How to control your nervous system?
Stress is an epidemic. It is one of the most widespread and debilitating conditions in the world, yet many people act as if it is completely natural. If there was one thing that could be called the antithesis of The Bulletproof Executive – it is stress. Stress sucks up the reserves you should be using to create more resilience.
Here are just a few things stress does to your body:
I spent a great deal of time and energy learning to consciously manipulate my stress including 10 days meditating in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, then talking with Buddhist monks around Tibet. It was an eye opening and fascinating experience, but I was far from done.
Later, I spent about $20, 000 dollars to have myself attached to a proprietary, eight channel EEG amplifier with some custom brain training protocols. In seven days, I learned to put my brain into a mental state that, under normal conditions, takes people between 21 and 40 years of daily Japanese Zen mediation to achieve. Along with that state comes stress management that results in much higher IQ and creativity levels.
In 2010, I became a certified trainer and coach in another powerful stress reduction method called Heart Math. I also bought second EEG machine (my first was in 1998).
This is on top of years of meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, sound, and other neurofeedback techniques.
As a busy executive with awesome kids and a hot, Swedish, doctor wife, why on earth would I spend my time shaving my head, playing with electrodes, and hiking up mountains?
Because I let stress hold me back for too long. I was an angry person for the first half of my life. I carried around so much unconscious – and sometimes conscious – frustration and even hatred that it literally made me sick. When I began upgrading my body, conquering stress was one of my top priorities.
On some levels, the brain is like software. Negative emotions, hostile feelings, and recurring irrational thoughts corrupt our consciousness. After years of being stressed, if you’re like most people, you’ve probably programmed your body to become hardwired for tension.
Stress holds you back in all aspects of life. It weakens your immune system, costs you precious time that should be spent enjoying life. Stress hurts your interpersonal relationships and alienates others. It decreases your ability to make rational decisions and perform at work. Stress sucks.
Most people have no clue how important it is to manage stress – or that it’s even possible. They go through life thinking they’ll just bear it until retirement or vacation. Or even worse, they convince themselves that they don’t really feel any stress because they don’t have a reason to feel it. In the mean time, they go through mini nervous breakdowns on a daily basis mistreating themselves and the people around them.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: stress is not a rational thing – it is an irrational feeling, and it will only get worse unless you learn to manage it. The good news is that stress, like everything else, is hackable, so you can convert stress into a tool that makes you stronger instead of saps your energy.
The Science of Stress
Stress is the disruption of homeostasis and is not always bad. In regards to exercise, stress is needed to produce training adaptions. In order to learn, you need to stress your brain in new ways – learning a new language, solving a math problem, creating a new business/product, etc.. Humans are designed to handle small, intermittent bouts of stress. When stress becomes chronic, it becomes a disease.
The effects of stress on your body are very real. The symptoms of stress come in four varieties: cognitive, emotional, physical, and behavioral. Here is a short list of the various symptoms:
- Memory problems
- Inability to concentrate
- Poor judgment
- Seeing only the negative
- Anxious or racing thoughts
- Constant worrying
- Irritability or short temper
- Agitation, inability to relax
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Sense of loneliness and isolation
- Depression or general unhappiness
- Fat gain
- Aches and pains
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Nausea, dizziness
- Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
- Loss of sex drive
- Frequent colds
- Eating more, or less
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Isolating yourself from others
- Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
- Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
- Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)
However stress is effecting you, you need to learn to identify it and manage it. Once your body becomes conditioned to respond a certain way, it’s hard to change that response. Rewiring your brain and heart and nervous system hacks your stress response allowing you to become far more resilient with more energy to use adapting to positive stress.
Here are my top ways to simultaneously reduce your exposure to stress, and improve your stress handling abilities.
1. Have Fun
This is the most basic and easiest way to reduce your stress level. It sounds simple, but many people don’t practice it enough. To me, this means spending time with my kids, cooking, climbing mountains, talking with my wife, or even biohacking. I’ll cover this more later in the series, but for new realize that it’s common for adults to forget to spend time having fun. Family and career considerations – and the ever-present email waiting for replies – can suck the fun out of life. It’s your job to schedule fun time the same way you schedule meetings.
2. Synchronize Your Heart & Brain with Heart Math
This is my “Honda daily driver” of brain upgrades. There are more expensive, sexier ways to hack your stress, but nothing comes close the the Heart Math technology when it comes to reliably training your heart and brain to work together. A healthy, relaxed person has high heart rate variability (HRV) which means that amount of time between each heart beat is different with each beat. Low heart rate variability is a sign of intense stress. When your sympathetic nervous system is under stress, your body will release stress hormones, and your heart develops an inflexible unchanging beat. This state is correlated with a host of diseases and even overall mortality from all causes.
The emWave2 is a device smaller than an iPhone which uses infrared sensors to calculate your HRV. When you have low HRV, a red light appears. Your job is to do everything possible to make the light turn green while following the device’s guidance, which steers you to breathe in and out every five seconds. You can also listen to music to help, meditate (See #3), or do anything else you can think of that doesn’t make you move around a lot. Spending at least ten minutes every day working with your heart rate variability is transformative. Doing it before bed can fix sleep problems, and it can help with emotional eating, daily stress, and even physical performance. This technology changed my life and career. It is simple to do and everyone I’ve ever known who did it for a month had huge positive changes in the way they felt and the way they treated others simply because they learned to consciously control their fight or flight responses. This stuff belongs in every school.
The goal of meditation is to become more mindful, be more directive and choiceful with your attention and responsive (not reactive) to your thoughts. Meditation allows you to identify, observe, and master your emotions. Instead of blindly reacting to outside stimuli, you can optimize your thought process and react as you see fit.