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In this podcast, Dr. Jon Finn discusses the Tougher Minds concept of Activation – that is the term that he has developed to better describe feelings including anxiety and related emotional states.
Dr. Finn started the podcast by explaining more about Activation and how Tougher Minds training uses the concept to benefit people. He also explains how the concept is used by the Rugby World Cup winning New Zealand All Blacks.

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Podcast transcript

Welcome to this Tougher Minds podcast, which looks in detail at one of the concepts within the Elite Business Athlete.

That’s the name of our Ebook, which is available for free on the Tougher Minds website. The elite business athlete explains how performance secrets from global sporting icons can be beneficial and transformative for everyone. The book provides an overview of key concepts that boost resilience, personal performance and wellbeing. In this podcast, Dr. Jon Finn, discusses the Tougher Minds concept of activation. That’s the term he’s developed to better describe feelings, including anxiety and other related emotional states. Jon Finn started the podcast by explaining more about activation and how Tougher Minds training uses the concept to benefit people.

We know that anxiety has an important impact on our health, our happiness, our performance. Increasingly, we understand the anxiety isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and anxiety is really a physiological, biological, a neurobiological response in your brain to something. It might be something that’s threatening to you. It might be something that I’m nervous about, but equally it might be something that is interesting to you or may be exciting to you. Really it’s a way of your body becoming alert. I’m getting ready to do something so we know that anxiety is important and it’s really, it’s really important to understand what it is, but when you use that language, it’s got such a negative connotation.

So in my own work, through the years working with different groups of people, I felt that we needed to different language and a different explanation of the very important process so that people could understand first of all what it was, but also how to manage it and how to manage it in different situations.

And that’s how activation evolved. And visually the, how activation looks is a dial from zero, zero all the way up to 100 and the numbers on that dial represent your body’s state of alertness. So if you’re zero on the scale, it means that your dead. And then if you get higher up the numbers on the scale, you becoming more alert until you get all the way around to the high numbers. At ninety you might be really pumped up. You might be anxious, you might be nervous, there might be excitement there as well. So it is simply sentence. Activation is a reflection of your state of alertness at any one point in time. And that varies throughout the day. And obviously when you go to sleep, your alertness, is very, very low. When you go for a run, your alertness might increase. So we’re always in a sense at a number on the scale, but it’s not always the optimal number for the thing that we’re trying to achieve.

And am I right in thinking that you work with people to show them not only this understanding and this insight of the fluctuation in emotional state and state of alertness, but how they can understand that better so it can benefit them. And indeed, how they can control it.

Sure. So we’re always working on the continuum from the knowledge about some things, but then to the school and ultimately to the habit. So we want people to understand this, but also to regulate it as well. So having some skills to manage that and just get in the habit of achieving optimal activation as often as possible.

Now in the elite business athletes, a specific chapter of the book is devoted solely to activation and specifically to one very well known international sports team that doesn’t explicitly refer to activation because as we’ve said, it’s a Tougher Minds’ concept, but something that shows a very, very similar understanding and insight. And this team is the New Zealand All Blacks. And of course back to back winners of Rugby World Cups, which was a first in the world of rugby union, fantastic; plus a litany of success. And, they are symbolic of excellence in performance. Just to explain to us Jon the way the All Blacks approach this, this particular phenomenon?

Well, first some history of the All Blacks. They’ve always been very high performing. They seem to find World Cups problematic so they did a review of their training programme and some of the things that you know, they practice and they recognised that the mental aspect of the game, was something they want to focus on, as well as their fitness or the technical tactical skills. So they decided to pay much more attention to the mental side of the game. This led to a focus on different mental skills. One of the mental skills that they paid attention to was being able to make sure that they were, as we would call it, activated enough to perform their roles on the field.

So to make tackles, to catch the ball under pressure, when they needed to, to make decisions well when they needed to, but also make sure that there were activated so that they were not giving away, you know, silly free kicks or making an incorrect decisions or making basic errors because the arousal levels were too high and they now refer to this as a blue head or a red head. So that when they recognise they’re in a red head state, they’re too high on their motivation scale and they have strategies to bring them back down to the blue head states and when they recognise that they’re in the maybe in the blue head state and the need to push themselves a bit more into the right head state, they’ve got some strategies to push themselves upwards as well.

So that, that understanding of which state or where you need to be to execute certain tasks which are critical to performance in the best way possible. That understanding is something they’ve harnessed and used. And, and that’s something you also work with people to help them to develop. I understand.

But you say, well, how do you transfer that into the office?

Well there are lots of different components to it. It’s going to be very hard to find the kind of attention you need, to do your job really well. So it’s an activation problem. If you’re stressed out at work, a lot of things going on when you’re go home at night, you’re not being able to sleep class and you might have an activation problem.

So you need to recognize first of all, what optimal activation levels you need to achieve throughout the day at least. It is a 24 hour thing. It’s not just special times of the day you need to pay attention to. It influences everything from sleep all the way from, you know, not getting annoyed at your employee or your boss and you know, becoming too stressed out. It’s a bit different at various points and you need to get good at gauging yourself. The regular building, the habit, it’s the same for our school and education clients have you seen in the classroom when you’re not at the right activation level, you can’t learn anything because you don’t have the right kind of neurotransmitters. We need to be able to get our prefrontal cortex to be paying attention, the new information that you need to pay attention to in order to learn.

So in the same way that perhaps, um, if a rugby player was, was snarling and spitting in the dressing room and wanting to absolutely cream, the opposition with some brutal tactics thats counterproductive for them because they might be penalized and sent off perhaps. And if somebody came into a work context, perhaps cross about something or angry about something that happened interpersonally that’s, that’s equally as counterproductive and for the same reasons.

Because in the workplace situation, it shuts down your clever brain, your Prefrontal Cortex, because. It just gets overwhelmed with the negative emotions. So you can’t think clearly. It’s quite clear. Everyone knows when they’ve had a bad day. It takes time to recover. Research shows that it takes three days to recover back to normal cognitive function if you’ve had a bad day at work, so we can get overwhelmed very easily by, um, unhelpful emotions. So, that will be represented by being too activated on the scale. The trouble with monitoring our thoughts is that cognition is not very visible, they’re not real. So our work starts out with us trying to help people to understand these invisible concepts, first of all, which is why we have this core set of language and symbols that we use.

There is plenty more for anyone who wants to find out more about activation in the free Ebook, the Elite Business Athlete, which you can download from our website. So do check that out. As I say, there is a specific chapter in the book about activation, but I understand there’s a couple of things you would advise people to do in terms of activation. And the first one would be to have a think about perhaps monitoring it and identifying what your best activation level would be for, for certain tasks or certain key times in the day. And then what your usual activation level is.

We always begin by asking well where does my activation needs to be upto? For example, when I go to sleep, for example, to have a productive afternoon, for example, when I get annoyed at someone. And then currently where is my activation? And is there a mismatch between the two? The two of those areas might be fine or you might need to work on them. So yes, if we’re going to change ourselves, self watching it is the key thing. Cognitive behavioral therapists call it metacognition, thinking about what you’re thinking about.

And then the other, the other thing, and I say more on this, in the Elite Business Athlete Ebook and also, um, people can check out the Tougher Minds website more generally. There are lots of videos on there in the, in the blog section. And some of the specific sections which will help you understand this and a broad range of concepts that Tougher Minds use, but I also understand he would say that certain breathing techniques could be immediately helpful to people, in terms of controlling and managing their activation. A lot more training is needed to really maximize it clearly. But nevertheless, it’s something worth understanding.

There were two broad ways that we can influence activation. The short term one is a controlled breathing. Breathing is the body’s trigger to excite certain neurotransmitters, or to reduce them. So when we start to breathe faster the body recognises that’s probably for a reason or sometimes when we have a threat, our body increases our breathing in order to excite the brain to get ready for action. The kind of fight or flight idea that people are familiar with is very central and controlling of breathing. You know, most of the time for people, breathing is just a completely subconscious process, but if we make breathing a conscious process, for example, purposely slowing our breathing down or speeding it up, by moving around and exercising, that can stimulate activation by increasing it or reducing it and you know, you can, you can teach people strategies around that. In the new fangled way of doing that is called mindfulness, but that’s been around for quite a long time. And in psychology’s it is progressive muscular relaxation, which is what was what, what mindfulness is. It’s just learning how to manage yourself and be aware of your breathing.

And the second part of controlling activation is getting your sleep, your diet, your exercise right?

We increasingly recognize the restorative effects of sleep, I think there was some diagnostic research where if you have, um, you know, 20 minutes, maybe a 15 or 20 minute nap, you get three hour benefit of that in terms of cognitive performance.

So again using strategic naps is powerful. We know that we can eat certain foods which almost crush our body, if you like. We call these high glycemic index foods so that the sugar spikes very quickly in our body after a unit and it really causes an energy crash where we, we feel high, we crash again, so we need to make sure that we’re consuming the right kinds of foods. And then thirdly, you know, exercise is a great activity to, we can generate very clever neurotransmitters in our brain when we’re moving around.

Things like BDNF. For me, things like noradrenaline, these neurotransmitters is a brain proteins essential for cognitive function and being able to concentrate on the things that we need to concentrate on. And in this sort of world which is full of distractions when we’re sitting at our desks and we’re trying to have good downtime is really important to have the ability to control your concentration. Otherwise, you just end up paying attention to what you’re at. The brain finds certain things most stimulating. These are new facets of interesting information, which might not always be a description of the thing that you need to pay attention to, you know, to get your work done. So you controlling breathing is one way to manage activation, but really if you’re going to get it right, you need to get your sleep, your diet, your exercise really nailed down.

I suppose as you always say as you, as you say, many times, lifestyle, a broader lifestyle is the key to that. Jon, just one final quick one before we conclude this podcast and it’s worth pointing out perhaps that the All Blacks didn’t just decide suddenly to make this change and it happened. They had to go through, as I understand it, and again from the accounts that are publicly available, a fairly robust process of, of training to really cement this new understanding and this, this new process into that performance.

Yes, it’s a mental six-pack. You don’t get a six pack by going to the gym or doing a few few sit ups. You’ve got to work, you’ve got to practice it, practice it, practice it really well, and it takes time. I think the understanding would be it takes about 20 hours to learn a new skill to a decent level, so you know, 20 hours is managing, then control, for example, in the context where you need to control it, it’s going to take a lot of time. So no personal changes are easy, but it’s hugely achievable and if you want to maximize your health, happiness and performance, something that you have to accept, is that there’s no quick fix. You’ve got to put the work in, put the practice in because for all the things that you’re not happy about in your life or for all the bits of your performance aren’t going right.

You put in tons of practice into that. Lots and lots into being happy, or unhappy by beating yourself up and eating the wrong food or getting sleep wrong or not getting your exercise right. So, you know, we’re always practicing our habits. Often we’re just reinforcing the unhelpful. So we have to recognize that to get healthful habits established, it does take time and persistence, but you could, you know you can do it if you want to do it and you everyone is capable of changing themselves.

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