Psychology of Expeditions, Mental Health & Happiness - Sarah Outen

Words by Aaron Scott

on 13/03/2014 13:52:00

Preparation for a big expedition can be daunting and complex according to its shape and goals of the final project. For my London2London:Via the World expedition that complexity is mind-boggling at times, and it takes support and effort from a number of people to make it happen. The linked nature of the expedition, where one phase leads directly in to another and therefore has consequences on its start date and shape, amplifies that.

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One of the most important focuses of my preparation is my mental readiness to both take on the expedition, and sustain myself through it and deal with whatever it may throw at me. There is often an element of 'putting the expedition to bed' as well afterwards, and dealing with the after events. At the very start of my foray in the world of big expeditions I was introduced to psychotherapist, Dr Briony Nicholls and I have worked with Briony ever since. Just in the same way that I work with a strength and conditioning coach to ready my body for action or a skills coach to improve my paddling, working with Briony provides a valuable insight into the workings of the mind. Together, we talk of strategies to deal with certain scenarios that we can anticipate happening during an expedition before it starts and ways that I can manage my feelings, responses and actions.

So, what have I learned through my expeditioning that can be applied to everyday life or, with Rutland Cycling in mind, to sporting events?

Goal setting

Set specific, timely goals to give you focus and a hierarchy of secondary goals so that you can feel positive about performance even if you have to reframe the main goal.

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Know thyself

Be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses. Develop strategies to optimize your strengths and find ways to support and improve on your weaknesses.

Visualisation

Spend time visualising yourself taking on a task in a positive manner and then repeat the process over and over. It can be a very useful way to reinforce the steps you take to achieve that task and help embed the feelings of it in your mind and muscles, especially if you have had a negative experience before and want to 'overwrite' it.

Positive attitude

Positive self-chatter can be a very powerful tool of improving your confidence and by focusing on positive happenings and finding opportunities in a tough time or after a failure is always the best strategy for energy use. Negative chatter can be debilitating and hinder performance.

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Triggers

During times of extreme stress in an expedition - perhaps when I am at the end of my tether, sleep-deprived and struggling to move forwards, I often call to mind all the people I know and imagine them around me, pulling me forwards and pushing me on. I know this is always a trump card for me and will move me forwards, in spite of my exhaustion. Other triggers for me include a phone call home and the poem 'Invictus'. Reciting that poem always gives me a boost. By knowing some of the triggers that can spur you on to digging even deeper gives you a power over yourself, an extra punch to carry you forwards. Practice them and think about using them, before you have to use them.

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The bigger picture

Acceptance and perspective is such a critical aspect of expedition. Daily, things happen beyond our control. In fact, the only thing you can truly control is your attitude to a situation. Being able to frame things within the greater context of the overall goal - or life in general - is a useful way of dealing with negative situations and frees your energy for more useful things.

There is no right decision

Recognising that there is no right decision, only the one which you make at the time is one of the most important things I have learned from Briony. Reviewing and debriefing performance as often as the event requires is really important, but it is important not to get hung up on things that have happened.

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Chimpy

There is a model of the mind proposed by performance psychologist Dr Steve Peters which talks of three interacting centres:

  1. The human centre - rational, logical, makes decisions based on evidence, truth and reason
  2. The animal centre or your 'Chimp' - irrational, makes decisions based on instinct, desire and emotion
  3. The computer - the processing centre which uses memories and experiences to influence the Chimp and human centre

The model suggests that our inner Chimp can both help and hinder performance, according to what behaviour is most appropriate at the time. By knowing your Chimp and what makes it happy and then controlling when you call on it to act for you, can really help performance. I now have regular chats with my Chimpy!

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Sarah is a British Adventurer who hails from Oakham in Rutland and regularly guest writes for this blog. She was the first woman, and the youngest person to row solo across the Indian Ocean and also the Pacific Ocean from Japan to Alaska.

You can join Sarah at the Stamford Arts Centre on the 27th March for the latest updates from her gruelling and inspiring expedition in which she is attempting to loop the planet using human-power. Find out more here