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.