Survival vs. Thrival
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
My mountain bike came out of retirement recently, marking my recovery from some injuries, and I celebrated with a long-awaited trip to Bryce Canyon National Park. I was thrilled to be back on my bike in this stunning landscape, though I felt a bit wobbly and uncertain of my abilities. I looked forward to starting out with a nice, scenic ride to celebrate getting back in the saddle.
My friends, who are far more experienced than I am, perused the mountain biking apps to find a mellow trail that would be good for a late afternoon ride. Despite the positive reviews, the trail we chose turned out to be pretty technical-- a single track with loose sand, rocks, and roots, that wound its way up the mountain with steep ups and downs.
What was intended to be a short climb took us almost 3 hours to ascend, much of which I spent walking my bike. After determining that the “easier” route we planned to take down didn’t exist, it became evident that the only way down was going to be the same way we came up.
Suddenly, I faced the stark realization that we might be in trouble. The sun was setting and I was far from certain we could make it down before dark. On top of that, we hadn’t brought any survival supplies with us; we had no headlamps, no food, no warm clothes, and I was nearly out of water. The temperature was beginning to drop and we had a nine-year-old with us.
I felt a cold sweat wash over me, the sensation of little needles rolled across my arms and face, and I felt my heart rate speed up as I realized it would be a race against the clock to get down this technical trail that was above my skill level. I knew I had to make a decision about how I was going to handle the situation.
I thought to myself, “This isn’t my first time on a mountain bike. I rode a lot when I was younger. I’m strong, I’m healthy, and I trust that my body will know what to do.” I let the others lead, knowing that even the nine-year-old was more skilled than I.
As I descended the mountain at speeds that took me way out of my comfort zone, I kept telling myself over and over, “You got this.” I powered my way through the sand and over the rocks, “dabbing” my foot down for balance while still moving. I allowed my rear tire to slide around turns and I charged both up and down steep sections that I had previously walked. I still felt fear as I hurtled toward obstacles that would have stopped me only a few hours earlier, but the adrenaline was flowing and my confidence was growing.
As I rounded the final corner of the descent with the last bit of daylight, I thought, “Wow, that was amazing!” I realized I’m far more capable than I thought. I also recognized that I had shifted my threat response into a challenge response and successfully moved from survival mode into thrival mode.
Life has a way of handing us unexpected and stressful situations, but we don’t have to be at their mercy. We may not be able to choose whether or not we experience stress, but making mindful choices about how we handle these situations can mean the difference between merely surviving stress or thriving in the face of it.
Stress is a natural part of the human experience and it’s our brain’s way of getting us to pay close attention to anything that requires quick and skillful reactions. When it detects a threat, the brain creates an automatic stress response and floods the body with chemical messages in the form of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which actually help you to perform under pressure. Your muscles become primed for action and your focus narrows, allowing you to place focused attention on the task at hand. Stress responses are normal when responding to difficult situations, but the type of stress response you elicit can make all the difference in how you experience a stressful event.
THE THREAT RESPONSE
When a difficult and uncomfortable situation comes your way and you believe the demands of the situation exceed your resources and abilities for handling the situation, you’ll experience a threat response. When I realized I was in over my head in Bryce Canyon, I immediately felt threatened and fearful.
Threat responses are characterized by the fear center of the brain, called the amygdala, kicking into action. The amygdala is considered our primal brain and is responsible for human survival over the eons of our existence. It triggers the automatic fight, flight, or freeze responses that allow us to kick into survival mode when our lives are at risk.
The problem with this threat response and the consequent survival mode, is that it can take over for relatively benign reasons, such as speaking in front of an audience, standing in a crowded elevator, getting a bad performance review, homeschooling your children, fighting with your spouse, losing a job, or having financial problems. It also triggers negative emotions, highlights your sense of lack and inadequacy, prevents you from seeing the “bigger picture”, and reduces your creativity and problem-solving abilities. It allows you to survive, but it doesn’t set you up to thrive.
THE CHALLENGE RESPONSE
When a difficult situation shows up and you believe you have the skills and resources for tackling it, you’re more likely to shift into a challenge response. This reaction to stress helps you to feel more focused and less fearful in the face of adversity. You might even feel excited about the opportunity to engage in something extreme, or as we say in the adventure sports world, something gnarly. Shifting my approach to our situation in Bryce Canyon from a threat to a challenge opened the door for me to step into the realm of “excite-and-delight,” a stress response embodied by many extreme athletes.
The brain still kicks into action, eliciting a biological stress response, but it now recruits the prefrontal cortex, the thinking and planning part of the brain, to jump in and balance out the amygdala. Now, in addition to the adrenaline and cortisol, your brain also sends dopamine and DHEA, which improve memory, mood, and confidence during stressful situations.
Not only does a challenge response allow you to experience stress with greater positive emotion, it’s also more likely to improve your outcomes and heightens the likelihood that you’ll benefit from the experience with improved strength and skill for the future. Choosing a challenge response, it turns out, helps you do more than just survive, it helps you to thrive in the face of stress.
THE STRESS MINDSET RESET
One of the beautiful things about the human brain is that it has figured out how to automate much of our thinking to conserve precious time and energy. Just as you don’t have to consciously focus on every minute task when riding a bicycle or driving a car, your brain thinks it’s doing you a favor by making automatic assumptions when handling stress. These automatic assumptions largely determine whether you experience a threat response or a challenge response.
But here’s the kicker: you do actually have a choice in how you experience stress. When you allow yourself to pause in the heat-of-the-moment and take a thoughtful inventory of the situation, you allow yourself the opportunity to create a stress mindset reset; you can actually change your mind about stress. Here are a few steps you can take to shift your stress mindset from survival mode to thrival mode:
1. Recognize that a stressful situation has arisen and name it. Is the situation urgently life-threatening? If not, continue to step two. In Bryce Canyon, I realized that we might be in trouble. It wasn’t dark yet, but there was indeed an imminent threat.
2. Notice your discomfort in being faced with this situation. What are you feeling in your body? Close your eyes and allow yourself to feel the sensations without any judgement. After I realized there was an impending threat on our ride, I felt a cold sweat, the sensation of needles across my skin, and my heart rate sped up. I recognized my stress response.
3. Ask yourself what skills and strengths you bring to the table for handling a stressful situation like this. How have your past experiences prepared you for addressing this challenge? In a quick moment of reflection, I thought to myself, “This isn’t my first time on a mountain bike. I rode a lot when I was younger. I’m strong, I’m healthy, and I trust that my body will know what to do.”
4. What are some positive outcomes you could look forward to after this experience is over? Is there an opportunity in this situation for personal growth or gain? I knew getting down the mountain would challenge me, but I also knew it was going to help build my skills. Plus, getting down safely meant that I’d soon be drinking a beer around a campfire with my friends.
5. Envision that you’re the hero in a movie: How would your character address this challenge? One of my favorite movies as a kid was BMX Bandits, starring Nicole Kidman. Okay, I wasn’t fighting bad guys in Bryce Canyon, but close enough.
6. Return your focus to the sensations in your body. Acknowledge how these sensations may be the result of your body sending you valuable energy and cognitive resources for taking action. For the duration of our 40-minute descent I was hyper-focused and all my muscles were engaged and on pointe. This was a thrilling experience I hadn’t felt since my days as a competitive athlete.
7. Allow yourself to feel excited for being the hero in your movie, knowing that your body will also be sending dopamine and DHEA to be your sidekicks. At one point on the way down my friend, Kendra, asked how I was doing. “I’m a rock star!” I shouted.
8. Welcome to thrival mode!
Every day we’re faced with stress and the choice of how to respond to it. Learning to thrive in the face of adversity takes time and practice, but the more you do it the easier it becomes. The key to thriving in life is learning to embrace the stress and allowing it to work for you, rather than against you, so you can come out of your experience saying, “Wow, that was amazing!”
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