We are all frequently exposed to many different tricks, quick fixes, and hacks that are promoted as helping to develop health and wellbeing. These hacks are typically characterized by being quick fixes that don’t require, and are not based upon, a detailed understanding of the applicable science or deliberate practice to gain proficiency in the skills upon which the quick fix is based. While these tricks and hacks may be based upon the correct skills in certain scenarios, there is frequently an incomplete understanding both of the applicable situations in which the skill applies as well as a lack of intentional development of the skill itself. As a result, though there can frequently be a benefit to use of these tips or tricks in certain situations, this is temporary and when the situation changes or greater proficiency is required, the benefit is lost.
In contrast, when skills and strategies are based upon a detailed understanding of the applicable science and then deliberate practice is utilized to develop proficiency in the skills across a wide range of situations, there is a more durable benefit. The comprehensive understanding of the underlying science and the pertinent skills allows for the ability to better respond under novel and higher demand circumstances as well as deduce recommendations and strategies to manage previously unencountered situations. This greater understanding also provides a better framework from which to incorporate new and emerging evidence and skills.
In order to illustrate the difference between quick fixes and hacks and the deeper understanding of the science, a few examples may be useful. Breathing provides a good framework for describing these differences. There are many popular breathing patterns which are frequently discussed. These include box breathing, in which there is the same duration of inhalation as exhalation with pauses between inbreaths and outbreaths, and prolonged exhalation patterns.
There are applicable and adaptive situations for each of these two commonly encountered patterns, however when quick fixes are employed the specifics are frequently omitted. This can lead to employing the wrong pattern for the wrong situation, which can lead to undesired effects. For example, if one is anxious and trying to increase ventral vagal stability, utilization of a box breath pattern will likely not be helpful. Due to the symmetric pattern of the duration of inhalation and exhalation, this pattern is better suited to maintaining the current physiological state than increasing ventral vagal tone.
Another example is use of a prolonged exhalation, relative to inhalation, breathing pattern. In the world of quick fixes, this pattern is recommended when we are feeling distress and want to use breathing to ground our state and ‘reduce stress’. Perhaps the most common scenario in which we feel distress is in a sympathetic state. In this situation, this breathing pattern will be effective by increasing ventral vagal stability, thereby providing cues of safety and connection and the resulting desired grounded state. If, however, we are feeling distress but are in a dorsal vagal state, this breathing pattern will most likely not be effective. The reason for this is that in order to exit a dorsal vagal state, it is necessary to increase the energy in our system. The prolonged exhalation breathing pattern does not mobilize our energy, rather it provides the opposite effect. For this reason, use of prolonged exhalation while in a dorsal vagal state may, in fact, cause deepening of the dorsal vagal state.
A third example of how quick fixes and hacks are not effective can be seen in situations in which we are trying to provide regulation for ourself or others, but we are not feeling safe and connected in that moment. If we try to provide cues of safety and connection when we don’t genuinely feel safe, attempts to change the prosody of our voice, and adjust our muscle tone and posture will not provide the desired effect unless we are able to truly feel safe. In essence, we can’t ‘fake’ our sense of safety and connection. If we try to do so, it will not be genuine cues that are provided to our own nervous system as well as to that of others. The resulting dissonance may, in fact, provide cues of risk and threat. In order to provide genuine and authentic cues of safety and connection, we must truly feel safe and connected in our own bodies. This may require, at times, that we utilize all the skills and strategies at our disposal to find safety and connection in even the most basic and fundamental ways so that we can then build further cues of safety and connection.
Through a deep understanding of the applicable science, we are able to better understand not only our own biology, physiology, and psychology and develop skills and strategies to leverage this knowledge, but also adapt to novel situations in a genuine and authentic fashion that is more likely to be successful. If we rely on quick fixes, tips, and hacks then we may achieve some meausure of success in a limited number of situations, however when we encounter higher stakes or new scenarios, we will not be equipped to understand how to continue to apply our skills and strategies in a fashion that supports and leverages our biology. In essence, the durability, sustainability, and effectiveness of our skills and strategies is determined by the extent of our understanding of the applicable knowledge base combined with deliberate practice of the pertinent skills and strategies.
The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete integrates this paradigm of developing skills and strategies through deliberate practice based upon an understanding of the applicable science. Through this perspective, we are able to pursue health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance in an authentic and genuine fashion. We are also able to better adapt to new circumstances and high stakes scenarios.