It has been an exciting period for me recently. Last month I was at the International Special Training Centre (ISTC) in Pfullendorf, Germany, where I had the honour of speaking to a group of Special Operations Combat Medics in-training from eleven nations across NATO. Staying at the base, meeting the guys, and contributing to their fantastic 26-week course was an unforgettable experience, and without a doubt my most proud achievement to date.
Why me? Last year I blogged/podcasted for St. Emlyn’s about my lively experience working in a South African Township Emergency Department, at Khayelitsha District Hospital. Luckily for me, a course faculty member from the ISTC stumbled across this work and thought I might have something to offer a group of warrior medics.
If you haven’t read the original blog, I would advise that you do before proceeding; the credibility of what follows hinges on its predecessor.
I was tasked with providing a session that tackled human performance optimisation. Through four separate 20-minute lectures, I delivered a package of strategies for ‘Building Mental Toughness’.
This post is a summary of my first lecture at the ISTC, and is the first instalment of a four-post series. I am making a call-to-arms: frontline healthcare providers must start prioritising performance optimisation strategies.
This is my ‘Mental Toughness Manifesto’.
What is Mental Toughness?
Traditionally, it’s a term synonymous with the sports world. It is therefore often ignored or laughed off as meaningless cliché, particularly by performers in healthcare – a ‘serious’ field. In my opinion, this represents a glaring missed opportunity.
A mentally tough individual is consistently able to produce desirable performances during moments of high stress; an undeniably crucial trait for those operating in high octane environments, not least the resus room, prehospital environment, or the realm of combat.
By accurately identifying the specific components of mental toughness, we can work on strengthening it through focused training and attitude adjustments. During a stressful, high stakes scenario where a performance is immediately required, (having interrogated the literature ) I believe you are mentally tough if able to state the following:
“I am 100% committed”
“I feel challenged”
Commitment to one’s overall goal is critical, but should be a foregone conclusion. A trauma team leader, flight paramedic, or special operations combat medic should be inherently committed to their job because what they do is of indisputable importance – they deal in the currency of human life. Also, they will have had to demonstrate commitment whilst climbing their respective professional ladders, via examination and selection processes. So, the first half of the battle – ‘being 100% committed’ – is the easy bit.
Feeling ‘challenged’, as opposed to feeling threatened by a stressful scenario, is more complicated. This requires confidence in one’s skillset, and a feeling of control over one’s emotional arousal.
It is imperative to appreciate the nuances of acute stress, and how it influences our physiology and cognition.
When an individual is faced with a situation which threatens an important goal (like staying alive, or keeping someone else alive), an immediate two-step cognitive appraisal takes place [2, 3]:
If personal resources are deemed sufficient to meet the demands of the scenario, the ‘challenge appraisal’ ensues. One feels positively energised (‘pumped up’), there is a sense of high self-esteem, and one will view the situation as an opportunity to capture a victorious moment. It is what athletes call being ‘in the zone’. There is physiological stress via activation of the sympathetic nervous system, but control of task-specific motor skills and cognition remains intact.
If the demands outweigh available resources, a ‘threat appraisal’ takes hold. In addition to the sympathetic nervous system response, the hypothalamic-pituitary (HPA) axis activates, triggering the release of cortisol. This cortisol ‘dump’ is a relic from our days as primal hunter-gatherers. It readies the mind and body for instant, evasive action (like running away from a predator), which is, of course, suboptimal when a skilled and complex performance is immediately required.
Threat appraisals narrow our auditory and visual perception, minimise our mental ‘bandwidth’, increase our sense of fear (via its effect on the amydala), erode our short-term memory (hippocampus), and obliterate our capacity for rational judgement (prefrontal cortex) .
Need convincing? Watch the video below for an armchair threat appraisal…
The psychological literature has consistently demonstrated that high serum cortisol is associated with impaired performance, over a wide range of human pursuit [4, 5]. What becomes clear, therefore, is that performance optimisation centres around this two-step cognitive appraisal process. By using strategies to modify one’s perception of the immediate demands and available resources, we can convert threat appraisals to challenge appraisals, and in doing so, harness the power of the sympathetic nervous system, avoiding HPA axis-mediated self-sabotage.
I will propose seven strategies, over three phases of the game (the ‘practice’, ‘perform’, and ‘process’ phases), designed to favourably modify our perceptions during the cognitive appraisal process. The aim is to build the challenged mindset, resulting in a mentally tougher performer, better equipped for saving lives.
Stay tuned for the next instalment.
- Mike Lauria. Imperturbability: William Osler, Resilience, and Redefining Mental Toughness by Mike Lauria. EMCrit Blog. Published on February 3, 2016. Accessed on February 24th 2017. Available at [https://emcrit.org/blogpost/imperturbability-william-osler-resilience-and-redefining-mental-toughness/].
- Tomaka, J., Blascovich, J., Kelsey, R. M., & Leitten, C. L. (1993). Subjective, physiological, and behavioral effects of threat and challenge appraisal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 248-260.
- LeBlanc, V.R., The effects of acute stress on performance: implications for health professions education. Acad Med, 2009. 84(10 Suppl): p. S25-33.
- Scott Weingart. Podcast 177 – Chris Hicks on the Fog of War: Training the Resuscitationist Mindset. EMCrit Blog. Published on July 11, 2016. Accessed on February 24th 2017. Available at [https://emcrit.org/podcasts/chris-hicks-fog-of-war/].
- How stress affects your brain – Madhumita Murgia, TED Ed