One of the things I’ve been fascinated by over the past year is deepening my understanding of the link between state of mind, mental health, and high performance. I’ve had coaches and teachers I respect who say that there is no link and others who say that state of mind is everything.
So in today’s blog, I want to share what I’ve come to see for myself, highlighted by a couple of lectures I’ve attended (and one I’ve given) over the past week…
1. Mental health is precious, not fragile
Dr. Bill Pettit gave a fantastic talk at the recent London 3PUK conference about the nature of mental health where he made the following bold statement:
“There is only one cause of all mental illness – chronic mental stress.”
As he went on to explain, our biology is designed to operate optimally with up to thirty minutes of heightened autonomic arousal (i.e. mental stress) every 48 – 72 hours. More than that and the body begins to compensate by switching off long-term survival features (like sex drive and the immune system) to focus its energy on essential functions for immediate survival.
He went on to explain that the variance in how chronic mental stress manifests in people is a product of thought and individual genetics. As the stress continues and more and more of our “peripheral” systems shut down, symptoms of numerous descriptions of mental unease may begin to emerge, and at a certain point a particular mental illness may be diagnosed.
This struck me immediately, as my own descent into depression in my teens and early twenties came about while I was living with chronic mental stress that at its worst I coped with by pickling myself in alcohol for six weeks straight.
Fortunately, this explanation came with two important and highly hopeful caveats. The first is that when the stress stops, the mind and body’s recovery to full mental health can happen incredibly quickly and completely. We have an innate resilience that allows the system to reset and bounce back from any condition as good as new. (Or as Dr. Pettit put is somewhat more colloquially, “people have cork in their butts”.)
The second is that chronic mental stress is simply a function of over-attending to the everchanging thoughts that pass through our minds on a moment by moment basis. In other words, the problem isn’t that we think stressful thoughts – it’s that we listen to them obsessively as though we’re huddled around the radio with our family, listening for news updates from the front during World War II.
Since we live in the feeling of our thinking, constantly dwelling on our darkest thoughts can lead to living in some pretty dark feelings. And innocently and unwittingly, that intensity of feeling can seem to indicate that we need to pay even more attention to those thoughts. But in the same way as the uncomfortable feeling of touching a hot stove lets us know to move our hand, the uncomfortable feelings of anxiety and stress are telling us to remove our attention from our obsessive thinking and make way for something new to come to mind.
2. High performance is a function of bandwidth, not positive thinking
At the Understanding Human Mind conference in Prague, I shared an analogy of the mind as operating like a laptop hooked into a kind of universal internet. The universal internet (or Universal Mind) is the energy and intelligence of life coming through us and to us. Everything that appears on our screen is made up of the energy of Thought; what determines the ease of flow of Thought is the bandwidth of Consciousness. Consciousness is by nature infinite, but the range of that infinite potential we are awake to expands and contracts on a regular basis.
When our bandwidth is high, we can process information quickly and easily, handle multiple tasks simultaneously and efficiently, and our experience is one of ease and flow. When our bandwidth is low, everything slows down, nothing works quite as designed, and we experience a fair bit of mental “buffering” where we can’t quite get our head around where we left our keys let alone how to run a business, score a goal, or have a helpful conversation with our partners and children.
Within the analogy, there are two things worth knowing about bandwidth. The first is that we have no direct control over it – it expands and contracts on its own for all of us. The second is that the more we understand it as a critical performance variable, the less inclined we are to fill it up with lots of extra thinking, no matter how positive that thinking might be.
A similar but different analogy was shared at the conference by Lila Turner. In her work with teenagers on exam stress, she compared the amount of water in a water bottle as being analogous to the amount of thinking in your head relative to “head space” at any given moment. When she asked the kids how much “water was in their bottles” when they were doing something they loved, they consistently said about 1/3. When she asked how full their water bottles were during an exam, that number went up to 2/3; when they were actually studying for the exams the bottles were nearly full before they even began.
By waking up to the correlation between headspace/bandwidth/consciousness and the variable feelings of ease or difficulty we all feel in performance situations, we can see that while we won’t always be at our best, the less we fill up our heads with strategies for trying to be, the better we’ll tend to perform.
While reflecting on these two insights into mental health and high performance over the past year, I’ve come to see that one of my “catchphrases” isn’t entirely accurate. While I used to say that “the less you have on your mind, the higher your level of performance and the better life gets”, a more helpful way of putting it is this:
The less you care what you have on your mind, the higher your level of performance and the better life gets.
With all my love,