The professor who gives sports stars a mental edge is now offering to up your game
We all need an overhaul now and again, to address the state of the hair and nails, the diet, the exercise regimen. What few of us factor in is time to take stock of how our brains are coping with the onslaught of daily life.
Britons are not averse to seeking psychological help — it is estimated one in five has seen a counsellor or psychotherapist — but often only do so when things reach crisis point. Other than that, most of us muddle along with our stresses and anxieties, hoping that they will just go away. What, though, if we could pre-empt any problems? Enter the latest lifestyle assessment to add to an ever-growing list, a mind MoT designed to keep you emotionally and mentally on an even keel.
Devised by Professor Steve Peters, the self-styled “mind mechanic” whose bestselling manual The Chimp Paradox sold 200,000 copies, the Psych Check involves a two-hour consultation to help you to iron out niggles and irritations well before they require you to take a course in anger management.
“One of the recognised factors of successful people is being reflective,” says Peters. “Time spent considering how we are functioning can be instrumental in removing unhelpful behaviours or beliefs.”
He should know. A psychiatrist who has been tasked with helping England’s footballers prepare for important tournaments for the past few years, Peters shot to prominence after guiding the cyclists of Team Sky and the British Olympic team, including the gold medallists Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton.
Since then he has worked with footballers such as Raheem Sterling and Steven Gerrard, and the five-times world snooker champion Ronnie O’Sullivan. He went to the Rio Olympics this summer to advise some members of Team GB. He clearly understands the finer workings of a successful mind and, for £195, his company, Chimp Management, offers the psychological equivalent of a Kwik Fit repair service for your grey matter based on the methods he has used with his clients.
Consultations are carried out by Peters’s team of psychologists, most of whom have worked with famous clients, and can be conducted face-to-face in the Chimp Management clinics in Sheffield and London or via Skype. In trials, the approach has proved hugely popular with actors and actresses prone to stage anxiety, sports people who struggle with pre-event nerves or low moods when injured, and for those in the corporate world who are on the fast track to burnout. However, Peters says his method can work for anyone. “It’s a structured way of reflecting across all areas of your life,” he says. “And it can cover any area of a professional or personal life.”
Being reflective is a recognised factor of successful people
I’m sitting on a hard-backed sofa in the light-flooded office of Dr Anna Waters, the psychologist charged with checking out my state of mind. She tells me that they have been inundated with bookings from people who want to try it. “The idea was to create an opportunity for people to stop, sit down and really think about their lives for a couple of hours,” she says. “It’s not often any of us gets to do that and the difference a better awareness of our own psychological wellbeing can make to our lives is profound.”
According to Peters’s acclaimed theories, the challenge for all of us, whether we are gunning for Olympic glory or just aiming to get through another week at work, is to learn how to manage our inner “chimp”, the name coined by him for the part of our brain that operates on its gut instinct, sometimes irrationally.
“It’s situated in the limbic system, the most primitive and least evolved part of the brain,” Waters explains. “All information is directed there initially and, since its job is to provide security and to look after you, it can tell you to feel nervous, stressed or afraid, to run away from something.”
The paradox is that while we need this “chimp” factor for survival, we also need to temper it to avoid mayhem and emotional catastrophe in our lives. That’s where the more rational, evidence-based parts of the brain — the bits that make you human — come in. “Your chimp has its own agenda and you will struggle internally unless you learn to deal with it,” Waters adds. “You need to use the front part of the brain, which is associated with values and decisions, as well as what we call your brain’s computer, where previous experiences, beliefs and autopilot programmes are stored.”
Using an eight-section questionnaire conducted on a screen, Waters proceeds to probe my psyche to see where the most work is required. The Chimp check-up looks at various areas of mental wellbeing, examining how well you think you understand family, friends and colleagues as well as yourself, how effectively you think you communicate and maintain your health, as well as scoring your success and happiness.
I had breezed in thinking that, compared with some stages of my life, I have minimal issues, but still found it an exhausting trawl. How easily do I get over things and move on? Very. Am I good at getting the best out of other people? Some people, sometimes. Do I take sufficient rest each day? Probably not.
It’s not just a case of answering questions as they pop up. Waters probes more deeply at the slightest hint of a weak spot. I discovered how a psychologist can tease out your innermost frustrations, forcing you to face up to some of your failings. With age I am becoming curmudgeonly, generally less tolerant of people and things, and slightly cynical (even, it must be said, of services such as this one). My work-life balance still sometimes swings too heavily the wrong way. I sit down in the evenings, but, to the irritation of those around me, never actually sit still.
Within 48 hours, a big wad of a personal report arrives in my inbox, outlining my “areas for development”, which are more considerable than I’d thought. I score well on health and happiness, but some aspects of my “real world” and “developing self” need a bit of work. Without dwelling on the details — dull unless they’re your own — they include spending more time (at least five minutes a day) on personal reflection and, less predictably, creating an armoury of stock phrases and cues that I can use “to help gain perspective on a situation” I find frustrating.
The challenge is to learn how to manage your inner ‘chimp’
So, when I feel my hackles rise, Waters suggests I think things such as “not everyone sees my values”, “it’s their choice not to put in effort” or “is it OK to get annoyed by this?”. It’s insightful, but also, unexpectedly, rather useful. I can see myself implementing some of the practical advice just because it’s so pertinent to the worst aspects of my behaviour. Had I read the advice in a self-help book, it would not have resonated in the same way as seeing any shortfalls outlined in black and white on my screen.
What the Psych Check doesn’t promise is an instant cure for specific psychological issues, just a better understanding of how to deal with and, ultimately, avoid them. Often, the check-up itself is enough to prevent people careering emotionally off course.
If not, there are add-on packages of two to six mentoring sessions that should do the trick. It can be repeated as and when you need it, says Peters, “so you re-do the Psych Check to measure improvements and progress”. The idea is that you book a check-up as you might an annual spa trip, or as regularly as you need to prevent slipping back into bad habits.
“We think of the brain as if it were a machine,” says Waters. “Our job is to help clients to realise how they can readjust its settings to get the outcome they want. We can all change for the better.”
Five steps for self-maintenance
1 Have stock phrases ready. If negative thoughts, frustration or irritation enter your head, be ready to tackle them positively by silently repeating your chosen words. If a nagging voice is talking you out of going to the gym, remind yourself: “I will feel better after it.” If you are riled by a family member or colleague, prevent yourself from blowing a fuse by taking a deep breath and asking: “Are they really worth getting annoyed about?”
2 Reward yourself. Once you start to avoid stressful situations or deal with them better, acknowledge your progress. Treat yourself to a facial or something you really enjoy.
3 Don’t beat yourself up at night with negative thoughts. Learn from experience that what’s worrying you between 10pm and 6am almost certainly won’t seem as bad when you get up.
4 Put everything into perspective — pressure often comes from a lack of it. Don’t set goals that are too far removed from where you are. If you want to be MD of your company, you need to progress step by step, not leap there in a single attempt. Equally, put small actions into perspective. Will it really help to fire off that critical email before taking a step back and thinking about the ramifications? Ask what you will gain from it then distract yourself by doing something else.
5 Recognise that everyone is different. Sounds simple, but a lot of stress arises because we get frustrated when others don’t share or understand our goals. What’s important to you in terms of success can be irrelevant to someone else. Learning to accept that and deal with it can often eliminate rising anxiety.