laying the seeds or the groundwork for this happening again.
Lesley: Well, what have you seen me do from an athletic standpoint? I've used the same because, you know, effectively working out in the garage, I am mastering all those tiny little exercises, attention to detail on glute engagement, form, application, core; stretching. I'm doing all those little things that normally I would just push aside and not focus on. So I'm utilizing this time to create a hope that I can be a stronger, less injured and a better performing athlete in the future.
Simon: So in that example, you've got willpower, which is the motivation to want to do it, but you've got the way power as well. You actually go down to the garage and you do these exercises routinely. Whereas I probably I don't as much. So, that ability to set goals and to be smart goals and so on is really important. What a little quirk of some of the psychological research about how goals are best translated into action I find really fascinating. It might just be me that finds it interesting. So, one of the problems we found is the relationship between intention statements of I will, I plan to, I am going to, and action; do you actually do it is very small, right? So, in statistical terms, the correlation is about 0.2. And if you don't know anything about statistics, just know that the relationship-- once I know what you tell me you are going to do, it doesn't really predict that much whether you are--
Simon: Actually going to do it--.
Simon: You know, we are all filled with good intentions, right?
Simon: But one of the things that helps us convert intentions into action, in fact, we can always double that. The strength of that relationship is yes, by setting what we call psychologist call implementation intentions, which are just, how am I going to implement this thing? Like, okay, on Thursday at 8:00 AM I am going to go and do my, you know, elliptical down in the gym or down--.
Lesley: So, making sure that everything is ready to go, right? The elliptical is plugged in, the machine is working--
Simon: Ready to go implementation that's a huge--.
Simon: As one of the take-home lessons from the site.
Simon: One of the others that have received less attention, comes from a woman called Gabriele, Gabriele Oettingen who was a psychologist and she found that when we spend a lot of time wishing about in this intention phase, your vision board is a great example of a wish, sort of all the intention that you want to do. If we get so fixated on those, actually it reduces our tendency to actually be able to do it. It's totally counterintuitive.
Simon: So, being a visionary and thinking about all the great things you want to do and if you spent a lot of time doing that is actually undermining your ability to actually convert it--
Lesley: Actually do them, wow.
Simon: So, what they, what she found is that when you do something called mental contrasting with these implementation intentions, that's a word salad. I sorry about that, what that means is that instead of focusing on the goal of how I am going to do X on a Thursday morning, 8:00 AM you focus on the biggest obstacles to the goal, right?
Lesley: Oh right.
Simon: So, instead of now focusing on, okay, I have now set my I am going to do five minutes on the treadmill at 8:00 AM on Thursday morning instead of just focus-- becoming fixated on making sure, Oh 8:00 AM I have got my running shooter, what you actually do say, think through the most likely or biggest obstacles for you doing that, right?
Simon: And it might and some examples might be, well, I had a really late night and I drank three glasses of wine and I just felt a bit groggy in the morning and I just couldn't be bothered, I just put it off.
Lesley: Yeah, or the gear is packed away at the back of the garage and it's not like accessible or you don't have the right band to use on your knees--
Simon: Or kids are for some reason at 7:00 AM they are up and awake and around and drive me bananas and I just can't do it.
Simon: So, you then set goals around the reducing the obstacles.
Lesley: Oh interesting.
Simon: So, now you say, okay, and you have --and you have to do a little what they call a premortem, right?
Lesley: How are you going to get it done?
Simon: Anticipate it getting derailed.
Simon: What are the things that derailed it?
Simon: Come up with three.
Simon: And then focus on how I deal with those situations.
Lesley: Got it.
Simon: So, when we try and get people to stop smoking or cut down drinking, that's actually a hallmark of treatment. You say, okay, it's not so much summoning and building motivation and willpower about why I should stop and the health benefits. you are saying, okay, you are now at dinner with everybody and you, you know, you step outside three people step outside of your closest friends who smoke and you have just eaten and it's a strong social cue for you to smoke. What are you going to do when someone offers you a cigarette or offers you a drink at a party and you are trying to stay away.
Simon: That's what you set goals around. So, you practice like saying how to say no or how to conceal that you are not doing something that you are a good example of this.
Simon: Remember drinking in college where you have a lot to drink.
Lesley: Yeah it was a nightmare. Yeah, yeah, in college, I mean in Scotland especially, drinking alcohol, it's just what you do. And I was kind of ostracized for not doing it, so I had to kind of pretend.--
Simon: Yeah, you fill up an empty beer bottle with water
Simon: And no one if you have got a bottle--
Lesley: Yeah I just say it Vodka.
Simon: Drink that looks like, yeah, yeah a beer bottle, but yeah, but that technique of setting barriers and goals is a great strategy to improve your ability to have hope as one of the-- that's the second capacity in--. The third one is what we call efficacy or confidence, right? And we have said this time and time again, and this is my mantra as a sport psychologist, is listen, if you do nothing else with your time, athletes who are confident, it's like a magic sword, right? It's like a, it's like a special thing that you have. And the science of confidence is long and complicated, but building opportunities to--
Lesley: To be confident.
Simon: Feel as though you are successful.
Simon: And unfortunately all the research says you can't learn confidence, you can only earn it.
Simon: So, you have to have tried things that are difficult, failed, got back up, and then pulled it off and man it and stuck with it long enough so, that you have got through it. This is where that growth mindset fits in.
Lesley: So, this is where, you know, and certainly in my training specifically, I focus very much on the process of things because I used to go to sessions, whether it was group rides or maybe it was a track session where my coach wanted me to hit certain numbers and if I didn't hit those numbers, it felt like a failure. Like I had not succeeded. So, my confidence got lower and lower and lower and I started in the sport in ITU racing were swimming was everything. I kept on coming out of the water last, everything was a failure and I wasn't focusing on the things that I was good at and enough to give me enough confidence to get the stuff that was bad at better.
Lesley: And so, at what I had to do is really break everything down so that every single session that I ever do, there's process goals in there so that I am always going to have some kind of success. Even if I don't hit the numbers, even if I don't get the right power zone, even if I get dropped from the group, there's certain aspects of that session that I come away with feeling like I am, confident because I have been successful in them. And so it's, you really have to break it down bit by bit and you know, have every,-- and it's not just in sport, it's in business, it's in relationships. All the little things that, you feel you are good at need to mind top enough to give you the confidence that you can get through the challenges.
Simon: And I think that lesson is that you can spend too much time focusing on your weaknesses, right?
Simon: Because you forget what strengths you have.
Simon: And strengths and successes with what builds your confidence.
Lesley: Yeah, so, I mean during these times that we are on right now where we are isolated and people are struggling to sort of deal with that, you know, uncertainty they kind of falling down the rabbit hole, they are giving up. They are not having hope, they are not having goals they are not feeling successful. What are some of the main strategies to deal with that kind of uncertainty.
Simon: Yeah, so, I think this ties into the fourth element of psychological capacity, which is resilience, right? The ability to bounce back up or cope with adversity, and we know that all of these elements are interrelated, right? The more confident you have, the more confidence you have, the more likely you are to be able to stand up and, you know, persist and try things again, but the resilience, the ability to find sort of to face reality. But I think critically it's about finding meaning, right? So, when you are in what is essentially -- often feels like a fairly hopeless, unknowable situation about how it's going to turn out. You have to find ways to get meaning out of the things that you are doing at the moment and meaning and I use meaning in a farily in a big philosophical way. What's the point of all this? And athletes, you know, if there's one common thing we have known that races may not be on for the rest of the year, what's the point of training anymore? You have to have those why questions answered in your own head. You have to know why you are doing it. And like for example, athletes, you love training and racing is the icing on the cake for the training.
Simon: But fundamentally you love training. If all I do is I love competing and I am only training because it helps me race psychologically. I am really vulnerable in situations like now.
Lesley: Right, and especially if you get injured or get sick or there's something else that derails you being able to race.
Lesley: And then you have to ask the bigger question of why is it that racing is what fulfills me am I know my why to this? I love to be in nature. I love to master a craft. I love to push the limits. You know, there's a lot of different things that make, make my why.
Lesley: But I think in order to fulfill the why's during this time I have had to purposefully drill down on creating certainty within this uncertainty. And that certainty for me is being about creating a routine because that routine is going to help me continue to fulfill my 'why'. And so, the structure for me as, okay, what equipment do I have access to? Where can I go that I am allowed to go with? Can I train with anyone? Can I not, I am allowed to go outside them or not? What are the variables here? And let me create a structure and routine around that to give me certainty.
Simon: Yeah, and I think that really ties into the sort of the hallmark of coping. Bring it full circle, right? Which is the antidote is structure, routine, and reward.
Simon: And remember, uncertainty is an anticipation, biological mechanism. And we are struggling because we don't have control. So, it makes total sense that the brain's effort to combat that would be based around managing controls, right?
Simon: So, what can I control and I can control what I do at nine o'clock tomorrow morning and how long I do it for. I can control when I switch tasks, I can control what I put in my mouth, how I exercise, and so on. So, the more we have those in our life is really the perfect antidote to when you are in highly uncertain environments.
Lesley: And especially, you know, people are working from home right now or you know, hey, even when I have been injured I have said, okay, what exercise can I do to make me feel like I am still progressing, that I am still fulfilling a lot of these things that I need and my why's and it's the same here in terms of creating that structure. So, really in this phase of being at home, I have just sat down and I have written that big list, okay, what time am I getting up? When am I going to work out? What exactly is a session? And that has really helped me cope with this scenario.
Lesley: I think way better than others and we have tried to do this for our athletes, right?
Simon: Absolutely. I think the purpose piece though, this bigger existential philosophical question, still we don't, none of us do a very good job of it, well most of us don't do a good job of it. So, yes, we can have structure in our lives, we can put more routine; I can go through the motions of doing X at a certain time. But what about looking for opportunities to notice places to get meaning and satisfaction out of your life that you perhaps just when--
Lesley: Happened all before.
Simon: You are on a train that's, you know, a hundred miles an hour is normal pace of life is.
Simon: And when you are forced to slow down then what do you start noticing? And--
Lesley: You know, it's so interesting, I have had some great conversations with some of my best friends here and you know, they say I hate, you know, I hate to see this, but during this specific isolation time I have actually enjoyed it because it's allowed me to get off the train and to spend time doing things that I have always wanted to do. Hang that picture, do a drawing, do more cooking, spend more time with my family, get on the phone with my family more. You know--
Lesley: Just hang out more.
Simon: I mean, that is still a fairly privileged position.
Lesley: It is, it is.
Simon: Because much of the world is--
Lesley: Lost jobs they are sick--
Simon: Yeah they are losing lives--.
Lesley: Losing lives yep.
Simon: Losing income.
Simon: And it is a lot more serious.
Simon: So, but for those of us who are, you know, we can get through a few months with on or less income, we can cope with being inside.
Simon: I think opportunities to like start noticing things that otherwise would have passed you by. And in fact, that's one of the really fascinating findings from the study of the psychological research on happiness and passion. The research shows that passion and happiness or I should say, noticing things to be happy about. It becomes a skill of not looking for stuff, but noticing it, right?
Lesley: Interesting yep.
Simon: The science of happiness and passion tells us that the breadcrumbs are in all way already around you about what you can. So, what is it that we can look for in our home environment? It can be, you know, practicing a little bit more on a musical instrument. It could be actually, well, you know what, I have actually connected with people far more than I would have done outside isolation because now we are having, we know we had a Zoom dinner—
Lesley: Dinner date last night—
Simon: Dinner date right?
Lesley: With a friend super fun.
Simon: That we wouldn't usually have done or we might have gone over there but infrequently.
Lesley: So, what have you noticed about me?
Simon: In terms of what?
Lesley: I don't know; am I farting less?
Simon: Well, you are, very industrious. You are again--, you like the little cage hamster there, you are frenetic and frantic. I think your biggest challenge and I will tell mine is in a moment your biggest challenge is learning to sit with, with nothing, right?
Lesley: Yeah, oh yeah.
Simon: Learning to sit with yourself.
Simon: Your mom has this.
Simon: Some of your sisters have-- one of your sisters has this especially I think it's learning to be able to be left alone long enough, like the frenetic pace of life. And maybe, you know, I don't want to sort of try and guess at what the reasons for that are, but, but learning to be more at one with just sitting and not doing anything right. Just with your own thoughts.
Lesley: come on, spit it out.
Simon: Mine I think is probably the awfulizing or catastrophizing that if I can't, what's the point of doing this? If there's no outlet for it in the immediate future. Right? So, you know, our brains are wired to and our dopamine reward system is wired to put a higher value on things that are closer-- rewards that are closer to this thing in the distant future. So, it's trying to get out of the way of that model for me. It is that saying, look, the routine is the reward, right? It's like you are getting into healthy habits and think about being able to do things. And this is just coming off the back of a 31-day streak. I have got kind of a, I am so pleased with myself for getting through 31 days of doing this challenge and rather than just immediately moving on to what the next goal is, just to let myself think.
Lesley: Be happy with that.
Simon: Yeah, that's a pretty good milestone for me. And it might not mean much in your, the life of you and the structure and the control you have of your life. But for me it does.
Lesley: So, basically we have got bottle of wine ready to be opened tonight. Is that the deal?
Simon: You don't drink?
Lesley: Excellent, alright, well I think we should sign off on that. Bottle of wine here we come.
Lesley: We hope you enjoy today's podcast and if you like what you heard, be sure to subscribe.
Simon: If you want to learn more, head over to xterraplanet.com there you can register for your next off-road race. Learn more about this podcast and find some amazing gear. If you have questions or comments, you can email us at podcast [at] xterraplanet.com.
Lesley: And if you are interested in learning more about how to master your brain for endurance sports, we have written a book.
Simon: It's called The Brave Athlete and it's available everywhere they sell books.
Lesley: And we even have an audiobook, in fact, we narrate it.
Simon: Yes, that's not exactly a great selling point.