If you’re like most humans, Patrick Mahomes and Steph Curry excluded,
you’ve experienced a time or two in your life where you felt like
your body’s reaction to something was out of your control. Whether
it was an anxious response to something stressful that got your heart
galloping inside your chest or fear of something chasing you that left
you frozen, with breath racing, we’ve all been there.
“You’re getting on my
Are these phrases you’ve ever found yourself uttering or thinking?
Have you ever wondered how such common American euphemisms came into being? As a
sports neurologist, I can tell you. They all have to do with the involuntary physiologic
response (heart pounding, sweaty palms, rapid breathing, or “seeing
red,” for example) to what happens in the human nervous system
when a person is under pressure. Believe it or not, these kinds of responses also happen when you’re
unaware. They are automatic outputs and responses generated by your brain
when it senses threat – even if you aren’t consciously aware
(or before you become aware). After all, you didn’t tell your heart
to speed up or your palms to begin dripping – but it happens automatically.
However, did you know that you can help control and manage these responses?
Suppose those shaking hands prevented you from making that last second
shot, or your racing heart had you hesitating a millisecond too long before
the perfect pitch became a third strike. In those cases, you know the
power of your
nervous system over your performance. What if I told you that there is plenty you can
do to train aspects of your nervous system to perform how you want them
to when you’re under pressure? It’s called autonomic quieting,
and it can be a literal game-changer for athletes, high level executives,
or anyone else who wants to perform at their absolute best.
The nervous system in the human body is comprised of a complex array of
neural highways and byways that cater to all our sensory needs and functions.
There are two major parts of the nervous system, the Central Nervous System
(CNS) and the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS). While the CNS comprises
the brain, cerebellum, and spinal cord, the PNS is broken into the somatic
and autonomic nervous systems. The somatic nervous system involves motor
and sensory neurons, which help the body perform voluntary activities
such as walking or picking something up from a table. On the other hand,
the autonomic nervous system comprises neurons that help the body perform
involuntary activities such as heart rate and breathing.
Here’s the thing. If we can find helpful, healthy ways to hack into
our autonomic nervous system, we can begin to help manage its responses
when we become stressed. One must practice autonomic quieting strategies
even when relaxed, so the effort can help us when we are stressed out.
Practicing awareness, and training the body in ways that reduce the stress
response are effective ways to quiet and manage the system. Essentially,
you want your mind and body to become accustomed to the calming autonomic
state so that it can be tapped into when things do go sideways. This kind
of training is most effective when done consistently and over time. As
little as 8-10 minutes once or twice a day of meditation or breath work
beats 1-2 hours once or twice a week. Here is a partial list of strategies
that can often be easily incorporated into your wellness routine:
Autonomic Quieting Strategies:
- Intentional Breath Work that focuses on slow, rhythmic breathing from the diaphragm
- Mindfulness Meditation or Prayer
- Yoga, Tai Chi, or Chi King
- Positive Thinking
- Enjoyable Activities
- Playing Music
In addition to the abovementioned activities, engaging in regular cardiovascular
and strength-training exercise is crucial to autonomic quieting. After
all, exercise increases the release of our body’s “happy hormone,”
endorphins. Endorphins help tell our bodies and our brains that we are
ok, we are not in physical danger, and they don’t need to unnecessarily
speed up our heart rates or accelerate our respiration rates. Of course,
exercise naturally increases both heart rate and respiration, so proper
warm-up and cool-down before and afterward are essential.
If any of this is over your head, I encourage you to start small and try
it. Whether it’s a calming breathing technique that suits you, a
prayer, or an affirmation, you might be surprised to learn how to help
calm your autonomic nervous system the next time it wants to “freak
out’ and carry all your vital signs away with it.