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‘My Mental Toughness Manifesto’ Part 4: PROCESS

30 May, 17 | by rlloyd

passenger-plane-landed-in-hudson-river-136395463010203901-150114153840

Everything in aviation we know because someone somewhere died… We have purchased, at great cost, lessons literally bought with blood… We cannot have the moral failure of forgetting these lessons and have to relearn them.”

Sully Sullenberger
Pilot of Flight 1549, ‘The Miracle on the Hudson’

All frontline healthcare warriors will bear scars from emotionally distressing experiences in the workplace (e.g. major incidents with multiple casualties, unsuccessful paediatric resuscitations, personal mistakes resulting in patient harm). For the most part, members of the public will only rehearse being exposed to these flavours of horror by watching movies or having nightmares. For us, it is a potential reality every shift.

In the aftermath, the way one processes these events heavily influences future commitment to similar causes and cognitive appraisals (challenge vs threat mindset) – the key determinants of mental toughness.

Adaptive processing should incorporate ‘Black Box Thinking’ and self-compassion. 

‘Black Box Thinking’

BBT betterConsider the aviation vs healthcare discussion for a moment – arguably the two most safety-critical industries in the world.

On average, just one commercial flight goes down for every 8.3 million take-offs worldwide. In the US alone, there are approximately 400, 000 avoidable medical errors every year, which is the equivalent of two jumbo jet crashes every day [1, 2]. That is a gargantuan discrepancy in passenger versus patient safety.

Of course, it is well documented that the two industries are not directly comparable. There are far more reasons for a patient to die than there are varieties of plane crash, and medics do not yet have the option to switch on a mental bandwidth-sparing machine that’s able to mop up routine tasks. Nonetheless, the statistics illustrate an indisputable point – we have a huge amount to learn from our aviation counterparts, whether we like it or not.

Why is aviation such a staggeringly high performance industry? The answer is simple: there is an institutional culture of learning from failure. Every plane is equipped with two sturdy black boxes which record conversation in the cockpit, and electronic decision-making (i.e. which buttons were pushed). In the case of an accident, the black boxes are promptly retrieved from the battered fuselage, opened, and the contained data interrogated. Every aspect of the crash gets the fine-tooth-comb-treatment to identify exactly what went wrong. Protocols are subsequently modified so the same mistake can never happen again. Error is not viewed as a sign of weakness or inadequacy – on the contrary, it is treated as a precious (even exciting) learning opportunity for everyone who might benefit.

Healthcare culture is largely the polar-opposite. Failure is stigmatised because doctors are supposed to be infallible in the eyes of the public. Mistakes get ‘swept under the carpet’ by the guilty to avoid being held accountable and where that is not possible, the blame-game ensues [3]. When one’s professional credibility is at stake, a successful escape from the situation is higher up the priority list than learning from the failure; and the omnipresent threat of litigation only serves to further entrench this defensive, maladaptive institutional culture. The immediate gratification of reputation-preservation trumps the potential for professional growth that naturally follows acknowledgement of personal failure. We routinely blind ourselves to the best possible signposting for getting better at our jobs – our mistakes.

Whilst this growth-stunting phenomenon will vary in severity across the spectrum of healthcare environments, you would be hard-pressed to find a doctor, anywhere in the world, not regularly exposed to this embarrassing peculiarity of our profession.

Be a black box thinker. Own your mistakes. Share your lessons. Interrogate every performance with the curiosity and tenacity of the Air Accidents Investigation Branch. Re-conceptualise your relationship with failure so that it no longer represents an existential threat, but acts as a guide for your ‘practice’ phase.

‘Reflective practice’ is an overused and misunderstood term in medical training (in my opinion). Often, written evidence of it is a requirement for career progression, and when one ‘reflects’ for that reason alone, it ceases to be useful. Furthermore, documented reflections will too frequently centre around what went well – a less lucrative training exercise.

Apply the black box philosophy to your reflective practice and force yourself to face potentially ugly truths. Embrace being criticised and never back down from asking a ‘stupid question’ – it tees you up for focused training and subsequent accelerated improvement. Have the bravery to be the detective leading the warts-and-all investigation on yourself.

Self-Compassion

In frontline healthcare, we are routinely exposed to life-changing injury and acute illness. If we take our workplace goggles off, and dare to view the worst aspects of our jobs through the eyes of a ‘normal’ person, it can be intensely disturbing. Furthermore, subscribing to the highest professional standards can make us prone to gratuitous suffering as we’ll mistakenly convince ourselves that we could have done more for unsalvageable patients. Our keenness to take full responsibility can render us vulnerable to unnecessary self-punishment.

Without appropriate perspective and personal support, our view of the world, and indeed of ourselves, can become warped. Long-term self-neglect in our line of work will eat away at our commitment to the job, potentially invite long-term psychological damage (PTSD), and ultimately, harm our patients.

When a particularly traumatising incident occurs, many institutions will employ a ‘critical incident stress management’ (CISM) protocol, which encompasses a range of supportive interventions aimed at preventing PTSD [4]. This includes a formal group debrief, led by an outside party (usually a psychologist), within 72 hours of the event. Despite being widely practiced, this approach is controversial as no definitive benefit has been demonstrated in the literature. However, widely accepted to be of critical importance for psychological wellbeing in the immediate aftermath of an emotionally traumatising incident is a ‘defusion’ process [4, 5, 6].

‘Defusion’ is a team get-together where thoughts and feelings are shared in confidence. When threat appraisals drench our brains in cortisol and distort our perceptions, defusion allows for piecing together the chronology and specifics of the event through organic, informal discussion with team-mates. It is an opportunity for emotional support, having a collective laugh/cry at the absurdity of the job, and an accurate information gathering exercise in a safe environment. The team pull together in the aftermath, are honest about their emotional frailties, and find strength in each other. It lacks the rigidity and intrusion of an uninvited formal debrief led by an ‘outsider’.

Pain shared = pain divided

Joy shared = joy multiplied [7]

In the hospital setting, it can be as simple as insisting on a chat in the coffee room after a big resus, or a quick get-together after work. It might seem minor, but unnecessary guilt, anger, confusion and other damaging emotions can be thwarted by this process. However informal and insignificant it might appear on the surface, it is of fundamental importance, and must be sought out, however logistically difficult.

In more extreme environments, such as combat or the prehospital setting, sitting down to defuse should also be used as an opportunity to regain a feeling of physical safety, get warm, hydrate and refuel (eat something).

Self-compassion via defusion is a critical strategy for building mental toughness. Taking care of yourself and your team after an acute insult preserves commitment to the job, and prevents lasting psychological scars that will render you less able to cope emotionally with the inevitable acute stress that lies in wait.

Summary

Use mistakes as signposts for self-advancement as opposed to sources of embarrassment. Own your failures instead of hiding them, and use them to guide your ‘practice’ phase.

Always remember to ‘defuse’ with your team after emotionally challenging cases/incidents. Share the pain, and multiply the joy. Never underestimate the therapeutic value, and heavy dose of perspective, that humour offers.

‘My Mental Toughness Manifesto’ Roundup

You are mentally tough if able to state the following (Part 1):

“I am 100% committed”

“I feel challenged”

To build and maintain mental toughness, I propose seven strategies over three phases of the game:

‘Practice’ (Part 2)

  • Immersion
  • Deliberate Practice
  • Visualisation

‘Perform’ (Part 3)

  • Tactical Breathing
  • Cognitive Reframing

‘Process’ (Part 4)

  • ‘Black Box Thinking’
  • Self-compassion

Own your performance.

Robert Lloyd
@PonderingEM

References

  1. Black Box Thinking. Matthew Syed.
  2. 2017 Royal Society of Medicine Easter Lecture: Creating a high performance revolution in healthcare. Matthew Syed.
  3. What do Emergency Medicine and Donald. J Trump have in common? Robert Lloyd, EMJ Blog.
  4. Mental health response to disasters and other critical incidents. BMJ Best Practice.
  5. Debriefing and Defusing. http://www.davellen.com/page21.htm
  6. Shoes, Sex and Secrets: Stress in EMS. Ashley Liebig. SMACC Chicago lecture.
  7. Grossman, L.C.D., On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace. 2008: Warrior Science Publications.

‘My Mental Toughness Manifesto’ Part 3: PERFORM

9 May, 17 | by rlloyd

‘Practice’ is about building a skillset, and fostering a way of life (via ‘immersion’) that serves to strengthen perception of one’s available resources when crunch time arrives.

However, reality dictates that certain scenarios are impossible to prepare for, particularly in the emergency medicine arena. The more chaotic the workplace, the higher the frequency of unavoidable threat appraisals.

Therefore, it is crucial to utilise strategies which stabilise one’s level of emotional arousal in the heat of battle. Namely tactical breathing and cognitive reframing.

Tactical Breathing

“Feel breath filling every cell of your body. This is our ritual. We master our breath, we master our mind. Pulling the trigger will become an unconscious effort. You will be aware of it, but not directing it. And as you exhale, find your natural respiratory pause and the space between heart-beats.”

American Sniper

In a high stakes game, where your next move (performance) has implications for the survival of another human being, it is a guarantee that your sympathetic nervous system will be working overtime. We know, of course, that this can work in our favour if challenged (perceived resources > demands); indeed, we’ll feel ‘pumped’ and ‘ready for action’. On the other hand, this heightened physiological arousal can be the architect of a catastrophic blunder if threatened (i.e. demands > resources; see MMTM Part 1 for a full explanation).

The only component of the autonomic nervous system that we can override and take conscious control over is our breathing [1, 2].

Deliberately slowing respiratory rate in a moment of crisis has the effect of preventing further escalation of other features of the sympathetic surge, such as tachycardia and hypertension. This feeling of control over our physiological arousal induces a prevailing sense of clarity and calm. It serves to psychologically detach the conscious self from the stressful moment, allowing an imaginary reset button to be pressed with subsequent restoration of mental bandwidth. Visual and auditory perceptions widen as the mind is released from the paralysing effect of the cortisol dump. Professional presence in the moment is re-established.

square breathing

‘Tactical breathing’ (or ‘square breathing’) describes the four-second method pioneered by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, of On Combat fame [3]. One must breathe in for four seconds, hold for four, exhale for four and then hold again for four, on repeat until the desired effect is achieved. Whilst this provides the stressed individual with a mental model to follow, it is not essential to adhere rigidly to the timings. The crucial task is committing to a conscious slowing and deepening of one’s breathing cycle.

This idea is nothing new or revolutionary. Breathing techniques have been utilised by elite soldiers, martial artists, professional athletes, and a host of other world-beaters for generations [4]. Underestimate this tool at your peril.

Cognitive Reframing

A salient feature of the threat mindset is a thinking pattern polluted with self-doubt and persecution.

‘I can’t do this’ 

‘I don’t know what to do’ 

‘My mind is blank and my patient is dying’

Naturally, this has a devastating effect on performance. If you are telling yourself that you’re not up to the job, it is highly unlikely that you will prove yourself wrong.

Pressing ‘control/alt/delete’ on these thoughts, and inserting useful content, is therefore critical. This process is called cognitive reframing, and it can be achieved via positive self-talk and an ‘incrementalsteps’ approach.

Positive self-talk

This is the process of forcing one’s internal dialogue to suggest something positive. It can jolt the mind out of a persecutory spiral, if sufficient commitment/buy-in is present [5, 6].

It can be generally motivational:

You have trained well for this’

You’ve been in this position before and succeeded’ 

‘Relax and focus’

Or be used as a method for directing cognitive resources to something specific:

Slow is smooth, smooth is fast’ 

You have plenty of time, just bring the epiglottis into view’ 

Positive self-talk synergises well with tactical breathing, providing, in effect, a two-pronged intervention on physiological and cognitive over-arousal.

An ‘incremental-steps’ approach

During a crisis or particularly demanding scenario, it is always a bad idea to look at the big picture.

Break down the required process into its component parts, and focus only on your first step. Upon completion of that step, allow yourself to contemplate the next, and so on. This will modify your perception of the situational demands by reframing the scenario into a series of manageable challenges instead of one giant threat, and in doing so, hold off any detrimental physiology [7].

For example, if confronted with an unconscious head injury patient who is obstructing his airway and gargling blood, do not allow yourself to contemplate the overall objective (i.e. getting the patient safely anaesthetised and intubated). First focus solely on applying high-flow oxygen, appropriate monitoring, and allocating team roles. Next, focus on achieving intravenous access, followed by readying the airway equipment and drugs, then instrumenting the airway, thereafter ‘epiglottoscopy’, and so on. A state of panic is warded off by a refusal to allow the mind to wander too far forwards.

If you avoid looking at the mountain peak, and focus exclusively on the first obstacle lying in front of you, you will arrive at the summit in no time.

Use positive self-talk to encourage and guide you through each incremental step.

Summary

  • Threat appraisals are an unfortunate inevitability for all acute care clinicians.
  • Taking conscious control over your respiratory cycle grants you the ‘keys’ to the rest of your autonomic physiology.
  • Positive self-talk intervenes on persecutory thought pollution, and can redirect cognitive resources to specific tasks. It can synergise with tactical breathing as a method for ‘resetting’ in a moment of high stress.
  • An incremental-steps approach converts a significant threat into a series of manageable challenges.

In the fourth and final instalment of My Mental Toughness Manifesto, I’ll be discussing a healthy and progressive methodology for PROCESSING a highly stressful clinical encounter after the event.

I’ll leave you with NAVY Seal Commander Jocko Willink’s take on cognitive reframing:

References

  1. Mike Lauria. Enhancing Human Performance in Resuscitation Part 3 – Performance-Enhancing Psychological Skills. EMCrit Blog. Published on November 22, 2015. Accessed on May 5th 2017. Available at [https://emcrit.org/blogpost/performance-enhancing-psychological-skills/].
  2. Seppala, E.M., et al., Breathing-based meditation decreases posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms in U.S. military veterans: a randomized controlled longitudinal study. J Trauma Stress, 2014. 27(4): p. 397-405.
  3. Grossman, L.C.D., On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace. 2008: Warrior Science Publications.
  4. Weisinger H, Pawliw-Fry JP. Performance Under Pressure. New York, NY: Crown Business.
  5. 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/].
  6. Tod, D., J. Hardy, and E. Oliver, Effects of self-talk: a systematic review. J Sport Exerc Psychol, 2011. 33(5): p. 666-87.
  7. Rob Orman, Rich Levitan, ERCast – Psychology of the Difficult Airway, 2014

‘My Mental Toughness Manifesto’ Part 2: PRACTICE

15 Mar, 17 | by rlloyd

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 15.55.21

In MMTM Part 1, two-step cognitive appraisals were explained. This process dictates whether one enters a challenged or threatened mindset in the event where an immediate performance is required under acute stress.

Feeling challenged, of course, is one of the two chief components of a mentally tough individual.

“I am 100% committed”

“I feel challenged”

In this post, we will explore principles which must be incorporated in one’s ‘practice‘ (i.e. training) regime, to increase a sense of confidence in one’s skillset. The confident individual will always be more likely to appraise a scenario as challenging as opposed to threatening.

Paradigm shift alert: When practicing, specific skill development must be prioritised over knowledge-base widening. This, of course, sharply contrasts with the traditional approach to medical training. New theoretical concepts seem less abstract and will always be absorbed more rapidly when they fit into the mental scaffolding built by focusing on skill development.

In an ideal world, all clinicians, across the spectrum of specific role and geographic location, would get regular high-fidelity simulation training sessions, supervised by master educators. Of course, this isn’t feasible in even the richest healthcare systems; and the reality is that all types of supervised training (other than weekly death-by-PowerPoint didactic teaching) become increasingly rare the more senior you become.

Therefore, one must take ownership over one’s own practice, and be relentless in the pursuit of ultimate confidence in one’s skillset. This will be achieved through immersiondeliberate practice, and visualisation.

Immersion

“Discipline equals freedom”

Jocko Willink, Navy SEAL Commander

My definition of professional ‘immersion’ is regular engagement with one’s craft outside of working hours. The abundance of free online medical education (FOAMed) resources makes this process exceptionally easy and enjoyable. With availability/access to excellent content no longer an issue (unlike the olden days where you had to sift through dusty textbooks, and YouTube hadn’t yet been invented), the only obstacle standing in the way of adequate immersion is having the discipline to allocate time to it.

Too often, clinicians assume they are advancing their expertise, and fine-tuning performance standards, purely by attending work – clocking in and clocking out, going through the motions on the shop floor, and then completely disengaging during free time. This is occupational autopilot. And it is dangerous.

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 20.33.35Occupational autopilot predisposes clinicians to flounder during a crisis, because the mind stiffens when seldom fed new information. For example, the disengaged anaesthetist who rarely ventures far from uncomplicated elective orthopaedics will be flummoxed by the surprise grade 4 intubation. Despite being entirely competent enough to weather the storm, he/she will fall easily into the clutches of the threat mindset and spectacularly fail the patient in that rare moment, largely because of their lack of engagement with the broader landscape of their chosen pursuit.

The ability to think laterally, employ techniques that might be ‘rusty’ or never performed before (e.g. surgical cricothyroidotomy), and trust one’s own clinical judgement, can only occur seamlessly if you have adequately immersed yourself in the educational resources and evolving narrative of your vocation.

Of course, immersion in specific resources to improve an isolated skill is crucial if weakness is identified (a principle of ‘deliberate practice’ – see below). But it’s the habitual (daily) general immersion, with no specific agenda, that is a key characteristic of the dedicated professional whose identity is embedded in his or her craft. Immersion isn’t a training methodology – it is a lifestyle decision. It ensures currency is maintained, and nurtures a fertile cognitive environment, mandatory for yielding the acrobatics and improvisation required during a crisis.

Deliberate Practice

“Skill is only developed by hours and hours of beating on your craft.”

Will Smith, actor

Deliberate practice describes a common set of principles which should form the framework of every training session [1].

Every time you practice, your sole mission is to improve. You should constantly be asking yourself the question: “How can I do this better?”.

A specific component of a chosen skill is isolated – one that you are poor at or can’t do – and then subjected to specific training exercises and repetitions (‘drilling’).

The core principles of deliberate practice:

  1. specific, measurable goal must be established for the session. Vague overall performance targets like ‘succeed’ or ‘get better’ mean nothing.
  2. Be maximally focused on improvement during practice. It must be intense and uninterrupted. Put your electronic device away.
  3. Receive immediate feedback on your performance. Without it, you won’t be able to figure out what you need to modify or how close you are to achieving your goal.
  4. Exit your comfort zone. Push yourself to the edge of what you are capable of. Don’t be afraid of failure – it signposts the path to progression.

IdScreen Shot 2017-03-14 at 20.35.09eally, a supervisor should be present to guide training, and give immediate feedback. When this isn’t available (which will be most of the time for the majority of clinicians), video footage of the skill being performed/taught is a decent substitute. You can compare your own repetitions to the video subject, and ‘self-police’ your training progress. The plethora of FOAMed video content makes this comfortably achievable.

Human nature dictates that we gravitate towards training skills that we are already proficient at, and neglect areas outside our comfort zone. Why? It’s much more satisfying to feel like you are ‘nailing’ something. DO NOT be enticed into that trap – the significant gains exist where there is most discomfort and least enjoyment. What is enjoyable, is the feeling that you are moving forward and advancing your overall proficiency.

Regular re-visiting of skills that have laid dormant for a while (either in practice or in the field) is essential for avoiding skill fade. This habitual ‘spaced repetition’ deeply embeds a skillset into our mental scaffolding, and makes it far more likely to be retrievable under acute, severe stress.

Here is a previous blog which covers deliberate practice in a little more detail.

Visualisation

“In my view, the answer is to use the highest fidelity simulator in the universe – the human brain”

Cliff Reid, Emergency Physician, Sydney HEMS

Despite it being our most powerful and adaptive weapon, we routinely fail to utilise our brain as a training gadget. When physically practicing, our minds are engaged, but (naturally) we conceptualise the process as being entirely external. Our conscious focus is largely zoned in on body positioning or equipment handling, making it easy to forget our brain is the anatomical structure in the driving seat.

tigerwoodsvisualization

Visualisation (or ‘mental practice’/’mental rehearsal’/’imagery’) is the process of consciously playing a mental ‘video’ of a task or scenario from the perspective of one’s own eyes. In other words, one thinks about doing something, step by step. Despite no physical engagement, one is activating the very same neural circuitry as when performing the skill for real, and if done effectively, it reinforces skill-related mental scaffolding, just like deliberate practice [2, 3]. It enhances clarity and speed of thought during the moment of truth.

Much like the concept of mental toughness itself, visualisation can get routinely dismissed as a vague, abstract, somewhat hippyish concept, with little scientific credibility. If that is your opinion, you are sorely mistaken and missing a huge opportunity. The evidence-base is abundant across a wide spectrum of human endeavour, with perhaps the most high profile examples found in the results-driven world of elite sport [4, 5, 6]. Desperate for the edge over equally motivated competition, you would be hard pushed to find an upper echelon-worthy individual or team not dedicating a considerable portion of their training schedule to mental practice. Put simply, it is considered pivotal to producing the goods by folk who earn their living making us say ‘WOW’. When the Federers, Mcilroys, and Bradys of this world consider it indispensable, then frontline healthcare, an equally performance-centric game, should be paying attention.

Vivid realism is crucial for the process to be effective. You need to feel it as well as see it. The PETLEPP mnemonic is a useful guide [7]:

Physical – What are you holding? What are you wearing? What are you smelling?
Environment – What are your surroundings? It is essential to imagine yourself in the environment where you will be performing (i.e. your usual workplace).
Type –Imagery must be specific to your role and responsibility.
Timing – Given the time critical nature of acute care, imagery must take place in ‘real time’.
Learning – Content should evolve with learning. The cognitions and feelings experienced will change as the individual improves.
Emotion – Imagine yourself acutely stressed, but in the challenge mindset. Total ‘calm’ is not realistic and, therefore, not useful.
Perspective – Feel and see from your own perspective (i.e through your own ‘eyes’).

The unique selling point of visualisation when compared to other practice modalities is its malleability. Using your imagination to conjure up potential curveballs and banana skins is a very effective method for finely sharpening routine skills and processes where there may be a tendency to get complacent. Play the ‘what if’ game:

“What if I had to perform an RSI on a 300kg patient with a receding chin? What extra precautions should I take?”

“What if whilst I was putting in a right IJV central line, the patient became hypotensive and the oxygen saturations dropped to 70%? What should my next steps be?”

“What if I was the trauma team leader for a penetrating chest trauma case and suddenly the patient lost output?”

It’s also a perfect strategy for shoring up one’s procedural routine for exceptionally rare events, such as the emergency thoracotomy or perimortem Caesarian section. Procedures like that would be uneconomical, and logistically impossible, to repetitively practice on mannikins/cadavers. Regular and structured mental practice is therefore a must for emergency providers who genuinely want to be able to tackle everything thrown at them. It is impossible to predict what is coming through the resus doors, but when you have seen it all in the simulation lab between your ears, you will be ready.

This technique isn’t limited to skills training; it can be applied on a broader, more personal level as well. It can galvanise the spirit, and ignite the passion for positively affecting the world through your job – a trait abundant in all of us deep down. Regularly visualise yourself returning home at the end of a shift, mission, or deployment with that beautiful sense of victory and euphoria that washes over when you know you’ve performed well. See yourself overcoming every obstacle thrown at you on duty, and always able to access clarity of thought, and the best of your ability, when it really counts.

Capture yourself in the career trajectory exactly as you have always dreamed it, regardless of how far away you currently feel. If you have the imagination to dream, and the courage to believe that your vision is possible, it will make you hungrier to strive for it. Every training session will be laced with boundless intent, and in time, your mental movie will become a reality.

Summary

Effective practice is about building confidence, so that when a performance is required, the challenge mindset is achieved.

Immersion in your craft safeguards against occupational autopilot, and fosters a healthy cognitive environment for high performance.

When training specifics, fully embracing the principles of deliberate practice is the only gateway to expert-level skills.

Visualisation, when maximally vivid and performed in a structured fashion, can prepare you for anything. Never underestimate the training-tool that is your mind.

Building mental toughness isn’t easy, but your patients deserve it. No-one will do it for you. Get after it.

References

  1. Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise. Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.
  2. Weisinger H, Pawliw-Fry JP. Performance Under Pressure. New York, NY: Crown Business.
  3. Mike Lauria. EHPR Part 5: Using Mental Practice and Visualization Exercises by Mike Lauria. EMCrit Blog. Published on February 21, 2017. Accessed on March 13th 2017. Available at [https://emcrit.org/blogpost/ehpr-part-5-using-mental-practice-visualization-exercises-mike-lauria/].
  4. Feltz DL, Landers The effects of mental practice on motor skill learning and performance: A meta- analysis. Journal of Sport Psychology. 1983;5(1):25-57.
  5. Mental Training for Peak Performance. Steven Ungerleider and Nick Bollettieri.
  6. Sports visualisation: how to imagine your way to success. Mark Bailey, The Telegraph.
  7. Holmes PS, Collins DJ. The PETTLEP Approach to Motor Imagery: A Functional Equivalence Model for Sport Psychologists. J Appl Sport Psychol. 2001; 13(1): 60-83.

‘My Mental Toughness Manifesto’ Part 1: Understanding Cognitive Appraisals

5 Mar, 17 | by rlloyd

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?Roger-Federer-of-Switzerl-007

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 [1]) 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.

Cognitive Appraisals

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) [4].

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.

Robert Lloyd
@PonderingEM

References

  1. 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/].
  2. 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.
  3. LeBlanc, V.R., The effects of acute stress on performance: implications for health professions education. Acad Med, 2009. 84(10 Suppl): p. S25-33.
  4. 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/].
  5. How stress affects your brain – Madhumita Murgia, TED Ed

*This post has also been published on the Pondering EM blog.

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