Matter over mind

by | Jan 30, 2024 | Leadership

Last year, I took up mountain biking. My favourite destination, a coffee and a firepit in nearby woodland, involves a relentless climb.

However, I now have a technique for the last, really steep bit to prevent me giving up on myself. A little while back I was listening to Elizabeth Day interviewing adventurer Ranulph Fiennes on her How to fail podcast.

He said that what kept him going when he was battling through an arctic wilderness was imagining his late father and grandfather by his side, feeling that they were all in it together.

Mind over matter

This inspired me to create my own mind hack as I struggle up that last bit of hill. I imagine Ranulph traipsing through a blizzard, days from civilisation let alone a barista coffee, and it spurs me on to push on through a challenge that is peanuts by comparison.

Mind over matter is a powerful tool to overcome physical challenges. Indeed, our mind actually can fool us into believing we’re exhausted well before we’ve run out of gas, an evolutionary hangover to help us conserve energy.

Matter over mind

However, when we’re not facing a physical challenge but struggling with stress and a racing mind, it’s actually matter over mind that’s going to help us, not mind over matter.

When we’re consumed by a spiral of negative thoughts, we can become so “in our head” that we lose touch with what’s going on from the neck down.

It makes me think of a favourite childhood book of mine called The Magic Faraway Tree. It’s about a group of children who visit fantasy lands in clouds which briefly rest at the top of a magical tree. If they miss the right moment, they end up stuck in one of these strange lands and can’t get back down to the tree.

I think that’s what it can be like when we’re lost in thoughts. It can be difficult to get out of our heads (the lands in the clouds) and back to our bodies (the tree).

Get out of your head

In the moment, we believe that our thoughts are important and trustworthy and that we need to deal with them.

Yet a racing mind is a symptom of us being in our fight/flight response. It means that our body-brain thinks there’s a threat so it’s preparing for action by, amongst other things, raising our heart rate and our blood pressure and speeding up our breathing.

The thing is that, to paraphrase neuroscientist Dr Alan Watkins, the best way to change what we’re thinking is to change how we feel. And how we feel is the outcome of our physiological state, whether that’s calm or agitated.

Just the other day, one of my coaching clients – let’s call her Bryony – arrived at our session apparently very agitated, talking quickly as she tried to convey the morass of conflicting thoughts and worries in relation to a big decision she was battling with.

Bryony was so caught up in anxious thoughts that she hadn’t noticed she’d lost control of her body. We helped her to pause, to slow and deepen her breathing, to release tension with each exhale, to feel her feet on the ground. In a short space of time, she felt grounded again and was able to zone into what felt the right decision for her.

Importantly, that morass of thoughts and worries lost their power as she regulated her nervous system through breathing and tension release.

Movers and shakers

If you’re a regular reader of my blogs, you’ll know that I bang on about breathing, but this is the easiest, quickest way for us to impact our physiological state. In fact, it’s the only direct way we can influence our physiology, whether that’s to calm down or rev up.

However, if you’re feeling really agitated, movement may be your best bet. If you’re stressed and sedentary, the cortisol that builds up in your body to deal with perceived threats has nowhere to go. Our ancestors would have run or fought it out of their system, but we just sit there!

A run or brisk walk is great if you can, but if you can’t get away from your desk, I recommend shaking off the stress. Just stand up, bounce up and down on your knees, go floppy and just shake it out.

I’ve recently discovered this and find it a great way to release stress and change the way I’m feeling and thinking. Put on some upbeat music to help you and, obviously, find a private space if you’re working with others.

It also helps stop you making a knee jerk reaction you might later regret – for example, replying to an email that has got your back up.

The body is the back door of your mind

I found this quote, “the body is the back door of your mind”, in a magazine article a while back. I’m not sure of the original source, but I think it’s a great metaphor.

When we go in the “front door”, determined to stop worrying but getting nowhere, we need to remember there’s another entrance – the body – which is fundamental to feeling better, thinking better and leading better.

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Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps senior managers and directors lead with confidence and step-change their influence and impact. She works with them 1-1, empowering them to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.

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