Take a deep breath with me. Let it out. All of our problems cannot be solved by getting our bodies stronger, faster, hotter. In fact, by over training our physical skeletal muscular system, we run the risk of putting too much pressure on our nervous system, leading to a state of chronic dis-ease that can lead to, you guessed it, disease. Not to mention overtraining injuries. Let’s avoid those too, shall we?
So let’s dive in.
A few important principles to note: I am a huge fan of intense training. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) for functional fitness and “Super Slow and Super Heavy” training for max strength and muscle gain both require participants to keep a cool head under immense pressure. Having a willing attitude, staying calm and even enthusiastic under physical discomfort, is a necessity. This type of training, however, isn’t appropriate for everyone. Some people’s nervous systems, despite all of the positive affirmations and commitment to even breathing and staying in an open mental state, simply cannot handle the stress even if their muscles and cardiovascular system seem to be completely healthy enough to do it. This isn’t because someone is “weak” -- there is something subconscious going on in their nervous system that isn’t allowing them to do high intensity work. Listen to your body. If you feel great after pushing yourself through a super hard workout, which many of us do, that is showing you that your system can handle the pressure. If on the other hand, you feel nauseous, lightheaded, have trouble breathing and regulating yourself back down, have trouble sleeping, that is a sign that high intensity exercise should be avoided for the time being. No shame, no guilt. Go easier on yourself. You can still reach all of your fitness goals by taking it slower and easier, I promise. And the fact that you can track all of this data on your ARENA, even better!!
Ok, onto our nervous system, aka the complex system in our body made up of our nerves, spinal cord and brain. This system is what coordinates our sensory information and responses by transmitting signals to and from different parts of its body, detecting environmental changes that impact the body, then working along with the endocrine system to respond to whatever is happening.
Most of this system at work is subconscious, meaning that we aren’t aware that it is happening. Our autonomic nervous system, as it is called, is basically running the show. Our heart beats, we breathe, we digest, and we get triggered into a “Fight or Flight” response. And, based on past experiences and overwhelming stimuli, the system can become more fragile and overly “inflamed”. Our emotions, for example, we now know come from the Limbic part of our nervous system -- Event happens, it passes through the Limbic system “filter” of what it means, we have an emotional response to the event, then we have thoughts about the event.
Most of us, in 2021 western society, have nervous systems that are stuck in conscious and/or subconscious “Fight or Flight” -- it is often referred to as “Sympathetic Overload” and is associated with digestive problems, anxiety and trouble sleeping. Many of us also use physical exercise as a way to alleviate the uncomfortable mental sensations that accompany this state and become very reliant on our intense exercise routines to feel better. This provides a temporary but ultimately unsustainable fix because we have to allow our bodies to rest and not be under stress for the nervous system to regulate.
Fortunately there are proven strategies to get our nervous system to switch from the sympathetic state to the parasympathetic state, the “rest and digest” mode that enables us to chill out the hormonal cascade associated with the sympathetic state that bathes our brain in the biochemicals of stress. There are also tricks to hack our nervous system even in the moments of stress and strain to ensure that we get the clearest, most constructive response to our challenges and level up as soon as possible.
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) Training
HRV, Heart Rate Variability, is the best metric we have available to us to understand how stressed our nervous system is and it refers to the difference between how much faster your heart beats on the inhale versus how much it slows down on the exhale. It is normal for this to happen: we breathe in and there is a shift in blood return and other autonomic factors that speed up the heart. On the exhale, it is the opposite. A high HRV indicates a relaxed nervous system, while a low HRV indicates a nervous system that is under stress. Our HRV while we sleep is an excellent indicator of our overall stress levels which go hand in hand with our mental health. Apple Watch, FitBit, Whoop, Oura ring and Biostrap are all examples of wearables that give us access to our HRV numbers.
Breathwork - Heart Coherence and More
Heart coherence, also known as cardiac coherence, refers to the state when our breathing and our heart beats become entrained. Breathing deeply and slowly, roughly 6 breaths per minute or inhaling for 5 seconds and exhaling for 5 seconds, achieves this state. If you try it right now, you will see how much slower that rate of breathing is compared to our normal breathing patterns. Research has shown that practicing this technique for roughly 5 minutes has a profound effect on our nervous system and our resulting biochemistry. The beneficial effects of this breathing practice can start after just 3 minutes of practice and can last for four to six hours afterwards! And, consistent practice brings even more benefits. In addition to reducing stress, it has been shown to improve neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin which prevents anxiety and depression. Hormone levels have also been shown to be improved like DHEA, adrenaline, auriculin, oxytocin and cortisol.
Paying attention to our breath is the easiest way to immediately begin practicing mindfulness- for example, noticing when we feel like we can’t breathe or when we feel like we don’t have time to take an extra breath, and taking an extra breath anyway. Unless we are under immediate, physical attack or threat, there is always time to take another breath and create space between our feelings and thoughts and what we choose to do in response to what is unfolding. The more we practice this, the better we get at it, and our nervous system is getting stronger.
Smile, Soften, Sink and Slide
Another trick I learned from my teacher and mentor, Dr. Mark Atkinson: Smile, Soften, Sink and Slide.
First, SMILE. Smiling has been shown to immediately change our biochemistry to help us feel more calm and relaxed, so train yourself to smile in the face of discomfort.
Second, SOFTEN. Soften your eyes, soften your tongue, soften your pelvic floor. Consciously softening these muscles immediately hacks your nervous system to relax. It makes perfect sense, because the brain cells that fire together wire together. When there is any kind of possible threat, what do we naturally do? We tighten: focus our eyes looking for danger, engage our muscles ready to fight or flee. Relaxing these muscles makes our nervous system relax.
Third, SINK. This is a little hard to explain because it is a FEELING, a felt sensation in the body. Letting ourselves sink deeper, feel even more supported by the chair/couch/bed whatever it is that is holding us. It is a felt sensation of letting go and allowing yourself to relax.
Fourth, SLIDE. Similar to sinking, this is an allowing of a felt sensation in your body, in your being. We are allowing something to HAPPEN to us, as opposed to making something happen. And happen it will, much like a child at the top of a slide at the playground. The child doesn’t need to do anything other than let go, because gravity will work her magic and the child will slide down. Fear, sadness, helplessness -- these are all feelings we get to embrace and allow to engulf us when we are training our nervous system.
Relax Into Intensity
Ultimately, training our nervous system means that we are learning to relax into intensity. Our impulse is to tighten and constrict when things get intense and hard and painful. What does it look like and feel like when we do the opposite? Martial art training often focuses on this principle -- the more we can relax in intensity, the more powerful we become. This is because the power that lies within us, rooted in our nervous system, is infinitely stronger than anything that we can accomplish through sheer willpower and muscle force alone.