Note: This article was written by Premier Neuro Therapy co-owner Zach Michael and originally appeared as a guest post on Erica Suter's blog at ericasuter.com. Erica is a strength & conditioning coach and performance consultant that trains soccer players throughout the Baltimore, MD area.
The brain is basically your overprotective mom in high school (no that’s not the beginning of a yo momma joke – Erica made me promise I wouldn’t tell any of those in this article).
It is going to do whatever it can to protect you.
Maybe some of you had a mom that was both protective AND very well connected in the community. It seemed like no matter how sneaky you tried to be, she always found out what you were really up to. Somehow, she was able to use her network of spies to make sure you stayed out of trouble and grew up into the great young guy or girl you are today.
If you challenged what your mom thought was safe too much or too often, it’s likely she brought about forms of punishment. Things like no more cell phone, no car keys for 2 weeks, or no video games for a month.
It didn’t matter to your mom that “no cell phone” meant you weren’t able to coordinate your weekly study group. Or that “no car keys” meant you wouldn’t be able to get to offseason workouts. And it didn’t matter that “no video games for a month” meant you weren’t going to be able to develop your Call of Duty (or nowadays Fortnite?) skills.
In other words, Mom didn’t care very much about your performance. What mattered to mom was that you were safe.
Now, Erica asked me to write an article on how the nervous system might affect your clients’ ability to run a 20 yard shuttle faster from one day to the next, and so far, all I’ve done is written 274 words about my mom (love you, Ma!).
But the same thing that matters most to your clients’ Mom (their safety) is what matters most to your clients’ brain. The brain uses its network of spies (the sensory nerves) to sense threats and respond to keep your clients safe from them.
For the brain, a threat is anything that it doesn’t consider “normal”. Basically, it is constantly receiving input from the sensory nerves and asking “is this normal?” If the answer is no, it starts going into ‘overprotective mom’ state.
And just like Mom, it doesn’t care nearly as much about your clients’ performance as it does their safety. So if the brain is overwhelmed by many different threats at once, it will direct energy and resources to taking care of the threat, potentially affecting your clients’ performance.
There are a number of “threats” that can cause nervous system function to change from one day to the next.
For example, as I’m writing this article, it’s 1:00 PM. I’ve consumed nothing today but 3 cups of coffee, a piece of bread w/ peanut butter, a protein shake, and a few glasses of water. Last night, I slept about 8 hours after drinking 3-4 alcoholic beverages. This morning, I got a quick, intense workout in.
My stomach is starting to rumble a little bit, I’ve got a dull headache from the 3-4 alcoholic beverages (welcome to the ripe old age of 28), and I’m feeling a bit thirsty.
In other words, the brain is sensing a few threats. It isn’t happy about my nutrition, consumption of alcohol, and lack of water. It’s re-directing resources, trying to get me to take action (grab something to eat, dummy).
Instead, I’m on a mission to finish this article, but let’s be honest, my writing performance is suffering (what am I even saying right now??)
Similarly, if I were getting ready to run a 20 yard shuttle, it’s likely my athletic performance wouldn’t be ideal. My brain is using precious bandwidth to think about when it’s next meal will be and wonder why the heck I choose to poison it every now and then with alcohol.
Therefore, it’s much harder for it to dedicate energy to the task at hand, and a number of performance factors suffer, including:
If any or all of these are being impacted by the nervous system, it’s expected that a decreased level of performance would follow.
In order to fully optimize nervous system performance, all factors must be considered, including:
A simple strategy can be employed, considering all of the factors:
For trainers, this is a no brainer when it comes to the physical stressors. It’s what you do. You know a midfielder will be required to run 5-7 miles during a game. At times they’ll need to sprint, shuffle, and cut with power, speed, and quickness. So you design a training program that will allow their body to meet and exceed those demands (I know I’m oversimplifying here).
By doing so, you are both forcing the body to physiologically adapt (add more muscle) and de-sensitizing the nervous system to the idea that such rigorous physical demands could be considered a threat.
Basically, it’s like bringing your mom along slowly to an idea that she considered threatening to your safety in the past (I don’t know, sending you off to an out-of-state college?).
The challenge for many trainers is going beyond the physical. I challenge you to not only strive to optimize your clients’ performance physically, but neurologically. In order to do so, all of the above factors must be considered, and we’ll need to ask ourselves questions like:
Asking questions like these will help you take a more well-rounded approach to nervous system optimization and give your clients an added edge when it’s time to perform.
If you’re already asking and answering these questions in your own training philosophy (or even have a few ideas), I’d love to hear about them. Comment on the blog or shoot me an email at email@example.com.
Negative stressors pop into our lives day in and day out. Those stressors can have a negative impact on our mind and body, but more specifically the nervous system. When our nervous system becomes overloaded with too much stress, negative side effects can start to pile up. This can affect our physical/mental health, relationships, school/work life, or performance levels.
Instant Activity Instructions: For the next 30 seconds, give yourself time to think about every stressor going on in your life and write them down. While you do you that, I will too.
....Time is up!
As the stressors pile up, we can become more and more over-sensitized emotionally. In this scenario, things that didn’t bother us before now seem like huge issues. I think it’s safe to say we have all been there before. Perhaps you have found yourself in one of the following situations:
If we are being honest here, I am definitely guilty of #3. Sorry, Jenna ;) And #2. Alright fine, and #1. Sorry, Zach.
To better illustrate the effect of psychological stressors on the nervous system, think of your nervous system as a cup. Now let’s pour something into that cup – how’s water? The water going into that cup will take on the role of every day stressors.
This cup can only handle so much water, just like your nervous system can only handle so much stress. When we pour too much water into the cup, it over-flows. Comparatively speaking, when we hit our tipping point with the amount of daily stress, the nervous system can go into a lock-down mode, otherwise described as a protective state/sympathetic state. As the cup overflows, the water has no choice but to go where it shouldn’t and begins to make a mess or damage things nearby just as the abundance of stress affecting the nervous system prevents the body from functioning at optimal levels.
Combine the psychological stress with the physical demands of our jobs, workouts, or duties at home and that cup of water might as well be a water fall. But, we don’t stop pushing in our daily, stressful routines. Rarely do we hit the brakes and just breath for a little while. Instead, we keep those physical stressors coming like there’s no tomorrow:
Or, how about these scenarios? With the nervous system already in a protective/sympathetic state from previous stressors, you add another meeting to the end of a work day. You are limited on time so you skip your warm up at the gym and try to max out in a few lifts that didn't quite feel so great on the knees just a week before....
Pop. There goes the back.
The sympathetic nervous system did exactly what it was supposed to do and kept the body in a highly protective state. But, we didn’t listen to our inner voice telling us we are too stressed or needed a break. We also failed to pay attention to the physical signs leading to this moment of discomfort.
Regardless of the situation, there’s no way we can avoid all psychological and physiological stressors, but I encourage you to be an advocate for yourself. Raise your self-awareness and take mental notes (I encourage you to actually write them down) of things that will trigger a stress response in the body. I am not asking you to eliminate all tough workouts, late-night work sessions, or long days of driving, but what I am recommending is that you start to listen to your body.
Some of you do a fantastic job with this and for those of you who do, I challenge you to improve even more. You only get one body, you might as well understand what will negatively impact it so you can start living more optimally. But don’t over think it - start small, jot some notes down when they pop up, develop a plan of attack to eliminate it, and most importantly, make sure to stick with it!
Until next time, #PremierFamily!
Just wanted to take a few minutes on this Thanksgiving morning to put together a post for the #PremierFamily on how expressing gratitude affects the nervous system.
At Premier, we practice expressing gratitude before every session with clients and even before our business meetings? Why?
Research shows expressing gratitude can help to activate the parasympathetic, or calming part, of the nervous system.
When we activate the parasympathetic nervous system, we get a host of positive effects like:
Not only do all of these benefits help to optimize results in therapy, but also help us to live a longer, happier life. So, don't just save gratitude for Thanksgiving - express it every single day!
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
A few good reads on gratitude and the parasympathetic nervous system can be found here:
The other day, I was talking to one of our new clients (a 62 year old corporate CEO that I’m helping to get back on the golf course), and he mentioned a side effect to his lower back pain.
“I can’t even get a good night’s sleep anymore.”
I reassured him that it’s not uncommon for back pain to reduce quality of sleep. It’s something we hear a lot from clients. And science indicates that they’re more closely related than you might think..
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There’s actually a vicious cycle that takes place between back pain and sleep.
and so on and so forth…
So, if you’re losing sleep over back pain, it’s important to find a way to break the cycle to keep the back pain from intensifying.
You might have read articles in the past on this topic that talk about choosing the right mattress, altering your sleeping position, or how to adjust your pillow. If you’ve tried those methods and they work, I couldn’t be happier for you. You’ve already found a way to break the cycle!
However, in my own personal experience, I’ve found that adjusting my sleeping position or putting a pillow between my legs doesn't change much or sometimes causes me to sleep far worse. If you’re in that boat, the tips in this post are for you.
The following recommendations focus not on how to physically sleep differently, but how to prepare your nervous system for a restful night’s sleep. The tips have been put together in order to ensure your nervous system is in a relaxed (parasympathetic) state at bed time. If the nervous system is in a stressful state (the sympathetic nervous system is dominant), it can both decrease your quality of sleep and amplify your back pain.
1. Stick to a sleep schedule
Ideally, you should shoot for 7-8 hrs of sleep/night. Studies have shown that people who sleep 6 hrs or less actually experience more back pain than people who get more sleep. In order to hit 7-8 hrs, it helps to stick to a consistent schedule. Sticking to a schedule will also help your body to learn to relax at bedtime.
2. Don’t take work to bed with you
Whatever you do, don’t get in bed with your laptop or check emails on your phone before it’s time to go to sleep. Instead, find a book that’s unrelated to business/work or listen to relaxing music before bed. It’s important to keep the stress and/or adrenaline associated with work life out of the bedroom.
3. Keep exercising, but try to finish up at least 4 hrs before bedtime.
If you’ve read my past posts, you know that a consistent exercise routine is a key component in relieving your back pain. However, if you’re exercising too close to bedtime, it can be difficult to relax. Try to find an exercise window that allows you to wind back down a few hours before bedtime to ensure a good night’s sleep.
4. Don’t rely on medications or alcohol
While medications and alcohol may help you to fall asleep easier, it’s likely they will decrease your overall quality of sleep. Rather than resort to external fixes, try to focus on the other tips in this post to put your nervous system in a relaxed state before bedtime.
5. Limit caffeine after 12:00 PM
If you’re drinking caffeine in the afternoon, it’s likely you will still experience its effects at bedtime. We drink coffee to wake us up in the morning, but we don’t want it affecting our quality of sleep at bedtime. If you’re looking for something hot to drink, try substituting with green tea or decaffeinated coffee/tea.
6. Deep breathing exercises
If all else fails, try a few deep breathing exercises before bed. This is one of the best things you can do to get your nervous system to transition from stressed to relaxed. Try this exercise, which we use with clients before and during our sessions…
Inhale through your nose for 4 seconds and then exhale for 8 seconds. By doing this, it helps promote a parasympathetic or relaxation response from the nervous system because the emphasis is on a longer exhale. We have collected enough oxygen during the 4 second inhale to survive (obviously it is not a life or death situation, but that is how our nervous system interprets our breathing), and now we can tell our body to relax by controlling a slow and soothing exhale.
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About the Author
Evan Lewis is a nationwide leader in Neuro Therapy and founded the Baltimore area's only specialist Neuro Therapy facility.
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