PART 2: RIDING THE WAVE
It is ingrained in many high achievers’ psyche that in the face of immense challenge, only sustained, relentless striving will overcome the difficulty, but in practice it can be counterproductive. One way to help resolve this performance paradox is to establish a rhythm and find the ‘wave’ that will increase our capacity and move us forward effectively.
THE WAVES & OUR NERVOUS SYSTEM
Contemplate waves for a moment; they embody a natural rhythm in nature – the oceans ebb and flow, night follows day, plant and animal behaviour follows circadian rhythms – and we breath in, we breath out, our heart rate increases and it decreases, our muscles contract then relax, our digestive sphincters open and close.
By recognising that our nervous system is also governed by waves we can develop insight and strategies to ride our natural wave and bring the full potential of our resources to bear. ‘Regulation’ is the term that neuroscientists use for how we want our nervous system to be. Our nervous system has two branches, the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches. Regulation is when we have a wave going between these branches – our nervous system gets stimulated and rises (sympathetic) and then falls and recovers (parasympathetic).
The more ‘regulated’ we are the higher our window of tolerance is; in other words the more we keep the waves going (stimulation, recovery, stimulation, recovery) the higher our productive capacity and the more resourceful we are.
Remember this is probably different to what your logical mind is telling you;
keep going, faster, more”
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) acts constantly but unconsciously to control our physiological responses. It scans our environment and feeds back whether it perceives we are safe or not, overriding our logical thought processes – we may not be conscious of a danger, but our ‘gut feel’ may say otherwise.
Neurons in our gut play a big role in this, ergo the term “gut feeling”. Remember when this happens that our system is just trying to keep us safe.
The ‘wave’ function of the ANS is mediated by two contrasting but complementary branches, the ‘sympathetic’ (a quick response mobilizing system responsible for ‘fight and flight’) and the ‘parasympathetic’ (a more slowly activated dampening system that supports a ‘rest and digest’ or ‘feed and breed’ response).
The ground-breaking work of Dr Steven Porges into Polyvagal theory in recent years has shed more light on nervous system activation which is useful to understand. In short he found that our vagal nerve is a crucial branch of our nervous system. This is a nerve that runs the whole way through the body governing our facial muscles, hearing, diaphragm and digestion and it plays a big role in our body’s response when we perceive a lack of safety.
He established that our nervous system response is hierarchical. The first response is fight or flight, if it is deemed that more is needed (in a nanosecond), the next response is polyvagal shut down, this is when you experience a “freeze”. You are stuck and overwhelmed. As challenge increases we can find that our nervous system can also get stuck ‘on’ and we can find it difficult to bring ourselves back into a sense of calm and relaxation. We can also get stuck ‘off’ and find it hard to move out of a state of feeling overwhelmed and into action.
The proposition is this – If we can orientate back towards our resources then there is a greater possibility that these emotions can live within you rather than you living within them. Feeling and riding the waves of regulation offers us a place to hold our nervous system activation and bring more resources to meet the challenges we encounter.
ACTIVATING THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
As an authority in your field and a confident presenter, you enjoy the adrenalin rush you get from being put on the spot, secure in the knowledge that your technical expertise will carry you through. You’re on an important conference call when, out of the blue, you are asked a question you don’t expect but which requires you to think up a strategic response – not your forte; the other callers are hanging on your every word….. Now you feel pressure and your nervous system activates, lighting up the amygdala, the brain area which has evolved to protect us from threats. The blood flow moves away from your frontal cortex (where we do our best thinking) and puts the primitive, limbic system in the driving seat, priming us to respond to danger. Your heart rate increases, blood moves away from your digestive organs and into your limbs to facilitate a ‘fight or flight’ response. Your capacity for aggression increases. Your vision also changes and you lose your peripheral vision and your ability to see the bigger picture; it’s very hard to think strategically when this happens.
Your response is garbled and rambling, you come across as defensive and tetchy; you’re angry with yourself and determined to have it out with whoever manoeuvred you into that humiliating situation…you have your suspicions!
When faced with a crisis situation we now know it’s natural for our body to react to deal with the immediate threat – either flight, flight or freeze. The physiological changes in the body are designed to help you to overcome or get away from the immediate danger, but they are not the most appropriate to figure out long-term strategies or creative solutions.
Nor is the human body designed to stay in fire-fighting mode for long periods. Throughout the day, it waves through a series of 90 – 120 minute cycles – an ‘ultradian rhythm’ where alert, high-energy peaks alternate with low-energy troughs. Concentration dips, we can feel restless or hungry, we yawn or even nod off momentarily. The body is signalling that it needs a period of recovery, but our response is often to ignore the signs and battle on regardless. Ignoring these ‘recharge signals’ by continuing to ‘give it your all’ actually depletes energy, leaving us feeling exhausted by the end of the day.
Riding the wave – listening to your body, aligning your activity to its signals, and responding to its needs – will enable you to develop a more sustainable level of performance.
Tara Brach talks about the concept of arrows, that the first nervous system response is the first arrow, this is then followed by the second arrow which is how we treat ourselves in these moments (feeling shame, being annoyed at ourselves etc), the second arrow is more painful than the first, but it is the one we can do something about. Cultivating self-compassion when our nervous system is activated is likely to help us remember that we have choice; as the wonderful Viktor Frankl says ‘between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom’.
Sleep is our ultimate recovery tool, taking ‘power naps’ may not always be culturally acceptable – although they have become a key aspect of recovery in professional sports.
What we can do in most circumstances is to create intentional rituals of short changes of gear and focus that allow us to break away from immediate concerns to renew and restore. We say intentional because what you do in the break matters, the quality of the restoration makes all the difference. For example, many of us find ourselves taking a break and then spending the time scrolling through our phone, looking at social media or news – this is not restorative, we are still taking in and processing information. We are not giving our thinking brain a rest.
To master the art of short, intentional quality restoration breaks we need to once again think in waves, we need to think about doing the opposite of what we have been doing. If you have been sitting at your desk you can experiment with getting up and walking around, or getting outside for a short walk in your garden, listening to some music, perhaps a non-work call or chat can be restorative (and of course it also might not be, depending on who you choose to talk to and your relationship with them). Experiment and bring your attention to creating or reclaiming a rhythm of renewal for yourself. You can play with rating your energy before you take a renewal break and then again afterwards to see if your energy has increased.
Become curious about what is restorative for you and how can you build the muscle of orientating towards an alternating rhythm of recovery activity.
More intensive forms of physical exercise – brisk walking, running, cycling, working out etc. are of course very beneficial, but don’t neglect to build in regular minutes of ‘quality down time’ throughout the day.
What would it feel like if tomorrow you go for that walk, do your mediation or yoga before you start work? What would it feel like if you took quality restorative breaks? If you created a wave for yourself?
CLICK HERE TO READ PART 3 – SUSTAINING PERSONAL ENERGY