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The Psychology of Physical Challenges

Updated: Jan 31

Why do we do the things we do?


Why do we challenge ourselves when we live in an era when we don’t need to?


There is something about taking on a big challenge, overcoming a physical barrier or achieving a goal that is mentally stimulating, nerve shredding and life enhancing. But what is it (if anything) that sets apart the people who seek extreme challenges, from the rest?


Some research indicates that extreme athletes share similar characteristics and that brain chemistry plays a significant role when it comes to risk-seeking behaviour. Studies suggest that extreme athletes often share a set of traits such as optimism, high energy, originality, high self-confidence and a tendency to want to control their own fate – traits familiar also with those who take on non physical challenges, such as entrepreneurs.


“The standard definition of a ‘sensation seeker’ is actually the pursuit of novel and intense experiences without regard for physical, social, legal or financial risk,” says Dr Melanie Schlatter, a health psychologist in Dubai. “People who do extreme sports are not all risk-takers nor are they impulsive, in fact, it has been proposed that they do it to obtain a sense of control. For example, when ascending a steep ice slope, individuals need to be absolutely fastidious with their equipment preparation before a big climb, they need to avoid risk as much as possible and they need to be calm in the face of danger or threat to survival.”


And there is a science to achieving goals.


When we get something we want, our brain releases dopamine, a chemical sometimes labelled the “feel good” neurotransmitter because it does just that. You can manipulate your dopamine levels by setting and achieving goals, small or large. Even something as trivial as completing some DIY [BTW: I personally don’t view completing any DIY task as something small …] will generate a high from dopamine, it’s why drugs that manipulate the dopamine process can be very addictive.


OK, so you’ve set yourself a goal, your dopamine is waiting to kick in, what could then potentially hold you back? Fear of the unknown? Of pushing yourself beyond what you believe you’re capable of doing?


For the super extreme sports, of measuring the difference between measured and reckless risk. For most people who take on these challenges, it’s a love of physical exertion and of achieving their own goals and targets. It could be small physical achievements, climbing a mountain or extreme stuff like base jumping. Different strokes for different folks, but driven by similar instincts and generating similar emotions and research by professors Eric Brymer and Lindsay Oades, published in 2008 in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, focused on extreme athletes and found that these people consider their experiences as personal transformations that have the potential to become permanent.


The Real Addiction … pushing your body to the next level.


But what each physical challenge has a tendency to unleash, is an addiction for more and to push that little step further an understanding of what we’re capable of. The body is a truly remarkable object. It has been designed to adapt, respond and grow through the progressive overload, the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training. It’s a technique recognised as a fundamental principle for success in various forms of strength training programs. The principle is that progressive overload stimulates not only muscle hypertrophy (the growth and increase in size of muscle cells) but also the development of stronger and denser bones, ligaments, tendons and cartilage. It also incrementally increases blood flow to exercised regions of the body and stimulates more responsive nerve connections between the brain and muscles involved.


The opposite of this is muscular atrophy, one of the consequences of a sedentary lifestyle. The adaptive processes of the human body will only respond if continually called upon to exert greater force to meet higher physiological demands.By challenging our body, we can watch and feel it becoming stronger and meeting each new step.


And it’s a principle that can be extended into other areas of your lives. Mental rewards are many when you rise to a challenge. Without challenge, without being pushed, without testing yourself, does the real emerge?


Here are some of the benefits of why meeting a challenge matters;


– It develops mental toughness

– Improves our mental resistance

– Inspires courage

– Tests limits you didn’t realise you had

– Creates intense focus

– Helps build self confidence

– Challenges some of your demons

– Creates freedom


Change is always in us …


A famous study first conducted in 1960, by psychologist Walter Mischel put some children (aged from 4 to 6 years old) alone in a room with a marshmallow. Before leaving the room, he’d tell them they could eat it now; or, if they waited a few minutes until he came back, they’d get two. The kids usually devoured the marshmallow immediately. Sometimes, however, Mischel told the children that one way to resist the marshmallow now and get two later is by pretending the marshmallow wasn’t there and by changing how he prepared them for the challenge, he dramatically changed their behavior: children could now wait 15 minutes without eating the marshmallow.


The finding of this study was perceived to be that personality traits are fixed from youth onward. That a child’s self-control could predict the success or failure of their subsequent career and relationships.


But latterly the reverse has been concluded, that Mischel’s study showed how success is defined by our environment. That what the marshmallow test really discovered, is how flexible people are — “how easily changed if they simply reinterpret the way they frame the situation around them.”


And the extension of this is that a simple shift in how you perceive challenges, can have a seismic effect on how you feel and what you do about it. When you first arrive at a job, you can be intimidated by many things – the buildings, hierarchy, expectations. How you perceive your place in that role (elements of visualisation) will make an enormous difference to your sense of place.

The same is true with elite athletes. Visualising what success looks like, feels like, smells like, enables them to climb their own metaphorical mountain. Talented and confident speakers (or at least those who we presume to be from their performance) will often shape the environment into which they walk and talk, by focusing in on someone in the audience they know and/or is giving them great feedback. They shape their own environment, within a potentially hazardous route.


When something feels too big, out of control or hard, it’s your mind telling you that. Often it’s nothing to do with the obstacle, it’s all to do with what your mind sees is the obstacle.


Go get it …


“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” … T S Eliot


Despite extensive studies, it is difficult to make broad assumptions about the characteristics of an “extreme” individual. But people (like Salmon) will keep pushing themselves against the tide and whether it’s goal setting, visualisation or the fear of failure … we all need some of a regular dose of those dopamine good vibes.



So … what’s your next adventure?

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