Pacific Ocean Row prep: Visualisation
Have you ever had one of those vivid dreams where your partner cheats on you or your best friend humiliates you in public, something really intense, and you wake up unable to shake off your anger or irritation at them? You spend your entire breakfast glaring at them, silently brooding over ‘the incident’. You know they didn’t actually do the thing, it’s just that it felt so real. That’s the power of visualisation. The power of ideas or events your brain magics up that don’t exist yet still get a powerful emotional response from you. It can be a self-destructive force, or you can learn how to use it as your greatest ally and tool. With the biggest expedition of my life coming up – a 6-9 month solo Pacific Ocean row – it’s never been more important for me to get to grips with my mental fitness. No-one will be there to pep talk me or take over the oars when I’m feeling down, so my default frame-of-mind must be robust, positive and calm even in the face of extreme exhaustion.
The other day I came across something Tony Robbins said; “Whatever you hold in your mind on a consistent basis is exactly what you will experience in your life”. I agree wholeheartedly with this. Visualisation has been one of the most important aspects of my expeditions to master, as it helps me gain perspective, keep momentum and push well beyond my perceived limits. It’s also been my go-to tool in life in general to help me get ‘unstuck’ when things get overwhelming and I freeze up.
Every now and again I catch myself out with ridiculously negative and unhelpful internal dialogue. It’s so important to recognise that and stop it in it’s tracks. For me, unchecked frustration or nerves can kick off a pretty comic internal drama where I rant to myself about all the things that are going wrong, imagine all the ways it could f*ck up, and generally freak myself out without even realising that I’ve been going on at it for nearly an hour, lost in thought. Our minds are like a muscle, and need training just as our bodies do to get stronger. I have learnt not to get complacent with letting negative or unproductive internal dialogue run riot, and to recognise it the second it starts, immediately interrupting it with something positive. Sometimes that’s a cycle or a walk with my man, sometimes it’s writing a list of things that are going right in my life, sometimes a rumble with my insane huskies and sometimes all it takes is forcing myself to crack a huge smile for 30 seconds (it’s extraordinary how changing your body language changes your mind – watch social psychologist Amy Cuddy explain how and why in this brilliant Ted talk).
The first time I realised visualisation was a powerful thing was on my solo cycle across the USA a few years back. The first night of the expedition was spent camping in a small grove of trees beside a busy motorway. It was coming into winter, the ground heavily blanketed in fallen leaves. Every creature that moved would crunch their way through dead leaves making one hell of a racket. My brain went wild imagining all kinds of daft scenarios from being robbed by drunken strangers to being trampled by deer. My brain had no references except for all the horror movies I’d watched where things always ended badly for the lone person in the woods at night. Needless to say I didn’t sleep a wink. Fast-forward to night two and, with my brand new reference of things panning out just fine the night before, I promptly fell in love with camping solo in wilderness. I swiftly fell in love the feeling of being tucked away in the wilderness, immersed in the sounds of bustling nocturnal creatures as they go about their business.
I realised as the expedition went on that I could not only fast-track getting over my fears and insecurities, but prevent them in the first place through positive visualisation. I imagined myself feeling elated while cycling through torrential rain, bitter cold and headwinds, thought about laughing at the comedy of getting puncture after puncture, and rehearsed what I would do in any tricky situations with people dodgy people. I did this over and over, till it became my default thought or reaction. I forged new neural highways and habits simply by repeatedly thinking about a positive scenario, or a positive reaction I would have to a problem.
Studies have shown that our brain struggles to tell the difference between a real event and one imagined so vividy it feels real. Our bodies respond to both real and imagined events in much the same way, increasing heart rate and stress levels if those events are negative. That’s why endurance athletes and olympic athletes spend so much time visualising and mentally rehearsing their winning run, swim, cycle, throw or jump. They know all too well that they can make or break the performance of their lives simply because of their thought pattern. We are masters at creating highly emotional responses within ourselves off the back of our thoughts alone. So make sure they are the right ones!
As I draw closer to my solo Pacific Ocean row, which will see me alone at sea for 6-9 months, this is a huge part of my training and preparation. I’m still learning as I go, but this has helped me unlock so much of my personal potential, and has been one of the greatest catalysts in me having the courage to live out my dream of being an explorer and endurance adventurer.
I’d love to know what has helped you make the biggest positive changes in your life – let me know in the comments below!