While the pandemic changed lives in ways that most had never experienced before, Fiann Paul was better prepared. The Icelander is no stranger to constant companionship, stress, frustration and discomfort. Over six record-setting expeditions, Paul has spent more than 160 days in the confines of a row boat with several other tired, hungry and cranky colleagues.
The story of his most recent effort, where he led a 600-mile row across the Drake Passage between South America and Antarctica in 2019, is documented in The Impossible Row, a documentary now streaming on Discovery+.
Those experiences alone would qualify him as an expert on how to cope with the continuing mental challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Paul is also a psychoanalyst. He defended his thesis at the Carl Jung Institute in Zurich earlier this month.
The combination of accolades and lived experience makes the holder of 33 Guinness World Records uniquely positioned to help the rest of us emerge from these hard times mentally stronger than before.
MEN’S JOURNAL: How has the pandemic and lockdown been for you?
FIANN PAUL: It has not been very easy. Sometimes when I’m giving a lecture I ask a question: ‘Who do you think would win in a fight between a tiger and a shark?’ The answer is: It depends where. The one in its native environment will win. For explorers, difficulty is the native environment and therefore it is very difficult to outperform them in difficult conditions. In contrast, daily life and leisure are often hardships for us.
For me, what was especially challenging was working out at home. When sport is your profession, working out is not fun. You’re always pushing really hard. That’s why I never listen to the music I really like when I work out, lest I taint it with an association with discomfort. Working out at home has a similar effect on the way I perceive my home. Serious regime-based sweating at home is just not fun.
How would Jung have advised us to do to cope with the pandemic and lockdowns?
On the most general level, Jung would say that difficulties are necessary for development. I think that the lockdown is an opportunity for many of us, especially career-focused Western men, to finally slow down. It is an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and feel a bit more. It is also a good opportunity to take the time to contemplate one’s direction and the quality of one’s path in life, instead of walking it mindlessly. Jung would most likely also encourage creativity such as writing or artwork.
What do you do?
My experience working as a therapist has made me conclude that there are three main factors preventing depression, which I both cultivate in myself and encourage others to cultivate: 60 percent physical activity, including regular sleep and healthy food; 30 percent contact with nature; 10 percent friendships. All these factors are severely limited during the lockdown.
But what we also know is that in the world of enterprise, necessity, rather than funding, generates the most useful inventions. Our minds work similarly. A state of complete comfort actually isn’t optimal.
So we should be glad for this hardship because it will make us stronger? Unpack that for us.
Like muscles growing from weightlifting, minds reach their potential when exposed to some level of frustration. Without enough weight, our muscles won’t grow and too much weight will injure us. An optimally frustrated, and thus well trained, mind develops resilience as a core quality. Such resilience is a vital attribute.
Psychologists call this ‘optimal frustration.’ It is defined as a frustrating experience that stimulates the development of the maximal potential of an individual. Each of us is psychologically characterized by a certain optimal threshold of frustration which, once addressed, stimulates the maximum potential of personality to be developed.
How do you find the optimal amount of frustration and where should we look for it?
Every obstacle in life is a frustrating experience. The first sign of exceeding the optimal level of frustration is a significant increase in irritability. But frustration as an experience isn’t only measured on one axis. We have many aspects that relate to the surrounding world, and each has its own criteria. When it comes to one’s career, we may look at the continuum of stress as being a barometer, but a lack of meaning or fulfillment can be just as frustrating. One might operate well at high levels of stress, but still feel complete lack of fulfillment in what we are doing. It is important to make sure that neither threshold of frustration is exceeded.
What’s the most optimally frustrated you’ve been?
Some of the best weightlifting for my mind has been my rowing expeditions. On these expeditions, while in the cabin, I’m usually in a cramped, cold, wet, dark space. During a storm you’re often sharing it with someone, while waves the size of buildings buffet the boat. It literally feels like a collision with a truck. This is all without the usual comforts of sufficient sleep, food, and hygiene, and often while injured. Humidity, which remains at 100 percent on polar oceans, puts the highest toll on one’s mental state. Your sleeping bag feels as if a bucket of water was just poured on it, without exaggeration.
During such expeditions I felt for the first time what it means to struggle with keeping hope. Such intense deprivation of all these basic comforts makes a month ahead of you feel like an eternity. The intense pressure makes hoping for things in the future incomprehensible.
What would often make me hold on was knowing that it could be worse. The levels of comfort that we are used to are not enjoyed by the vast majority of the world. When I feel hopeless on expeditions, I always remind myself how people endure similar or worse deprivations of comfort in their daily lives, sometimes every day, yet manage to remain impressively joyful.
What else helps you push through the tough times?
Mature psychological defenses, like humor, as opposed to immature defenses, such as acting out or blaming. Humanity has done very well laughing at our own helplessness and this is a very healthy treatment for our psyche. For example, I pranked the building where I live by posting an elaborate announcement ostensibly from the building committee, written in scientific jargon, stating: “due to ongoing research on the benefits of cold exposure, warm water will be disconnected this winter. The research however is free of charge.”
What advice do you have for getting along with other people—whether it’s your partner or your expedition mate—in confined spaces and stressful experiences?
I only look for crazy people as rowing team mates [laughing]. During the expedition I focus on the goal and try to suppress the feeling of discomfort. When it comes to living in an apartment with another person, some difficulty is to be expected; relationships don’t flourish when neither partner has enough space to themselves.
For us, living in developed countries, it is also a new and difficult experience when our capacity to control our surroundings is significantly reduced. We know that divorce rate is increasing now. So as long as it is possible, I would recommend taking a short break by yourself and trying to get in contact with nature. Nature reduces stress hormone levels for quite a few days. Nature may be a 30-minute drive away, but from a purely practical perspective, it is worth it!
If you can’t access nature, try to channel all your energy into creativity or something developmental. Maybe start online studies and try to imagine that this is like the expedition goal, which is more important than the discomfort in this moment.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Famous explorer Ernest Shackleton believed that explorers need to be equipped with a combination of attitudes: ‘First optimism, then patience, next idealism, and last of all courage.’ These apply well to one’s lockdown survival manual. These must be the plates that we put on the figurative weightlifting bar for the mind. This mission that we are all together on, just like an expedition, requires our cooperation and endurance in order to reach the goal.
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