Fight or flight? How mental toughness can lead to better decision making under pressure

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Witnesses described a “nuclear mushroom cloud”. Snow and dust leapt skyward, thrown up by the large chunks of ice and rock that snapped off Mount Pumori, which rises from a valley opposite Mount Everest.
The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal on 25 April 2015, killing more than 8,000 people, triggered numerous avalanches in the Himalayas. At the time, Everest Base Camp was a temporary home to the hundreds of climbers, guides, Sherpa and other support crew for the 359 climbers who’d been granted permits to climb the world’s tallest peak that year.
With no chance of outrunning the avalanche as it thundered toward them, climbers sought refuge wherever they could find it: in their tents, behind rocks, and even curled up in a ball on the ground. When the avalanche ended the survivors emerged from what little shelter they could find to a scene of devastation. Tents were buried under ice, and equipment and bodies were strewn across the landscape.
In total, 22 climbers died and more than 60 were injured, making it the deadliest disaster in the history of climbing Mount Everest. Yet, moments after the immediate danger passed, and conscious that climbers were still stranded at camps higher up the mountain, there were those who set about organising a recovery effort.
The varied responses have given researchers deeper insights into the role of mental toughness in making critical decisions in extreme circumstances.
The idea of a mental edge – toughness, grit, determination ­– or that special something that separates elite athletes from the rest has captivated audiences and intrigued sports psychologists. Dr Swann, from UOW’s Early Start Research Institute says mental toughness has become a central topic in sport psychology.
Researchers generally agree that mental toughness involves the ability to maintain focus and make effective decisions under pressure and in the face of adversity.
Dr Swann, with his research partners Dr Lee Crust and Professor Jacqui Allen-Collinson from the University of Lincoln in the United Kingdom, looked to professional mountain climbers to explore the concept.
In the sport of mountaineering, mental toughness is not the bar for success, it’s the minimum price required to play the game. Exhaustion, dehydration, extreme low temperatures and lack of oxygen can cause hypothermia, frostbite and acute mountain sicknesses with symptoms such as severe brain swelling (cerebral oedema) and water in the lungs (pulmonary oedema).
You can view the full article in The Stand
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