“By living adventurously, we can reprogram ourselves to see challenges and opportunities rather than threats, because we repeatedly prove that we can rise to those challenges, overcome obstacles and emerge to the other side, triumphant.” – Belinda Kirk, The Adventure Revolution
I’m a self-proclaimed amateur adrenaline junkie, which means that I neither jump off very tall cliffs nor do I heli ski (mostly because I can’t afford it), but I do love getting my kitesurfing, surfing, rock climbing or you-name-it outdoorsy sport fix.
I never really questioned how these hobbies affect my life beyond the inevitable dent on my personal finances and worried frowns from my mum when I’d break or bruise something.
Turns out that I should have, because it is fascinating. There is a growing body of evidence showing that taking part in adventurous activities does actually make us more likely to see opportunities and challenges where other people see a threat. In short — it makes us resilient optimists. It helps us turn the fear into excitement, which is exactly the technique used by professional climbers to turn the fear of heights into fuel for better, more precise performance.
I deeply believe that resilience, which I define as the ability to bounce back after failure or stress, is one of the essential skills for success in the modern society. Naturally, being told that doing my favourite sports works in favour of my resilience levels was all I needed to dive right into this topic.
Putting aside the physiological changes to our brains that happen in response to adventure (which I will talk about another time), the transformation that happens within us stems from building up our confidence as a result of doing “scary things” and stepping into uncertainty more often. The “resilient optimism”, as I called it, is forged through repeatedly doing something that at some point, perhaps only for a second or two, felt impossible and like a “bad idea”. The key is to have felt like we couldn’t possibly do it. And then, in an often desperate and accompanied by a scream or an unattractive noise burst of effort, we pushed through and did it. It does not seem to matter whether the success was immediate. The important bit, which supercharges our mental health and resilience, is persevering despite feeling like the fight is lost, or is likely to be lost, and actually winning that fight. Again and again.
I think it is possible to have a similar experience in the gym, without going on an expedition or trying an extreme sport. I certainly had it when training for a half-marathon or working through a strict fitness regime. I dare say that the exhilaration of overcoming the impossible is why many ultra runners or extreme athletes do what they do.
However, there is something special about the outdoors, doing “the scary thing” in nature, while exposed to heat, cold and the unpredictability of the elements. In the gym, you only have your own limitations to overcome. In the outdoors, there are many factors outside of your control which might make your journey more difficult — or significantly easier. Becoming familiar with uncertainty and accepting it as something not nefarious, but normal, also seems to make us less prone to see something as a threat or a doomed scenario.
In a society where we avoid being exposed to dirt or scoring a bruised knee almost at all costs, I think it is essential to reflect on what this culture of over-protection and bubble-wrapping does to our mental health and the way we deal with stressors in daily life. The world is becoming increasingly unpredictable and our brains are not designed to take in as much information as they now habitually do.
If taking more adventurous hikes, surfing trips and trying new adventurous activities can actually make us not only happy in that particular moment, but happier in the long term and better equipped to handle whatever the world throws at us, it is definitely something worth thinking and talking about.
If you want to read more about this, I wholeheartedly recommend Belinda Kirk’s latest book: Adventure Revolution. It’s beautifully written and utterly fascinating.