Glossary of Useful NSM Terms

Glossary of Useful NSM Terms

Bottom-up vs. Top Down Protocols.

Working definition: This refers to the bi-directional relationship between the brain and peripheral tissues (i.e. body). Top-down protocols refer to interventions that begin with the mind (cognitive behavioural therapy or TM meditation being two examples) which then influence the body. In contrast bottom up protocols involve intervening in the body in order to shift one's mental state, examples of bottom up protocols may include breathwork, t’ai chi or progressive muscle relaxation. (source: Taylor et al, 2010)


Working definition: A syndrome of mental and physical exhaustion resulting from chronic stress. The three dimensions characterising burnout are feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased cynicism or psychological distance from one’s work and reduced professional efficacy (WHO, 2020). The accumulation of unaddressed emotional debt increases the likelihood of burnout.

Dysfunctional Breathing.

Working definition: There is no precise definition of dysfunctional breathing patterns, but it generally includes any disturbance to breathing, including hyperventilation or over-breathing, unexplained breathlessness, breathing pattern disorder and/or irregularity of breathing.

Helpful context: The main two signs of dysfunctional are breathing through the mouth and movement in the upper chest. Additional signs are if you can hear your breathing at all during rest or you experience frequent sighing or yawning. Note that this isn't a precise definition but generally includes breathing patterns which point to 'over-breathing' or irregularity of breathing during rest.

More context from Patrick Mckeown "Research has linked dysfunctional breathing (DB) to a host of health conditions, including lower back pain and neck pain. It has also been proven to adversely affect the musculoskeletal system (Kiesel et al.,2017). Among those with dysfunctional breathing patterns, the ability to hold the breath is a function that is typically disturbed. The inability to hold the breath for more than twenty seconds generally indicates that a breathing pattern disorder is present. Additionally, it has been proposed that resting CO2 levels correlate with breath hold time."

Embodied Cognition.

Working definition: the idea that the mind is not only connected to the body but that the body influences the mind, meaning that our cognition isn’t confined to our brain but is determined by, our experiences in the physical world. The theory of embodied cognition rejects or re-frames the more 'computational' metaphor of the brain and instead emphases the importance of one's physical body in cognitive capacity.

Deeper Dives: A Brief Guide to Embodied Cognition: Why You Are Not Your Brain — via scientificamerican and 'The Extended Mind' — The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain By Annie Murphy Paul (June, 2021)

Emotional Resilience.

Technical definition: The capacity to thrive while taking on stressors. Our definition can also be thought of as 'anti-fragility' or ‘post-traumatic growth’ —where the individual or system emerges stronger following a stressor. This should not be confused with ‘robustness’ which may be thought of as the capacity to take more punishment in a work context.

Emotional Debt.

Technical definition: The accumulation of unprocessed stressors by an individual, often held as micro-trauma or tension in the body. Leaders have a tendency to ‘over-function’ and build up some emotional debt during stressful periods—which can be extremely helpful in the short term as it allows us to get through the moment, but if left unaddressed, these accumulate, increase fragility and manifest as greater susceptibility to emotional triggers—symptoms that lead to burnout.


Technical definition: The capacity to deal with stressors whilst maintaining calm and composed, without numbing or avoiding the feelings associated with them.


Go deeper: the origins of interoception—the meaning of interoception has changed from the restrictive to the inclusive. In its inclusive sense, it bears relevance to every individual via its link to emotion, decision making, time-perception, health, pain, and various other areas of life. (via

Nervous System Dysregulation.

Working definition: The short working definition of nervous system dysregulation is that, often due to being subject to extended periods of stress, our nervous system (meaning our thoughts, feelings, behaviours) will respond disproportionately to an external event or situation—either by under-reacting or over-reacting. This dysregulation is generally caused by reacting to past stressors rather than current ones. In contrast a regulated nervous system is one that responds appropriately to external circumstances.

Parasympathetic Vagal Branch.

Technical definition: Sometimes referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ response, this is the state of being for conserving energy, slowing down our heart rate and recovering. This response is comprised of both the ventral + dorsal vagal branches (see below).

Polyvagal Theory.

Working definition: Polyvagal theory (poly- "many" + vagal "wandering") proposed in 1994 by Stephen Porges—is a combination of evolutionary-based, neuroscientific and psychological claims that relate to the role of the vagus nerve and it's impact on emotion regulation, social connection and the fear response.

Why it matters: prior to the introduction of Polyvagal Theory, our nervous system was pictured as a two-part system, whereas Polyvagal theory highlights a 3rd type of nervous system response, that Porges terms the 'social engagement system', which helps us navigate relationships identifies a third type of nervous system response that Porges calls the social engagement system, a playful mixture of activation and calming that operates out of unique nerve influence.

Self-Regulation Protocols.

Working definition: the habits or practices that we engage with, either consciously or unconsciously to shift the state of our nervous system—either to calm down after a stressor or to energise ourselves when we're low on energy.


Working definition: Like astronauts who navigate outer space, we 'somanauts' are dedicated to exploring the inner space of our nervous systems and lived experience.

Somatic Awareness.

Working definition: Refers to the process of learning to experience emotions as felt sensations in the body as opposed to purely as narrative-based (Payne, Peter et al, 2015).

Helpful context: you can also think of this as feedback from your body, and an increase in somatic awareness is a natural by-product of greater mind-body integration.

Sympathetic Branch.

Technical definition: also referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response—this is the state our body enters in response to stressors, stimulating the adrenal glands, triggering the release of adrenaline, noradrenaline and shallow breathing.


Working definition: An event that creates a sympathetic response in the human nervous system. There are four categories of stressor that my co-author and I identified: internal, external, ambient and specific.


Shadow Stressor.

Working definition: Stressors which are either internal or ambient, that typically fades into the background to the point of going unnoticed. To become more resilient we need to inquire into and audit these subtle sources of stress, such that they can either be resolved or self-regulated.

Window of Tolerance.

Working definition: describes the range of stressors within which a human is able to function, process and integrate information, and respond to the demands of everyday life with relative ease. Outside of this zone leads to hyper-arousal and an unsustainable sympathetic response in the nervous system, which if left unregulated results in stored trauma in the body and emotional debt. Measuring heart rate variability is a helpful proxy measure for one’s zone of tolerance.

Adapted from the window of tolerance concept from work of Gillie and Thayer, (2014).