Follow your heart, but only if you know who’s leading who – Part 4

Follow your heart, but only if you know who’s leading who – Part 4

Mastering your Sympathetic Nervous System
Before my life took on an entirely different trajectory post-accident I used to run/cycle in the mountains behind our home to control my excessive sympathetic nervous system (SNS) drive that ‘accumulated’ from managing the ‘weight of responsibility’ of obtaining my PhD. Indeed, hard exercise refreshed my body and cleared my head like nothing else, but, after I suffered brain and spinal cord injuries and lost my leg, I found that hard exercise robbed me of way too much energy.

I was thus desperate to find a more efficient way to regulate my sympathetic nerves and my heart rhythm. Though I understood very well from our StressEraser research just how powerful deep, slow breathing can be in calming the heart, I also realised that there is a deeper level that needs to be appreciated:

The breath is only effective when it aligns with the blood pressure (BP) rhythm
What this translates into is that the effective ‘ingredient’ underpinning Keeping Calm is the alignment of the heart rhythm with the BP rhythm. Given that the BP rhythm is under dominant SNS control, it necessitates that we must actively modulate the SNS drive, in addition to actively modulating the parasympathetic drive, in our bodies.

Cardiac Vagal Motoneurons
Restorative activities, such as deep breathing exercises, Mindfulness Meditation, Yoga, Qigong, etc. done in a quiet and secluded space, regenerates our bodies via our parasympathetic vagus nerve that originates in the cardiac vagal motoneurons in the Dorsal Motor Nucleus of the Vagus and in the Nucleus Ambiguus in the brainstem. It is possible to indirectly modulate these brainstem vagal nuclei via the Primate brain, more specifically via the ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex, but this more indirect modulation demands an appropriate brain state such as engendered by Mindfulness Meditation, Contemplative Meditation, Qigong, Yoga, etc. A more direct way to modulate cardiac vagal motoneurons is via the breath, i.e. via Primate brain ‘override of the spontaneous respiratory rhythm generated by our brainstem respiratory nuclei.

The 3 Groups of Nuclei controlling Respiration and the breathing circuitry
There are 3 groups of respiratory nuclei in the brainstem that control spontaneous breathing via neuronal circuitry that generates 1) inspiratory activity, 2) post-inspiratory activity and 3) expiratory activity. Note that the neuronal circuitry that generates expiration is passive during normal breathing, because our lungs are elastic and will deflate like a balloon once the inspiratory activity is ‘switched off’ by the post-inspiratory circuitry. Slowly adapting pulmonary stretch receptors in the lungs terminate inspiratory activity reflexively. This is known as the Hering-Breuer reflex that prevents over-inflation of the lungs. Our air-filled elastic lungs then deflate as we passively exhale. However, during speaking, exercise, stress, etc. expiratory activity is supported by expiratory muscles due to the increased respiratory drive accruing from the build-up of carbon dioxide.

The inspiratory circuitry decreases the vagal nerve activity to our hearts via inhibition of the cardiac vagal motoneurons in the brainstem, to thereby increase the heart rate. Once the inspiratory circuitry is disengaged this so-called vagal break is removed. This then switches the vagal drive to the heart back on to actively slow the heart rate down. Some of the fit young athletes (18-20-year olds) I have tested dropped their heart rates by more than 40 beats a minute with one deep slow out-breath!

I typically do my 10 sec deep breathing exercises just after midday to resynchronise my heart-brain-body loop. Note that this is a form of physical activity that necessitates your complete focus and engagement. Start by taking a sharpish 3 second in-breath followed by a 1 second post inspiratory lag, before taking an active and prolonged out-breath over 6 seconds. It is best to time your 10 sec breaths to be most effective. The gold standard is to take 60 breaths over 10 mins; but taking a minimum of 30 breaths over 5 minutes will also be heart healthy and improve your performance!

Follow your heart, but only if you know who is leading who.

If your Fight and Flight response is activated for whatever reason, you can kiss modulating your cardiac vagal motoneurons via your Primate brain – whether indirectly by engaging the appropriate brain state or more directly via breathing – goodbye. Powerful as the out-breath is in calming our hearts, the breath becomes part of the problem when our innate Fight and Flight responses highjacks our breathing rhythms & breathing aligned heart rhythms. As we saw above, the BP rhythm is a 10 second rhythm, which is noticeably slower than our ~4 second spontaneous breathing rhythms and much slower than our panicked 2-3 sec breathing rhythms. By training our Mammalian brain and bodies to align our heart rhythms directly with our innate 10 second BP rhythm, it is possible to remain composed even during high pressure situations.

Whenever the weight of responsibility bearing down on you becomes too great a burden, then take active steps to ensure that your heart stays closely aligned with your 10 second BP rhythm. But whatever you do – if your heart does become aligned with your flighty breathing rhythm when you are under pressure – DO NOT follow it there.

Spring Special for the months of August/September: Book now for a 2-session Zoom workshop with Dr Laurie on aligning your heart with your 10 sec BP rhythm for R950. Normally valued at R1250.

Follow your heart, but only if you know who’s leading who – Part 3

Follow your heart, but only if you know who’s leading who – Part 3

Bearing up under the weight of responsibility
When I first heard the term ‘the weight of responsibility’ it immediately struck a chord. Responsibility is indeed a crushing weight, the handling of which needs our constant attention. Like the body builder who gradually adds more and more weights to build the size and strength his/her muscles, the more we are exposed to handling the weight of responsibility the ‘stronger’ our ‘weight’ bearing abilities become. Not that the ‘heaviness’ itself ever goes away. No, it is ongoing, and it is relentless and the sooner we learn to bear up under the ‘heaviness’ associated with responsibility the better it will be for our health, wellbeing and our performance.

In my own case, when the StressEraser project finally got the nod, I committed to it wholeheartedly, despite my anxious heart telling me that this was a bridge too far. There were many similarities to walking out of the parallel bars upon first learning to walk with my peg leg. The game-changing difference between my futile attempts at mastering walking with the peg leg while I was at the same time trying not to fall – as compared to having a single-minded focus on walking – similarly applied. I had to step beyond my Performance-Arousal tipping point, trust my body and not think of falling by keeping my focus on my single-minded goal to measure the effects that deep breathing has on the neurobiology of performance. How exactly I was going to go about doing this was the unknow that kept me awake at night.

The importance of having a single-minded goal
The big difference between my anxious heart telling me to find an alternate career, after I had seemingly made no noticeable headway for 7 years following my accident, and my anxious heart telling me not to take on the StressEraser project was my single-minded goal of wanting to understand how breathing impacted the physiology of performance. Keeping this single-minded goal ‘alive’ in my brain allowed me to ‘look beyond’ my current stress levels to where I wanted to be. As I fine-tuned the research protocol and Gabriell took over from Diane and the equipment arrived from the UK and pilot testing started, my nerves started to settle.

After the data collection was finished, we had to analyse and interpret the data. This was a labour-intensive and stress provoking process that took us a good 2 years to fully come to grips with before we were able to write the first paper. Prof Wayne Derman, who originally obtained the funding for the StressEraser project, mentored us in this process. Given the novelty of the research our first paper spent 2 years in the review process before it was finally accepted for publication. Next on the agenda was Gaby’s PhD thesis and then on to publishing further papers. This project ended up spanning a total of 9 years, but it was well worth the time, effort and expense. Not only did Gaby graduate with her PhD and the 5 StressEraser papers are still highly cited today, it also enabled me to forge a research niche for myself.

The StressEraser research taught me a whole lot. Not only was deep, slow HRV paced breathing very effective in managing anticipatory anxiety, it also had a significant positive effect on cognitive performance and on subjective relaxation ratings. I found out that the primary reason why deep, slow breathing works so well is because the heart follows the breath. Note it is not the heart rate that follows the breath, rather it is the heart rhythm that follows the breathing rhythm. This is so, because your heart rate speeds up as you breathe in and your heart rate slows down as you breathe out. A fast, shallow breathing rate leads to a fast but ineffectual heart rhythm. Ineffectual in that a fast heart rhythm panics the brain. In contrast, slowing your breathing rate down to 6 breaths per min brings another rhythm into play – the alignment of your heart rhythm with your blood pressure rhythm.

Coherence in our 3 internal bodily rhythms
What this translates into is that the heart is not following the breath as such, rather it is following the Primate brain, because it is your Primate brain that sets the deep, slow breathing rhythm. Furthermore, the Primate brain is now also aligning with the Mammalian brain, which then leads to coherence of these 3 bodily rhythms. These 3 bodily rhythms cycle at around 10 seconds, therefore in order to synch these 3 bodily rhythms we have to increase the force and length (to about 3-4 seconds) of our in-breath and slow our out-breath to about 6-7 secs so that our combined in-and out-breath is about 10 seconds long. The feedback that your Primate brain and your Mammalian brain gets from a heart rate that rises and falls according to the aligned 6 breaths a minute rhythm is serene and as such is restorative in nature.

Why does the 6 breaths a minute work so well, and why for instance does 10 breaths a minute or 3 breaths a minute not work? This is because your blood pressure (BP) feedback loop operates on a 10 second rhythm. Unlike your breathing rhythm and your heart rhythm, your BP rhythm cannot be overridden by your Primate brain. It operates on this 10 second rhythm – regardless of Primate brain interference – to allow your blood pressure to be stable over the long term, despite wide short-term fluctuations each time your heart beats or you have an emotional response. 

Note that your BP rhythm is independent on your BP, i.e. no matter how high or low your BP is, it still operates via a 10 second feedback loop. Say for example your BP drops, your BP feedback loop corrects this as follows: 1) baroreceptors inside your arteries fire that 2) sends a message to your brainstem, 3) different sets of nuclei in your brainstem will interpret and 4) relay the signal to your blood vessels to constrict them 5) and to your heart to speed your heart up to 6) thereby increasing your BP. This whole feedback loop has built-in delays so that it ends up taking ~10 second in duration. This feedback loop keeps cycling and manifests as a 10 sec BP rhythm.

Engaging in 5 minutes of deep, slow breathing just prior to a stressful meeting, an exam or a sporting event will thus help you to be calmer and more focused, and positively impact your reaction time and your performance. This occurs because your heart–brain-body loop becomes highly synchronised after about 5 minutes of 10 sec breathing. This enables your Primate brain to switch to a state of heightened awareness instead of engaging in over-thinking and in overriding of your Mammalian brain. Keeping in mind that your Primate brain is the one that instructs your Mammalian brain that then executes whatever thoughts you have in your Primate brain. Hence the importance of thought control.

If this is done correctly, the feedback from your coherent 10 second heart rhythm to your Primate brain and your Mammalian brain will indicate that all is well in your body & environment and there is thus no need to activate excessive bodily resources to cope with potential challenges. This is the perfect time to be following your heart because you know it is your Primate brain setting the rhythm of your heart, rather than a stressor. Needless to say, following your heart when your heart is reacting to a stressor will lead to panic. Do not follow it there!

Powerful as deep, slow breathing is in calming your heart, clearly there is a deeper level that needs to be appreciated. The breath itself is only effective when it aligns with your BP rhythm, meaning it is the alignment of the heart rhythm with the BP rhythm that is the effective ingredient underpinning keeping calm. Our BP rhythms are under dominant Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) control, which necessitates working with the SNS in addition to the parasympathetic vagal nerve. Previously I took to running/cycling in the mountains to modulate my excess SNS drive to manage the ‘weight of responsibility’ of working towards my PhD. Indeed, exercise refreshed my body and cleared my head like nothing else, but now that exercise robbed me of what little energy I had, I was desperate to find a more efficient way to regulate my sympathetic nerves and my heart rhythm.            

Part 4 to follow.

Follow your heart, but only if you know who’s leading who – Part 2

Follow your heart, but only if you know who’s leading who – Part 2

My heart was screaming at me to find an alternate career. . .
Despite my anxieties that funders could only go according to physical outputs, I kept chipping away at my research proposal. If nothing else, I was gaining a massive amount of head knowledge. By now I had started to resign myself to the fact that I would be unable to secure any further funding for my postdoc. My lack of progress did not go unnoticed as I was duly presented with the ‘procrastinator of the year’ award by my fellow students. This almost knocked the last bit of wind out of my sails, but it was a timely wake-up call. Hard as it hit me, and as much as my colleagues wanted to help me, I had reached the point of no return. Either the time and money invested in me started producing outputs or I had to find an alternate career. I endeavoured to take this as a motivator, rather than a discourager.

Deep down I knew I could not stay in Exercise Science anyway if my heart could not fully buy into my new research direction. I searched for that elusive research hypothesis with renewed vigour. I understood from the inside out that the current wellbeing models – that comprehensively describes the wellbeing benefits of things such as diet, exercise, stress management, quitting smoking, cutting back on alcohol and the like – lacked anything substantial as far as performing ‘in the zone’ is concerned, i.e. performing without a disconnect between your heart and your head. This was hardly surprising, because it would require taking simultaneous brain and heart recordings during peak performances – never an easy task.

Finding a practical application for my head knowledge
The more I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to wave my postdoc goodbye, the louder that irritating little voice in my head became. It kept reminding me that “up to my accident I was actually doing quite alright – it’s hardly my fault that I’m in this situation now”. While listening to this little voice definitely took the edge off my anxieties, I soon realised it also took the edge off my focus. I thus took active steps to discipline myself to control my thoughts and to keep plugging away. I forced myself to rework a paper that I had written from data collected during my PhD, even though it had been rejected by several journals. I did not want to waste any more time on it, but it spoke into the Brain-Body research that I was trying to set up, so I made one final effort. The relief was palpable when this research paper finally got the nod.

As so often happens, when a breakthrough finally does come, it seems to create a momentum all of its own. While it has a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time (luck), it also requires being in tune with what society values. My 4-year enforced hiatus, while I was doing rehab, allowed me enough time out to appreciate how much faster the treadmill of life had gotten in ‘just’ 4 years.

The fable of the frog being slowly boiled alive comes to mind: If you put a frog in boiling water it will jump out, but it will stay in the water if the temperature is tepid when you put it in and then slowly boil the water. The frog will not perceive the danger and be cooked to death. Given the added burden of my 3 disabilities, it felt more like a 10-year break, i.e. by analogy the water temperature had rocketed up by 10 decrees by the time I started my postdoc, hence my continual urge to jump back out. Dealing with this massive ‘temperature’ increase allowed me to see what society dearly values, though society itself may not perceive it clearly.

The ‘temperature increase’ is being brought to bear by the change-over from a linear to a circular economy’. Whereas in a linear economy, ‘cheaper’ raw products can be sourced directly from nature, processed and sold for a worthwhile profit; in a circular economy, ‘more expensive’ recycled products are re-processed and sold for ever more marginal profits. It is estimated that it would require a 20 x greater investment, to make the global economy truly circular, than what is currently being invested. Continuing to use raw products at current rates without recycling is what is busy destroying nature and us with it. What this translates into is that we are all the while being required to ramp up to working 20 times harder for the same profit. It is not only the stress associated with having to work harder that’s getting to us, the real killer blow is the ever-present realisation that we are still nowhere near where we should be. Not only does this necessitate longer work hours, it also necessitates taking less holidays, spending less and most alarmingly borrowing more just to keep going. The reality is that more and more people are having to work at their ‘point of overwhelm’ just to keep their place on the treadmill of life. I presented a paper on how this impacts us neurobiologically at a conference in Bournemouth last year.

My real breakthrough came around about the time my paper was accepted. A US company was looking do some research on their so-called ‘StressEraser’, a handheld device that derives a heart rate variability (HRV) curve from finger pulse pressure, enabling users to regulate their heart rhythms (and their stress levels) via HRV biofeedback based deep, slow breathing.

Lessons from the StressEraser
This was indeed serendipitous given that I had studied the physiological underpinnings of HRV for the past 2 years and was therefore the only researcher in our Unit who had a good theoretical understanding of HRV analyses. This presented me with a golden opportunity. When tasked with taking this project on, Diane, a PhD candidate interested in this project, and I wrote a research proposal for the StressEraser project. I also submitted this research proposal with all my bursary applications to enable me to complete the 5th and final year of my postdoc. At this early stage, the StressEraser research project was still a pipe dream – I had zero experience in this research area plus I had no idea of what to expect – but I went along with it anyway. I had no other option.

When the US company came back with some enquiries regarding the budget it started to dawn on me that if this project did indeed get off the ground, the buck would stop squarely with me. As if that was not enough pressure, after the budget was finally accepted, Diane emigrated to Australia and my good friend, mentor and co-supervisor on the StressEraser project, Zig St Clair Gibson took up a post in the UK. Now I truly was on my own. Though I had a brilliant project, funding for myself and funding to run the project, I had no mentors and no students. This was in addition to already operating at the tipping point of overwhelm.

The Weight of Responsibility
When the full weight of the responsibility for the success of the StressEraser project landed squarely onto my shoulders like this, a level of stress descended on me that I had never encountered before. The nervous tension in my heart ramped up to such a degree that I was completely powerless to do anything about it; I struggled to fall asleep at night. I started hoping that the US company director would change his mind or that somebody else would take over from me. In the past I would take to the mountains to run the stress off, now exercise just stressed me out further.

Though my heart was still screaming at me, even louder than before, to find an alternate career, the big difference was that I now had a choice. Before I could blame my accident or my inability to find a research question for my lack of outputs. Now I was forced to choose between overwhelm and also ran.

Part 3 to follow.

Follow your heart, but only if you know who’s leading who – Part 1

Follow your heart, but only if you know who’s leading who – Part 1

Finding a channel for the nervous energy in my heart
After I was knocked off my bicycle by a container truck it required an extraordinary amount of energy to put my life back together again. Forced to operate way outside of my comfort zone for prolonged periods, I was extremely desperate to find a way to channel the excessive nervous energy that bombarded my broken heart.

In the past I would burn up this nervous energy by running/cycling in the mountains or out on the roads, sometimes for hours on end. Not that I was training for anything specific, but rather to maintain my health, wellbeing and my sanity. Without the escape valve of exercise my stress levels soon became unmanageable. However that may be, getting rid of stress was not my main motivation for exercising. I exercised because it made me feel alive (especially just after exercising), because I was good at it; and most importantly, I exercised because I felt good when my body was fit and strong.

The opposite also applies, as we are all well aware: I did not feel good when my body was weak and uncoordinated. At first I channeled all my nervous energy into finishing my PhD and into my daily intensive rehab sessions, but after I graduated with my PhD at the age of 34 – that focused on ultra-endurance exercise performance – my defensive behavioural response came strongly to the fore. I felt like a deer caught in the headlights; my unsettled nerves panicking my brain and I did not know which way to run. I was frozen in inaction. I was approaching my mid-thirties without a vision of where I was going. Everything I had done up to my accident had focussed on peak sporting performance; something which demands every last ounce of energy from you.

I now had to find something else to channel my nervous energy into, something that gave me energy rather than something that demanded energy from me. A paradox if ever there was one, given the realities of the Performance-Arousal curve.

Facing up to my Performance-Arousal curve
After 4 years of intense rehab I forced myself back into the arena by applying for a postdoctoral position at the UCT/MRC Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine headed up by Prof Tim Noakes. Though I had an idea of what I wanted to research, coming up with an appropriate research question was not as straightforward. Essentially I was wanting to research how to go about managing the overwhelming stress in my body due to the combination of having 3 physical disabilities and having to perform in a highly competitive Research Unit.

This so-called Performance-Arousal curve that confronted me is shaped like a hill. What this means is that any performance increase requires an increase in bodily arousal (stress), but only up to a tipping point. After this point, further increases in bodily arousal is then associated with decrements in performance. This is so, because at this tipping point further increases in bodily arousal (sympathetic nervous activation) starts to panic the brain. While we may well be able to increase our speed and/or strength for one final effort when our Sympathetic Nervous Systems (SNS) are overactivated (with attendant mass release of adrenaline and energy), the panic we would feel in our brain means that our ‘all or nothing’ responses are not very productive as far as outputs are concerned. This tipping point sits at the outer limits of our comfort zones.

I was operating on this tipping point for my entire postdoc, doing my all to prevent complete overwhelm. My productivity – as far as outputs were concerned – was thus essentially non-existent for 4 years. It took most of my self-regulatory abilities just to pitch up, work on my research proposal and engage in the daily activities in the Unit. The sheer challenge of coping with a severely injured brain and spine and having only one leg meant that forging a niche for myself would have required me to operate with an unmanageably high level of SNS drive. A SNS drive that would have completely swamped my heart and my brain. As it was, my panic levels were steadily climbing. By the 4th year of my postdoc, i.e. a full 7 years after my accident, I still had no outputs (other than that stemming from my pre-accident research) to show for all my efforts during a period of our lives that are usually very productive, our thirties. It was a vicious cycle indeed. The more tense I became the less productive I was.

Following my heart would have ended my career in Exercise Science, because my heart was screaming at me to find an alternate career.

Part 2 to follow.

Thought Control

Thought Control

Thought Control

Do you take steps to control your thoughts, or do you allow your thoughts to control you? A good way to become aware of the point at which your thoughts start controlling you is by taking note of those ineffectual behavioural responses of yours, eg binge eating, biting of nails, procrastinating, fidgeting, chain smoking, aggressive behaviour – the list, for most of us, goes on. This is a very simple, but also a very powerful progression: thoughts-feelings-action.

Mastering your thoughts-feelings-action progression.

The first step on your journey of learning how to control your thoughts is internalising the above key insight. Controlling your thoughts will affect the alignment of your feelings with your thoughts, which will motivate you to act on these aligned feelings. It took me a long time to internalise this simple truth and this only after I was on the brink of burnout as mentioned in a previous blog. At the time my thought life was chaotic, I felt tense and fearful, my waistline started to expand from comfort eating, I was snappy and irritable a lot of the time. What I did not understand at the time was that I was desperately trying to get rid of the edginess or ‘nervous energy’ in my heart.

But once I understood the different heart-brain perspectives of my Primate brain and my Mammalian brain I finally managed to bring my thought life under control.

How do we go about bringing our thought life under control?

This concept can be better understood by first exploring our innate behavioural repertoires such as the above-mentioned Fight or Flight response that routinely gets activated in the absence of life-threatening danger. What on earth possessed my Mammalian brain to engage its Fight and Flight setting while I was sitting quietly working on my computer? The simple reason was that my Primate brain had seemingly ‘set the goal’ of controlling the multiple deadlines I was working against. My Mammalian brain, unable to obtain the set goal, defaulted to engaging its Fight or Flight response. By way of analogy you can see your Primate brain being like a rider and your Mammalian brain and body being like a horse.

The crucial principle to take to heart from the above is that our every thought effectively becomes a goal set by our Primate brains. And this goal set by our Primate brains is then taken as an instruction by our Mammalian brains. BUT if there is no clear single-minded goal for our Mammalian brains to go out and obtain, the instruction your horse (Mammalian brain and body) gets is that the situation is uncontrollable, and it immediately engages Fight and Flight behaviour with attendant release of nervous energy in the heart, because this has great survival value.

A good example of the survival value of nervous energy in the heart are soldiers at war having to be on high alert to best preserve their lives. Children growing up in abusive homes would similarly have excess nervous energy in the heart to keep them on high alert to closely monitor the mood of their parents. The sad reality is that if we have to deal with excess nervous energy in our hearts on a daily basis it will end up rewiring our brains and set us up for a lifetime of problems.

Moving from the spine to undo the dysregulation
Fortunately, this dysregulation can be undone by reversing the order of the sequence of events described above. Excessive nervous energy in the heart – that results in us losing control of our Primate brains and prompts ineffectual behavioural responses – can be reversed by way of correcting our postures and ‘moving from the spine’. This behavioural change will immediately affect changes in the chemical balance in our brain and in our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) activations. These balanced chemicals and ANS responses then help us to take back control over our thoughts.

Why then is posture and movement so important to help calm the heart and brain? It is easier to understand this by looking at its opposite: going into a collapse. A collapsed structure has the effect of putting your body and your brain ‘on the defensive’, which then activates your Fight or Flight response that increases your heart rate and hijacks your brain. If you are on the defensive you will not feel ‘safe’ in your body. This brings us back to why posture and movement are so important to help calm the heart and the brain, because it helps us to feel safe in our bodies and prevents us going ‘on the defensive’ and ‘instructing’ our Mammalian brains to engage Fight or Flight behaviour.

Two more motivated behaviours
Apart from defensive behaviour your Mammalian brain has two more ‘motivated behavioural’ programmes, ingestive behaviour and reproductive behaviour. They are ‘motivated’ because these behaviours are programmed into your Mammalian brain to satisfy your biological needs. They play out in very strict hierarchical order. First and foremost are your defensive behaviours, second ingestive behaviours and lastly, reproductive behaviours; with each behavioural response seeking to satisfy a specific biological need; 1) settled Nerves, 2) Nourishment and 3) Nurturing.

Rule #1: Don’t ever try and control these three types of behaviours with your Primate brain, because they will just end up controlling you.

If you have unsettled Nerves do not try to ease this by seeking out Nourishment or Nurturing, which has the effect of engaging either your ingestive or reproductive behavioural programmes. Note that engaging in Instant Gratification like this will only temporarily switch off your defensive behavioural response. If there is something or someone causing your nerves to be unsettled, don’t be tempted to engage in Instant Gratification behaviour. Either attend to what is unsettling your nerves or take steps to get away.

If your nerves are unsettled for no particular reason, the best way to dissipate the unease you are feeling is to use rhythmic rotational movements around the spine to redirect the energy into your spine (and movements) while your Primate brain observes and feels whether you are doing the movements correctly to thereby prevent ‘mental interference’. Mental interference is a generic term for those unproductive thoughts of ours that instructs our Mammalian brains to go on the defensive. Putting an end to mental interference will help you to calm your heart and your brain.  

Please see our website for details about our workshops and one-on-one sessions that will teach you how to meet life’s challenges on the front foot, while KEEPING CALM on the inside, thereby energising your body and cultivating composure.

If you would like to take part in a 15 minutes slow movement intervention (that will help you get back into your body via rotational movement around the spine) please click this link and fill out the Wellbeing diary before and after doing the 15 minutes of movement as demonstrated on the video. This Wellbeing intervention is currently being done in collaboration  with Northumbria University.

A Brief Introduction to our Centred Brain

A Brief Introduction to our Centred Brain

A Brief Introduction to our Centred Brain.

After I was discharged from hospital my initial elation quickly gave way to quiet desperation. Our house was not wheelchair friendly and life became a series of frustrations. I wanted my freedom back as a matter of some urgency. Not so simple when you have severe brain and spinal cord injuries and only one leg. My head throbbed nonstop and my body felt very heavy and drained of energy all the time.

Desperation drove me to understand how the brain motivated and moved my body to obtain my goals in life. I knew this feeling very well from my racing days – how my fatigued body miraculously recovered, making me feel exhilarated and alive. One particular cycling race stands out – the feel-good rush happened towards the end of a very exhausting and very prolonged cycling race while I was cycling at a very high intensity.

On the laboratory bike I would have collapsed in a heap, but out there on the road, racing away from the breakaway group that I was in, I felt invincible! Knowing I would win were I to keep my intensity high caused my brainstem to flood the rest of my brain with dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine and other chemicals, all in the right combinations. My brainstem also saturated my spine with serotonin and increased my bodily sympathetic drive, the combination of which up-regulated both my skeleto-motor system and my motivation to the maximum.

I felt like Spiderman on speed – an unbeatable combination.
If I could tap into these feel good chemicals while engaging in physical activity, I would surely be able to reclaim my body and keep in shape ‘effortlessly’. Fine in theory but coaxing my withered body to move at greater than walking speed required an extraordinary amount of effort. It felt just plain awful.

The only time something approaching a second wind became apparent was when I haltingly made my way to the supper table to tuck into yet another of mom’s sumptuous offerings. Though our hunting and gathering expeditions are far less demanding these days, walking to the fridge or down the supermarket aisles are none the less a type of physical activity. More correctly it is a hardwired behavioural programme that initiates what is known as foraging behaviour.

As it turns out the motor control of all our behavioural programmes – whether eating or reproducing or engaging in locomotor activities like running, cycling or swimming – are regulated by the same neural circuitry in the Mammalian brain.

Think of sprinting for the line in a race you won or did very well in; or tucking into a hearty meal after a hard day’s work; or walking over to visit your first girlfriend/boyfriend. What was the overriding thought in your mind at the time? Surely not “I’m tired” or “I don’t feel good”.

Not at all, your overriding thought would be the goal of the behaviour you are engaging in and how energising it makes you feel to be on the way to obtaining your goal. This single-minded focus on the goal of our behaviour or movement – rather than on how to contract our leg muscles to run, or walk, or how to contract our finger muscles to grip our knives and forks – is possible because our Mammalian brains co-ordinates our behavioural responses to obtain our ‘biological needs’. We have only 3 main types of biological needs, safety, nourishment and nurturing and our Mammalian brains are fully programmed to engage in the appropriate ‘motivated behaviours’ to fulfil these needs.

Our motivated behavioural responses tend to run themselves.
In a lot of ways I had to start from scratch to learn how to work with my body to whip it back into shape again. Before being run over by a truck, I simply pushed through all the discomforts knowing that it was just a matter of time before my body responded to all the high intensity hill repeats, exhaustive long cycles and running up and down the mountain. After my accident I was forced to be much more attentive to my bodily needs, forced to cut back completely on the intensity, forced to learn how to let my Mammalian brain take charge of my movements and behaviours.

This allowed my Primate brain enough ‘freedom’ to appreciate and eventually start enjoying physical activity. My primary objective was to practice KEEPING CALM throughout the day to enable me to listen out for – and address – my bodily prompts. We address our bodily prompts by allowing our Mammalian brains to take charge of self-regulation. The best way to practice KEEPING CALM is via teaching one’s Mammalian brain posturally correct movement sequences that serves to regulate the sympathetic nervous drive to our hearts and viscera. In tandem we must also discipline ourselves to stop mentally interfering with our Mammalian brains.

The key principle is to find the golden mean between the goal that is set by your Primate brain and obtaining that goal in synchrony with your Mammalian brain and the behaviours it governs. In short, to find the golden mean between idealistic Primate brain top-down control and the naturalness of Mammalian brain regulation of behaviour in obtaining your goals.

Keeping Calm in the time of Corona

Keeping Calm in the time of Corona

Boost your immune system in the time of Corona.

The one thing I learnt from all my years of Wellbeing research is to keep my vagal nerve firing to optimise my immune response. This necessitates keeping your ‘heart-primate brain–vagus nerve axis’ online throughout your day. Something that is only possible if you first disengage your Fight or Flight response. Arguably my biggest challenge upon returning to research following my cycling accident. 

I was desperate to find a technique that worked with my severely disabled body rather than my having to engage in something (e.g. hard exercise) that demanded more from my body.

When our Research Unit received funding to run the StressEraser project it presented me with a make or break opportunity. An exercise scientist by training I would not have survived long in the research game had I gotten this wrong. I.e. backed the wrong horse as it were. Not only did I have to become familiar with a whole new research literature, I also had to master new measuring techniques such as heart rate variability analyses and brain wave recordings. I embraced this opportunity wholeheartedly given its promise of delivering many health and wellness benefits.

I was particularly keen to find interventions that would help me settle my jangled nerves from the effort required in reclaiming my life. I had lost 4 years of productive work towards my PhD to complete intense physical and mental rehab. After graduating with my PhD and starting postdoctoral research, I examined the physiological changes in the heart-brain axis accruing from HRV biofeedback based deep, slow breathing. The real beauty of vagal nerve activation via deep, slow 10 second breathing is that it enables one to both monitor the state of one’s heart & viscera as well as effect regulatory control over the same. I did not know what we were going to find nor indeed if we even would find anything.

The results were way more impressive that I could ever have imagined.

Restorative deep, slow HRV paced breathing not only massively increased heart healthy vagal drive, it also significantly improved cognitive performance. 

Five highly cited research articles stemmed from this data. Keeping your Immune System in tip top condition to give it the best shot at fighting of the coronavirus it is thus highly recommended. Your heart needs to be ‘restored’ every single day via deep, slow, 10 second breathing to activate your heart healthy vagus nerve. A great time to do so is during your lunch break. The serene feedback from your restored heart after 10 minutes of vagal nerve activating breathing will then help to calm your Primate brain.

This is the first step to Keeping Calm, the next step is to remain composed when your vagus nerve is ‘switched off’ during high pressure situations.

The worst thing you can do for your natural immunity is to remain in a state of constant stress. This happened to me a few years after completing the StressEraser project when a series of emergency situations, demanding immediate attention, kept me on high alert for the bulk of the year. Towards the end of the year I could feel something snap in my brain and the next morning I was unable to get out of bed. I was one step away from total burnout. Deep, slow breathing was just not enough to bring me back from the brink. At the time I was busy with an innovative research project with Performance and Natural Movement Coach, Andre Oelofse, involving a Tai Chi based natural movement and boxing intervention.

 I could hardly believe what we discovered.

After the 4-week training intervention there was a significant correlation between the body posture and joint angles of the soccer players during boxing performance and their HRV (a good marker of vagal nerve activation). This means that after Andre taught the pro soccer players how to move ‘from the spine’; the more ‘front footed’ they were during a mock boxing performance round the higher their HRV values were. A finding that is so contradictory – the closer to the challenger the players were the more relaxed they felt – that I went through the data analyses a number of times to make sure I did it correctly. Andre and I subsequently created a 4-session training intervention that teaches individuals how to balance their brain chemicals and settle their nerves when performing under pressure. This ensures that the sympathetic nervous system is kept under control of the spine that then also enables one to switch off one’s Fight and Flight response as soon as the pressure situation has been effectively dealt with. This works with your heart-Mammalian brain-spine-heart axis.

 Switching off one’s Fight and Flight response is crucially important for sustaining a healthy immune response able to overwhelm the coronavirus before it has time to settle in one’s body. BUT chronic stress will downregulate and weaken your natural immune response and leave you vulnerable to the coronavirus. It is thus crucial for you to disengage from chronic stress and maintain heart healthy vagal activity to allow your immune response to fire up the moment viruses or bacteria invade your body. Somewhat paradoxically it is your Fight and Flight response that enables your body to quickly mobilise a whole host of white blood cells to mop up the coronaviruses before they have time to settle and multiply.

Remember your Fight and Flight response is an emergency response only. If you keep your emergency response going it will eventually ravage all your bodily systems and organs and saddle you with lifestyle diseases. I therefore listen to my heart to help me sustain a good measure of heart healthy vagus drive throughout my day, but my number one priority always remains preventing my Fight and Flight response from getting any traction. Unless it is a real emergency.

 If you would like to learn these two immune boosting techniques for yourself to help strengthen your immune system during the COVID era, please contact us to find out more about our 4-session Composure training module and our 2 session Restoration training module.

Are you motivated to do the right thing for the right reason?

Are you motivated to do the right thing for the right reason?


 Our motivated behaviours are driven by our ‘biological needs’. In descending order of importance, they are 1) Settled Nerves, 2) Nourishment and
3) Nurturing. The greater a particular biological need of ours becomes, the more the motivated behavioural circuits in our Mammalian brains will be upregulated in an effort to fulfil this need. For obvious reasons our behaviours cannot happen without muscle recruitment by the brain. This means our motivated behaviours start in the brain, the motivated brain.

Would you like to tap into the motivated behavioural circuits of your Mammalian brain to help you to always do the right thing at the right time for the right reason?

A motivated brain requires up regulation in the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, etc. It also requires up-regulation of the Midbrain Locomotor Region or MLR for short. The MLR is found in the midbrain at the top end of the brainstem that then activates nuclei in the Reticular Formation in the Medulla. From here the reticular spinal nerves activates the Central Pattern Generators (CPGs) in the spine to effect what is known as locomotion – repetitive motor activities like walking, running, cycling, swimming, paddling, chewing, swallowing, etc. Locomotion is movement that can be executed completely subconsciously.

For example, we use locomotion when we engage in ingestive and reproductive behaviours. Feel good chemicals are released because these 2 motivated behaviours are specifically designed to fulfil biological needs that help ensure the survival of the individual and of the species. The reason why we are able to relegate this type of behaviour completely to one’s Mammalian brain is because the ‘goal’ of the movement is so clear in our minds. Crucially one’s Primate brain must allow one’s Mammalian brain to get on with the task without any mental interference.

One of the major reasons these 2 types of behaviours are so pleasurable is because the motor activities associated with them are completely co-ordinated by your Mammalian brain so your Primate brain can focus on the pleasure derived (from the released feel good chemicals) rather than on the effort required.  

The Primate brain is also involved, but it has a highly specific role.

The role of the Primate brain is to choose the right food. A bad choice e.g. rotten food will result in your brainstem executing what is known as a gag reflex before swallowing or a vomit reflex after swallowing.  Naturally no feel-good chemicals will be released either because eating rotten food is detrimental to our health.

Similarly, when your Primate brain chooses to engage in dangerous activities like Russian roulette or playing with a poisonous snake, your Mammalian brain will engage your Fight and Flight behavioural setting.  No feel-good chemicals will be released either, only feel bad ones. 

Unless you consider life-or-death adrenaline rushes to be feel good. 

After the fact it may feel good, but generally the adrenaline and cortisol spikes should jolt you rather than make you feel good. This jolt will hopefully snap you back into reality before you do some irreparably damage to yourself.

All too often, though, your Primate brain hijacks your Mammalian brain to engage your Fight and Flight behavioural setting when there is no real danger. Your Mammalian brain will dutifully release all those feel bad chemicals to dissuade you from your present course of action.

In the same vein, any activities that the Primate brain chooses to engage in that will train and strengthen the body to aid future survival should ultimately feel good.

Following this logic, the way to neutralise the feel bad chemicals and the excess nervous energy in your heart after you have “inadvertently” chosen to hijack your Mammalian brain to engage its Fight and Flight behavioural setting is to engage in some rhythmic movement via Mammalian brain activation of the CPGs in your spine.

Rhythmic movement ‘around’ your T7 spine by your Mammalia brain will help to refocus your Primate brain and bring you back to centre.

The key is to have a very clear goal in your Primate brain able to act as a ‘biological need’ for the Mammalian brain to fulfil.

It is easier for an athlete to derive a particular goal that aligns well with sporting performance that would thereby serve to enhance their survival potential and hence become a potent biological need for their Mammalian brain to fulfil. Pursuing the sporting goal, e.g. supreme cardiovascular fitness, then effectively becomes the no 1 priority of the athlete’s Mammalian brain, as it will lead to settling of his Nerves.

Since it is not necessarily healthy for the body to be pushed to the limit for prolonged periods, the athlete would have to push through all the unpleasant sensations to achieve his or her goal. Once the goal is achieved the feel-good chemical release will be massive – the effort expended duly rewarded.

This is a critical point to understand, your Mammalian brain is only concerned with 3 things, survival, food and water and reproduction and you must thus learn to speak its language if you want to tap into the motivated behavioural circuits subsumed in your Mammalian brain.

If your goal is wellness and longevity, then your focus should be to remain in a deep calm state for as much of your day as possible. This will ensure that your Primate brain does not unnecessarily instruct your Mammalian brain to engage its Fight and Flight behavioural setting. 

The analogy would be revving your car into the red from one traffic light to the next, rather than pacing yourself and being gentle on your body. All those feel bad chemicals and the excessive nervous energy that is released in the heart during Fight and Flight behaviour only serves to wear your body out prematurely and speed up disease processes. David Hawkins (PhD) in his “Levels of Consciousness” ladder considers ‘peace’ to be highest level of consciousness that humans can aspire to.

Maintaining a state of peace or deep calm should thus be very high on your list of priorities given that it fulfils your most crucial biological need: to settle your Nerves.

Do you need wine, workouts or wonder drugs to help calm you down?

Do you need wine, workouts or wonder drugs to help calm you down?

Do you feel wired but tired a lot of the time?
Are your nerves pushed to breaking point on a daily basis?
Do you have a ‘to do list’ that often feels overwhelming?

If you are anything like me, you will feel your nerves start settling shortly after you start engaging with/completing your task list for the day. This is all good and well, except for the harsh reality that our ‘to do lists’ tend to grow at a faster pace than we can complete them.

Almost invariably our lists aren’t done by day’s end and our frayed nerves struggle to settle without the help of a workout, a drink or a tranquiliser. Overdoing our workouts can easily lead to feeling even more wired and tired the next morning. A hangover feels even worse and popping a tranquiliser or 2 is a sure way to dependency.

The obvious answer is to slow down, but the sheer speeds our lives are running at precludes us from slowing down, never mind stopping for a breather. This constant struggle to settle our nerves as we face seemingly endless daily demands has its roots in the ‘disconnect’ between our Primate and Mammalian brains. I discovered the extent of my own disconnect when I was involuntarily knocked off my ‘treadmill of demands’ by a container truck while out cycle training. Down and out career wise for the better part of 4 years I had to find a disabled friendly treadmill to start out again. My previous treadmill was going way too fast for my disabled body to manage. The two biggest obstacles in reclaiming my life were extreme fatigue and debilitating stress. ‘Fight and Flight’ mode became my constant companion, ‘Rest and Digest’ was not in my vocabulary.

I was blessed enough to be given a second chance at a career at the UCT Division of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine under Prof Tim Noakes. Staying with peak performance, but changing my focus from sport and exercise to wellness performance allowed me to re-examine everything I had learned in my PhD through a different set of lenses. I completed 5 years of postdoctoral research to carve out a new niche for myself.

My postdoc fellowship turned out to be more like a second PhD as I had to master a whole new research area, become familiar with the literature and learn new research techniques and analyses. I searched high and low to find an appropriate physiological marker of health and wellbeing. Eventually settling on a relatively simple measure known as heart rate variability (HRV). A simple but very effective way to indirectly measure the output of the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

My interest in the ANS was tweaked after my accident because my sympathetic nervous system (SNS) was constantly in overdrive. My nerves were jangled from the stress of catching up on almost 4 years of lost productivity in that most crucial of window periods – the early 30s age bracket. There were also sound physiological reasons for my jangled nerves. The severe traumatic brain injuries I sustained played havoc with my central autonomic cardiovascular regulation; plus, the prolonged bed rest resulted in the ramping up of the activity in the sympathetic nuclei in my brainstem.

Though perfectly suited to help me kick-start my wasted body my adrenaline levels were nevertheless way out of control. Pacing my efforts got me nowhere; I was forced to keep pushing my body too hard.


Even though it knocked me for a 6 I didn’t know what else to do.


Prior to my accident the only gear I knew was to go very hard until my body adapted. Self-regulation was just so much simpler (though never easy) when I had a super strong and fit body; and in an emergency situation I usually found an extra gear. I was soon to discover that I needed yet another gear.

Never one to sit back and wait for my body to catch up one day, I simply kept pushing myself beyond my body’s capabilities. Until I felt something go snap in my brain one night after falling into bed completely exhausted – the next morning I could not get out of bed.

This forced me to find a better way to perform at the required level. The key to unlocking this better way was learning to quieten my Primate brain and allowing the motivated behavioural circuits programed into my Mammalian brain to regulate my behaviour. The Mammalian brain analogy I am referring to consists of the spinal cord, the brainstem-hypothalamus, the cerebellum and the Basal Ganglia.

As a scientist I normally insist on covering all the angles, I like to incorporate outliers and I don’t like to generalise. Nevertheless, I am well aware of the power of a simplified neurobiological model that cuts through the vast majority of the apparent outliers, exceptions and subjective human experiences.

What exactly are these ‘motivated behavioural circuits’ programmed into the brainstem of all vertebrates from fish, amphibians, reptiles, lower mammals, primates through to humans?

There are 3 main types of motivated behaviours: defensive, ingestive and reproductive behaviours – in this strict hierarchy. In most mammals all 3 these motivated behaviours are initiated by the sense of smell that completely bypasses the Primate brain, meaning these mammals have no control over their behaviour.

Humans, on the other hand, do have a measure of modulatory control over their 3 motivated behaviours. It is thus in our best interest to ‘work with’ these 3 programmes subsumed in our Mammalian brains that are hyper-effective and can do the job far better without Primate brain interference. Trying to control our motivated behaviours with our Primate brains is a sure way to ill health, misery and addiction. Yes, drugs can regulate our Mammalian brains very effectively, but at huge cost to our overall health
and wellbeing. 

The major price we end up paying is that all forms of external drugs will lead to the rewiring of our brains to become dependent on the external drugs. While OK to use external drugs when we do need them for a while, it is essential to wean ourselves off as quickly as possible, unless we require a drug that our own brains are unable to manufacture for some reason or other.

While it is relatively easy for us to understand ingestive and reproductive behaviours, it is a lot more complicated to put our finger on defensive behaviours. Our defensive behavioural programme kicks in every time we feel ‘unsafe’ in our bodies. Referring to the strict hierarchy of our 3 motivated behaviours, feeling safe in our body is the number one ‘concern’ of our Mammalian brains.

If you feel unsafe for some reason your Primate brain will automatically instruct your Mammalian brain to engage its Fight and Flight setting. It may be a bit of a misnomer to say our Primate brain does something automatically – more correctly it is a ‘conditioned response’.

There is no denying that the Fight and Flight response programmed into our Mammalian brains is a highly effective way to stay alive in a real life or death situation, but how often should we use it in our daily lives? The Fight and Flight setting is very wasteful of bodily resources and even worse, excessive activation will damage all the organs in our bodies, especially the heart, kidneys and blood vessels.

The good news is that apart from co-ordinating the Fight and Flight response, our Mammalian brains are also very good at co-ordinating things like energy balance and repetitive limb movements for locomotor activities like running, cycling, swimming and paddling. This means that locomotor activities should feel as satisfying as eating.

If you would like to find out how to tap into your motivated behaviours and use it to enhance your wellbeing and your performance, then please join us for our next workshop or sign up for a one on one session.