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SHHH! Here's How to Quiet the Autonomic Nervous System to Optimize Performance


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.

“I’m nervous!”

“You’re getting on my nerves.”

“That was nerve-wracking!”

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
  • Sleep
  • Massage
  • Positive Thinking
  • Laughter
  • 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.