Psychotherapist and mental skills coach Jason Brennan is co-author with Brent Pope of ‘Win: Proven Strategies for Success in Sport, Life and Mental Health’. He is also certified in humanities and philosophy, as well as having trained as a leadership coach. Much of his work is with professional sportsmen, focusing on mental skills used on the pitch and general wellness off the field. He talks to Liadan Hynes about the effect of stress on the brain, and how to create daily habits that will build mental strength.
rennan describes the chemicals that rush through our bodies when we are under pressure. “We’re a chemical factory, effectively. Some of the more heavy-duty chemicals that can get out of hand are adrenaline and cortisol. They’re good when we’re facing into a challenge, but not when they build up in the system over time. They usually show themselves in having difficulty going to sleep, or irritability, tense body posture, and aches and pains which shouldn’t be there. To help change the body’s chemistry, pump iron in the gym or passively sweat it, go and have a sauna or a hot bath.”
Certain brains, he says, are naturally more resilient than others. “It’s like a talent. But our brains are adaptable. Neuroplasticity means we can learn a new skill at any stage. And that’s the same with resilience. Someone who hasn’t developed resilience can do it at any stage, through learning certain techniques and practising.”
Brennan outlines three types of resilience. The most common is rebound resilience, the ability to bounce back. “That’s when something happens in a person’s life, and they are able to get back up again as quickly as they can. You talk about this in sports a lot; if a team is losing, how do you let that not get into the mind.”
Robust resilience involves putting oneself into a stressful situation and earning the satisfaction of mastering it. “It is about physically developing resilience. It’s what elite sports people and the military do. In life that might be setting yourself a big challenge, like a marathon, putting in the hard work and then achieving it.”
Finally there is resource resilience. “So much is happening nowadays that is so stimulating; we’re getting so much information sent to us. A lot of people are becoming fatigued. So this is about developing things for your mind to do to get on top of the day-to-day stuff. Training your mind, so it becomes like a tool kit, that you can call on whenever you’re feeling a bit low or stressed.”
For example: “Laughing and smiling, even if you don’t feel like it, will increase serotonin.”
Brennan outlines a number of strategies for building mental strength. Grounding is a practise you can discreetly execute in the office. “When we’re stressed, a lot of the energy is in our head,” he explains. “We need to shift that. The furthest place from our head is our feet, in particular our big toe. So I get people to go into their big toe for awhile. And listen to that body part and see what it is saying. You can do this in work under the desk, no one will notice. It starts to calm down your system.”
Meditation is, he says, a powerful mental skill, ideally twice a day, with the focus on an activity that brings you fully into the moment rather than anything too complicated. “You can do it sitting on a train; sunbathing is a type of meditation, as is people watching. If you do it daily and it becomes a habit, you’re training your brain to be able to go to that place quickly. When we meditate, we relax. I do it with a lot of sports teams. I get them to take off their shoes and walk around on the grass in their bare feet.”
Reframing is another strategy Brennan recommends. “Usually when we feel stressed we’re thinking about an issue in a very negative way. Reframing means looking at it through a different set of glasses. You take off the negative set and put on a different set. That different set doesn’t have to be positive. It can just be creative. What am I learning about myself in this moment? How can I think outside of the box on this problem?”
* Our brains like habit. Whether it is meditation, grounding, or breathing, make a decision to practise at least two mental skills a day.
* If faced with a problem or stressful event, try to put it in perspective. “Move away from a line of thinking and say to yourself: ‘Actually, how big is this in the grand scheme of things?'”
* Be social. Humans are pack animals, but people are getting quite isolated – it’s the way society is evolving. We have to make an effort to get out and connect with our community. Being too tired to see your friends doesn’t make sense, because when you see your friends you get energy. So you’re shooting yourself in the foot by opting out.
Sunday Indo Living