““The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy.” – William James“
If you ever dive into the world of self help, you will quickly notice that there’s a huge emphasis on self talk. The inner game. Mental dialogue and dealing with the rampant inner critic. Psychological tools and tactics.
Your thoughts create your reality. Whether you believe you’re right or wrong, you’re right. Mindset matters. We hear it all the time in varying forms.
And it’s true. It’s an important part of performing at your best. You can’t do the impossible if you think it’s impossible, and you can’t have a happy life if you don’t have a strong inner dialogue. The most important relationship in life is the one we have with ourself.
But what I find fascinating about this is how in the pursuit of understanding the mental game, we often overlook the physical – the body, breath, heart, brain…the physiological.
It’s funny how few people talk mastering our body as the lever that drives the mind to perform at it’s best. There is an overemphasis on psychology and mental tactics and tools and systems instead of understanding the physiological and neurological changes we can intentionally shift that do the heavy lifting for us.
I like to use the example of being distractible . There’s a fundamental difference between creating external systems to manage distractions (putting your phone on airplane mode, closing down browsers, immersing yourself in solitude), and being in a physiologically calm state which makes you less reactive.
The fact is, you can carve out all the time in the world time to work on something, know exactly what you want to work on and block out all of your distractions, but if you are working from a state of physiological stress/anxiety/frustration it is impossible to perform at a high level. I will repeat – if you are stressed out and anxious while working you can’t perform at your best. Hell, fuck performing at your best, you can’t perform at all.
The funny part? Most people have no idea that they are working from that state! Ask the average person if they are calm while they are working and they will probably say yes. Hook them up to some devices that give a reading? Much different picture.
The problem is that most of us have normalized working from a place of sympathetic dominant stress and anxiety with high cortisol levels, cognitive load that is through the roof, and a mind rampant with rapid beta waves (don’t worry if you don’t know what all of this means, i’ll explain soon…)
For most of my life I was the same. I focused on the mental game. I read the Art of Happiness at 14 years old and started cultivating a healthy inner dialogue. A positive and optimistic outlook on life. I became obsessed with mental tools and frameworks and self talk.
But even with all that positive thinking, physiologically I was carrying around a lot of stress with me. My breathing was shallow, I had poor Heart rate variability, I would grind my teeth in my sleep, and I would have anxious ticks like constantly touching my hair while I work.
I remember the first time I hooked myself up to a heart rate variability monitor I did my normal vipassana meditation session. I expected to see my numbers through the roof. A master of calm and equanimity….On the contrary – I was stuck in stress mode.
Long story short, I was somehow stressing myself out while meditating (which turns out to be a more common experience than you would think). The most powerful part about this is that I would have never known had I not hooked myself up to that monitor.
I talk to hundreds of people every month who fall into this bucket as well. Using all the tools, tactics, and systems to manage their time and block out distractions and use the 80/20 rule and the Eisenhower time matrix and do yoga and meditate and breathe etc etc etc but they still FEEL stressed, overwhelmed, anxious, and frustrated. By the book they are doing everything just as Tim Ferris’s would prescribe…but they feel like something is STILL missing.
What is that missing piece?
Let’s break this down really quickly if you’re not familiar with the world of physiology and why it’s so important.
You have your central nervous system which is largely broken up into two parts – your “sympathetic” vs “parasympathetic”.
Sympathetic = on mode. Fight or flight. Attack/Defense.
Parasympathetic = off mode. Rest/relax/recovery.
Interestingly enough, this balance of sympathetic/parasympathetic is largely regulated by your breathing.
Inhale = sympathetic. Exhale = parasympathetic.
That’s why if you want to calm yourself down, a series of long exhales will generally do the trick.
We can use devices that track something called “Heart Rate Variability”. Things like the Oura Ring, Whoop Strap, or the Heart Math Inner Balance. These devices show you the balance of your sympathetic vs parasympathetic nervous system. This is an indicator of if you are in sympathetic dominant stress and anxiety mode, or parasympathetic calm and relaxation.
Here are some examples of my own personal HRV, where I used the Heart Math Inner Balance to track my scores.
In this image here you can see sympathetic dominant stress, Low, shallow, jagged, fast.
In this image here you can see parasympathetic dominant. High peaks and valleys. Slower and calmer. Calm focus. This is what we aim for.
Now why is this important? You can use all of the mental and psychological frameworks you want, but if you are PHYSIOLOGICALLY stressed and stuck in sympathetic dominant, you will not be able to perform at your best, let alone think clearly and make sound decisions.
More or less, everything we are learning about in the world of HRV shows us that getting out of sympathetic dominant and into a place of calm focus (parasympathetic dominant) is actually what drives better performance across all areas of life. Whether an entrepreneur, athlete, or even student, controlling your nervous system is essential to not only performing at your best, but preventing yourself from creating un needed stress.
For example, this study here examined the relationship between HRV and emotional regulation. “In addition to being linked to vmPFC and amygdala modulation, emotion regulation is linked to HRV (Appelhans and Luecken, 2006; Thayer and Brosschot, 2005). Individuals with greater emotion regulation ability have been shown to have greater levels of resting HRV (Appelhans and Luecken, 2006; Thayer andLane,2009). In addition, during successful performance on emotion regulation tasks HRV appears to be increased (Butler et al., 2006; Ingjaldssonet al., 2003; Smith et al., 2011).”
What this essentially shows us is that better HRV improves emotional regulation which leads to better thinking and decision making – which basically has a ripple effect into the way we treat and interact with people overall.
What we also know is that HRV is something within our control, something that we can train and learn to regulate by using the breath. Learn to become the masters of our body rather than being the slave of the nervous system.
We can also use it as a diagnostic tool to see how certain situations affect us. What stresses us out vs calms us down. If we do get stressed or anxious, how do we get ourselves back in control? Training our physiology can answer these questions.
I believe that over the next few years you are going to see a fundamental shift in the way that we view productivity. You’re going to see an emphasis in the exploration of what the hell is going on underneath the hood – a physiology first mindset. Training states rather than skills.
It’s why breath work has become so popular over recent years. Because the breath is the gateway to getting your physiology under control. Various breathing exercises will have different effects on your nervous system.
It’s why I love how Andrew Huberman talks about the “utility” of breath work – aka what are you using it for? Are you using it in the morning to wake yourself up? To calm yourself down if you’re having a panic attack or anxious? To create a heightened state of focus or creativity? To relax yourself and go to bed at night?
Different intentions will require different forms of breathing, as they will all be leveraging the powers of the nervous system differently.
It’s not just breathing either though. The content you consume can have a physiological effect on you. The conversations you have and the people you interact with too. Everything from exercise to cold showers to saunas to even journaling and creative expression can all have a physiological effect on you. That’s why paying attention to the content we consume and the state that we are in while doing these activities becomes all the more important.
As William James said, get your biology to work for you, rather than against you. Get out of the head and into the body. Use your heart and breath and and mind as the tools to state shift rather than trying to talk and rationalize yourself out of it (which is probably how you got yourself there in the first place).
Can’t focus? Instead of blocking out distractions, do some jumping jacks in place or dance or use a balance board. Or take a long ass walk. Get the blood flowing and it will help with focus. You’ll be less susceptible to distractions.
Anxious? Do some long exhales to calm down or again exercise or move instead of trying to think your way through it. Intense exercise also increases GABA which reduces anxiety (and all anti-anxiety meds increase GABA). Get yourself physically calm and the mind will follow.
Low energy? Instead of drinking coffee or listening to music to pump yourself up, GET SOME SLEEP! Take a nap and get the rest your body is asking for.
Stressed? Tired? Upset? Same thing. Stay in your head and try to think it through all you want, it won’t work as well as attacking the physiological and getting into the body.
Overall to also circle back here – studying various forms of breath work will help you in all of these areas and is great to have as an arsenal to pull on as needed.
Lastly, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the inner game doesn’t work. Your inner dialogue is incredibly important – but again, only because the way we talk to ourselves can have an influence on our physiology. My favorite example of this is mental boners. I can literally think myself into getting an erection! Thoughts driving a physiological response. Haha!
So my message to you today is to focus on physiology first rather than the superficial productivity tools and systems. Calm heart rate, deep breathing. Cool calm collected and focused.
Have any questions or want me to elaborate on this topic? Drop a comment and let me know what you think!
Thanks for reading 🙂