Use Your Body to Change Your Mind.
When you're in a funk, how often do you find yourself trying to "be positive!" or "stop sulking!" as you analyse every thought and feeling in the pursuit of constant happiness? And how often does that change a dam thing? If our thoughts and emotions are the very thing that's causing suffering, the last thing we need to do is get more in our heads by trying to change our thoughts with even more mind banter. This is not to say that practicing positivity is ineffective, but sometimes it's just not enough. Changing our bodies response to stress can be a whole lot easier than directly trying to change our mind...
A large body of research suggests a significant relationship between autonomic nervous system activity and performance.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is a control system that acts largely unconsciously, regulating bodily functions such as the breathing, heart rate, digestion, fertility and immunity. The ANS is made up of two branches: the parasympathetic (PNS) and sympathetic nervous system (SNS).
Sympathetic Nervous System
The SNS prepares your body for action through increased heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar and secretion of hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine. SNS activity puts your body in go mode! The SNS response is adaptive and necessary, especially for sport and performance (to an extent). But most of the time, our SNS is stimulated by stressors which are not genuinely threatening. Not only that, but SNS is often ongoing... we don't know how to switch it off and as a consequence, our well-being and our ability to perform suffers.
Parasympathetic Nervous System
The PNS is our bodies innate system for the purpose of balancing the stress response. It prepares the body for rest by slowing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, regulating digestion and immunity while stimulating the release of bliss chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. It’s main purpose is to manage homeostasis, that is, to balance the bodies autonomic nervous system response. In other words, the PNS is a naturally evolved system for switching off the threat response, playing a vital role in maintaining both mental and physical well-being by helping the body to calm down from stress reactions elicited from SNS arousal.
Imbalanced PNS & SNS
We need both of these systems in order to adapt and thrive across different situations, whether that's learning, training, competing, facilitating a meeting, eating or resting. SO, the problem does not concern 'stress' or SNS activity. Stress is not the bad guy here. Instead, the issue sits with our lack of control over ANS regulation. Our SNS is often overactive and our PSN is under active. This imbalance / lack of regulation is detrimental to both our well-being and our ability to perform.
When we're over stressed, excessive SNS activity can impair our cognitive ability (directly impairing prefrontal cortex activity) and therefore overall task performance. When we're under stressed, PNS activity can have a similar effect. Peak performance is associated with ‘optimal stress’, we're not over-active, nor under-active... but just right. That 'just right' suggests a certain level of stress is necessary for performance. This is shown in the Inverted U Model of Stress & Performance.
Optimal is Personal!
It's important to note that stress optimisation differs across individuals whereby some people may perform best with more SNS activity than others, depending on their resting state of arousal. It also varies across contexts depending on the nature of the activity (competing vs. training to acquire new skills).
Therefore, optimal is personal. As performers (athletes, employees, managers, students, creators), it is our job to become aware of where our own, individual optimal state of arousal sits relative to the task at hand. Once we are aware of our own optimal state, we are able to take control of our ability to perform by regulating our autonomic nervous system (ANS) through simple, yet effective strategies. By taking control of our ANS, we indirectly take control our cognition (thoughts), emotions (feelings), behaviour and therefore our overall performance.
So if you want take your performance to the next level, if you're sick of underperforming in competition, or if your burnt out.. this might be something to consider!
Use your body to change your mind and the illusive flow state may not be so illusive after all...
Get in touch for more details