The new ''norm'' of isolation, we all face during this pandemic, seems somewhat familiar to me...it is a lifestyle I find myself very accustom to due to my career at sea and in the wilderness. Living in continually changing and remote places, where living conditions are usually cramped and the day to day dynamic makes it difficult to establish routine, has been an on going theme in my life over the last six years as a Sailor and during my training to become a Wilderness Guide - admittedly, living this way has been entirely intentional!
I have read that scientifically we are creatures of habit and as a species we do not take easily to change, but, due to the outbreak of COVID-19, we have been abruptly forced to break away from our day to day familiarities, to abide by the strict lockdown rules and to adjust to these unsettling circumstances, in order to save lives. Keeping fit, remaining driven, staying focused and finding balance during this period was never going to be an easy feat, especially now we are confined to our homes and sheltering from such a lethal virus.
My surroundings frequently changed when I was working in far-flung places and, as a result, overtime, this has to taught me how to adjust my mindset and become more resilient to a variety of unexpected scenarios and situations. I am writing this to share my experiences of how I have learnt to improvise and adapt to overcome that constant and unsettling feeling of change, so that I can operate calmly in hostile places or extreme situations as a Sailor and Wilderness Guide, in the hope that this may help others during this crazy and unsettling time.
A third lockdown has hit Britain, gyms and pools are once again shut and to help me to continue my training, maintain focus, stay driven and reach my goals I find myself reflecting on the numerous times in my career where I have struggled to stay positive and remain determined in often very testing environmental conditions and situations.
I recognise that feeling, that struggle to find incentive, that mental battle to keep pushing through. To wrap up in thousands of layers and face that bitterly cold blizzard. To keep spirits high through a dark Arctic winter, anticipating the day the sun will reappear on the horizon. To build up the nerve to clip in and reef the main sail of the boat as she battles through forty knots of wind and takes breaking waves over the bow. To take the leap into 4000m of water to deal with a propeller entanglement in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, then gaze at the light disappearing into the daunting abyss below...
Overcoming these situations, digging deep to get the job done, to get through that brief testing moment by adapting my mindset is never as simple as flicking a switch, its taken time to tackle each scenario. Every single one of those moments, no matter how big or small the challenge may have been has and will continue to help me undertake the next battle, and the next, for the rest of my life...as that is the nature of the beast! Each time I reflect on a situation, I realise it has added another layer of bricks to my wall of resilience and is gradually reducing the shock it has on my system. Each time I learn to improvise, adapt, persevere and overcome.
Now, Im not saying I have to sail oceans and hack through jungles to continue to learn to cope with change. Education, relationships and just getting to twenty three has provided me with plenty of learning curves so far (you can probably relate). Everybody tackles their own challenges, in their own way and I believe we are far better off in life having experienced them - I can imagine that it would be very dull otherwise!
Whilst on expeditions and during long stints at sea, personal stories of challenging experiences are often exchanged amongst team members, usually on watch during an ocean passage, or whilst sitting around the camp fire. It is during these moments that I am inspired and educated by the experiences of others, of times they have had to improvise, adapt, persevere and overcome. I am very grateful to those individuals to have shared their emotional and inspirational stories with me. I now have them preserved in my mind to guide me during times when I need them the most.
And so, here I am, February 2021, in the middle of a global pandemic, utilising the same mental approach to improvise, adapt, persevere and overcome and ride out this stubborn storm we are all facing. I am reminding myself of the mindset that got me through that jungle, across that ocean, through that relationship, back up on that bucking horse. It keeps me productive, it gets me outside during the icy temperatures and dark mornings of the British winter to workout and it maintains my sanity levels when that cabin fever kicks in.
Here we go then - let me share with you some of my personal 'go to's' for the days when I need an extra helping hand to guide my mindset.
1. DEVELOP THE MIND OF A SURVIVOR
In any survival situation, the first thing you have to do is overcome the very human impulse to give up before you began. What would you do first? Try and find survivors? Look for food and water? Tend to your wounds as best you could? Look for things you could use from the wreckage? Make a shelter?
I believe that the most important kit to carry for survival is not a fancy knife, or a geo-location device. The most important tool for survival - or any kind of situation requiring self-resilience - is a well stocked brain. Unfortunately, unlike most survival gear, it doesn't come with a user manual and subsequently it isn't obvious as to how to use it in the best way.
1. THE SURVIVAL TRIANGLE -
'If I can do anything to change my situation, I will begin to feel in control of it; if I feel in control of my situation, then I can sustain hope; with hope I can form a plan; with a plan my efforts are directed most efficiently towards my goals.' The survival triangle, in combination with a few practical skills, gives you a premade planning template which can be used to jumpstart the whole survival process.' (by John Hudson - How to Survive)
There is great importance of effort, hope and goals and the factors that contribute to them, so that you can form a self-sustaining survival process, your own perseverance feedback loop. I have found that hope in survival situations is the result of realistic optimism, generated by matching my capabilities to my circumstances. And to tackle any problem effectively I need a plan. My ultimate target of success is most easily attained via a plan with a series of smaller goals as waypoints on route. Once I know that my next small goal is achievable, I can start to work at reaching it. 'Work is, simply, directed, efficient effort that will eventually change my situation - therefore I gain control of it. If I can control my situation, I can sustain hope. And repeat.'
This can be applied to any task, that at first glance, creates that flight or fight reaction.
2. PREPARE TO FAIL
In life we all have to deal with unexpected events. Perfectly understandably, most people spend very little time thinking about failure, disaster and worst-case scenarios. Indeed, the unexpected is by definition the thing you haven't planned for. While we cannot predict what events we'll find ourselves in - a worldwide pandemic, a natural disaster, or man-made catastrophe - what scientific research has proved is that our human behaviour in difficult situations follows distinct patterns. These patterns always occur, and they have been observed in studies when random groups of people are subjected to the same stressors. Roughly speaking, we all fall into one of three groups during a dynamic crisis event. A few people know what to do, the vast majority of us will not know what to do, and the minority of people will react badly. Whether you're in the top, middle or bottom group, we are all liable to behave in those ways unless we retrain ourselves...
We all have the capacity to cope better, gain insight and improve how we respond.
New responses are much slower to present themselves than ones we've already prepared.
We don't make the best decisions when we feel under threat.
If we want to make better decisions, we need to try and do two things:
Try and make as much room in our rational brain as possible.
Try and reprogram the brain out of the wrong shortcuts it takes (fight or flight mode) when it feels under threat from a new situation.
Whatever you can do to try and gather information, work out what's happening and take yourself out of this 'under threat' mode, this will allow you to re-engage your rational, slow brain.
3. BETTER EQUIP YOURSELF - PLAN FOR THE UNEXPECTED.
A very simple thing you can do to improve how you might respond under pressure is to think about the sorts of things that might throw a spanner in the works in a given scenario. Don't just think how awful those things might be - plan how you would respond to them! Instead of thinking - 'oh know, what if it all goes wrong?!' - think of specific scenarios, with specific responses. Get it down on paper. Free up more brain space. Make your own flap sheet.
Draw a diagram of your role or situation with five or so essential parts to it. What do you do if any one of them go wrong? By increasing the number of scenarios you think will play out, the amount of truly unexpected scenarios gets smaller. This will never replace the value of first-hand experience, but by taking steps to disaster-proof the future, you're actually decreasing the chance of disaster. By imagining the unexpected, we begin the process of responding more quickly and decisively should it occur. By pre-equipping yourself with potential solutions to potentially difficult scenarios, you will increase the number of positive outcomes.
Another useful method is to list five unexpected things that could happen, that are out of your control and then how your might respond to them. This is an exercise I play out when waiting for a train, or stuck in a cue. By doing so you have the power to change the outcome of the scenario if it should occur, by preparing appropriate responses to them.
4. PREVENT THE SPRIAL OF DECLINE
We are chemical creatures and no matter how well you've prepared for a situation, if you are not giving your brain the fuel it needs, you will not give yourself the best chances of success. We have physiological limits and strong emotions can often trigger a spiral of negativity. As an example, tiredness during long ocean passages can often get the better of me, and in order to manage this I created my own 'flash cards' to refer to which help interrupt that negative spiral and allow me to continue to perform. This has been a crucial step in my career as my skills lie in problem solving under extreme duress, in at times, life threatening situations. In these moments I have had to figure out the best way to place potentially extracting emotions away and operate in a calm place so that here, in this moment, I am focused.
For me, the best way to place those emotions away has been through creating flash cards that outline a 'plan of action'. Easy to keep in the inside of my jacket, I can simply refer to this as a guide to overcome that hurdle and so that particular emotion does not get the better of me.
As examples, tiredness or stress are often a source for poor decision making.
Why do I feel this way?
Recognise the emotion.
What can I do to improve the way I am feeling?
Am I putting anyone else in danger? Can I take a 10 minute nap? Do I need to fuel myself? Do I need to hydrate myself?
Possible actions to take: Take 10 deep breaths. Drink some water. Take a bath. Close my eyes for 10 minutes. Listen to some music. Write it down. Go for a walk. Stretch. Wash my face with cold water.
Do I feel any better? Is more action required?
You've got this!
Love, Eliza x