Nervous System Training is Cutting Edge in Professional Development – How to Do It
Updated: Aug 4
When we think about up-leveling our professional skills, we might think about public speaking, honing leadership qualities, or bettering our communication. What we likely aren’t thinking about is our nervous system.
Here’s the thing – accelerating your work and life on a rigid nervous system is like building a house in quicksand.
In this article, I’ll break down how our nervous system impacts our performance, help you assess your nervous system flexibility, and give you tools that you can use to begin to build strength and flexibility in your nervous system.
First, let’s get on the same page. What even is the nervous system? It’s a complex network of nerves that transmits messages between our brain and body. What happens in our nervous system impacts our cognitive function, hormones, creativity and so much more. When we are activated or triggered by something it goes beyond our mind and actually impacts our physical experience.
When we are activated by a stressful situation, it not only feels uncomfortable emotionally or physically, but actually lose access to higher cognitive function to creativity and our ability to connect with others and see opportunities.
In short, we go into survival mode.In short, we go into survival mode.
You might be thinking this all sounds very dramatic for a workplace. For most of us, nobody is ever really in danger when we’re at work.
Tell that to your body.
The truth is that our minds and bodies don’t really know the difference, between real “danger” and what feels like it in the body. These alarms can go off in our system when we’re in a meeting just as loudly as they could go off if we were in danger in the wild.
This shift in our system is a built in biological response to stress. It’s a built in mechanism that is there to support us to take fast and strong life-saving action but it’s less helpful, say, in the conference room.
If you’ve ever seen someone lose their temper in a meeting or have an inability to communicate calmly and rationally, you know what I mean. You may have been on the receiving-end of this you or you may have also experienced this within yourself.
This activation or reactivity is common and completely normal. That said, when we can get a handle on it we can show up so much more powerfully in our work and as leaders.
In Polyvagal Theory, there are four different states: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. In the fight state we feel agitated, aggravated, and confrontational.
In flight, we want to avoid, get out of there, or not have to deal with anything.
In the freeze state, we can feel a sense of paralysis. We are unsure what to do. In the fawn state we might slip into people-pleasing mode.
The biggest problem with this isn’t what happens. It’s that we lose our agency and this whole process and our reaction happens without us even noticing or having mastery over our experience.
What we want to do is bring more agency into the process. So how do we do that?
We might think that tending to our nervous system means trying to stop feeling agitated or triggered.
When working with our nervous system, we actually want to focus on moving from rigidity to flexibility.
There are three stages to the framework to more nervous system flexibility:
Stage 1 – Awareness Bringing more self-awareness to when the alarm bells go off in our system.
Stage 2 – Resourcing and grounding We can grow our capacity for resource by learning ways to ground ourselves and create more ease within our nervous system.
Stage 3 – Stretching our capacity This look likes actively growing our flexibility. This looks like practicing grounding techniques in states of trigger. This can be done in the wild, meaning practicing grounding yourself as things happen in real time. It can also be manufactured by using things like cold water therapy or HIIT training to activate our system and then train ourselves to bring our system back into a state of calm and ease.
The reason that we focus on flexibility versus rigidity is, often what happens when you have a rigid nervous system is when something triggering comes up, and it will, it can throw you off and the impact can last for hours, days, or longer. As you stay stuck on frustrating thoughts, procrastinate, or continue to be frustrated with the circumstances that brought you into that state.
Good news! The fact that you were reading this article means that you are ahead of the curve. This is cutting edge as far as skill-building and leadership and you can start today.
Identify your triggers: Make note of what activates or triggers you. You are looking for signs like: irritation, frustration, anger, elevated heart rate, procrastination, or analysis paralysis.
Make note of when it happens and what happened that activated you.
IMPORTANT: Something really really important here is that you don’t use this as an opportunity to criticize yourself. Whatever you find is absolutely right, because it’s reality. The only way we can move through our challenges and up-level is by being willing to see the truth of reality. When we judge ourselves too harshly we rob ourselves of the opportunity to see the truth. So, put on your metaphorical goggles and lab coat and become a scientist in your own life.
Technique 2: Cultivating resource The next step (and you don’t need to necessarily do this in order) is to practice using grounding techniques. Here are two of my favorite easy grounding techniques.
Box breathing: Breathe in for four seconds, hold four seconds, out four seconds hold four seconds. Trace the line of a square in front of you, each side is one of the four second segments.
Glimmers: Glimmers are the opposite of triggers in the Polyvagal Theory. A glimmer is something that gives you a feeling of peace or joy in your life. Take five minutes to make a list of what things that invoke that feeling for you. This may be laughing with a friend, taking your dog for a long walk in nature, looking at the ocean, or feeling a sign on your skin. Set an intention to spot one glimmer in your life by the end of the day.
Where our attention goes our energy flows and by spotting these for ourselves we can bring more focus on the things that eases our nervous system. Turning that state into something that we have more access to.
Remember, knowledge is amazing but it’s not enough to make real change. Commit yourself to doing one of these very very simple activities to support you in your growth in your career, in your professional life, and your personal life. If more people practiced nervous system flexibility the world would be a much better place to live and work. I’m celebrating you for taking these steps. If you would like more support around building a nervous system for success, let’s chat about what this kind of shift can look like for you or your team.
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