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Week 1: Nervous System Fundamentals

1. 🫁 INTRO // What is Nervous System Mastery?

FORMAT: Audio + PDF

So an appropriate place to begin this course feels like asking two questions of ‘What IS the Nervous System and second ‘what does Nervous System Mastery’ mean??

And what is the nervous system? Well, I sometimes like to imagine that The human body is the most remarkable battery on this planet... it essentially is a self-sustaining power source that runs on captured sunlight. It's pretty unbelievable, and we take it for granted most of the time.

Okay second: I know that many of you have a broad spectrum of motivations for enrolling in this course.

Some of you have been struggling with anxiety or desire to sleep more fully… others work in professional clinical practices, and I know some are just purely curious.

Whatever brought you here… this is what I’m most excited to share:

I’d love to invite you to see the world in a new way. To literally see your world and your relationships through the lens of your nervous system.

I know this will be a life-long journey for me, and I hope that yours begins in a powerful way over the next 5 weeks.

Okay, so ~ seeing the world through the lens of your nervous system? What exactly does that mean? And how will my life be transformed by that?

Well, you might have heard a line paraphrasing holocaust survivor Victor Frankl in which he said:

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“In between stimulus + response, there is a space—in that space lies our freedom.”

I’d like to offer that whilst we’ll be sharing very practical tools + protocols, this course is fundamentally about seeing, exploring and expanding this space of freedom between STIMULUS + RESPONSE ~ such that our actions + internal state becomes aligned with our intentions.

There’s another line that I think about often, this one shared by the Russian philosopher and mystic Gurdjieff ~ he said that:

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“If you wish to get out of prison, the first thing you must do is realise that you are in prison. If you think you are free, you can't escape.”Gurdjieff

Most of us don’t realise that we’ve been imprisoned by the engrained maladapted patterns of our own nervous systems. Instead, we blame our external conditions.

We think that we need a fancy new gadget or that we’re somehow victims of our environment & conditioning.

But what I’ve learned is that we have more agency than we think and that through introspective curiosity ~ we can bring greater awareness to ourselves, our maladaptive patterns + from there, choose a more intentional path forwards.

Ultimately, the more we walk this path, the more we begin to deeply listen, trust and act on the inherent wisdom of our own nervous systems.

2 📽️ CONTEXT // Jonny’s Story

I wanted to share a little of my personal story because I think it may provide helpful context to why this work matters so much to me and the unexpected path that I followed from the world of startups to researching the human nervous system.

As I grew up in England, North of London. I was a smart kid, got good grades, helped to build a startup, and then taught entrepreneurship in London.

On the outside, I had gained some of the accolades & although I remember going through burnout in the aftermath of leaving my startup, what I didn’t realise at the time was that I had spent the better part of my life essentially operating from my mind and feeling relatively numb from the neck down.

The day that changed everything for me was on October 24th 2017. My fiancé at the time suffered from an anxiety attack working as a junior doctor.

The changes in her brain chemistry at that moment led her to the misguided conclusion that she needed to take her own life.

In the aftermath of this, I remember meeting adults who had lost loved ones but hadn’t felt or digested their grief ~ and they walked through life like Zombies ~ and this honestly scared me.

So I made a commitment to myself to turn towards the grief in any ways that I could. Initially, I sat through a 10-day Vipassana Meditation retreat ~ followed by explorations with plant medicine ceremonies ~ and years later, unexpectedly to the world of ‘breathwork’ where I began to explore the science of the nervous system in great depth under the guidance of Edward Dangerfield and others mentors.

Two years later, I gave a TEDx talk that I called ‘The Gifts of Grief’ ~ which you’re welcome to watch below ~ but essentially the greatest gift that I experienced was learning how to listen to my body and have the courage to feel and express painful & challenging emotions.

The grief I experienced from losing my ex-fiancé lodged itself inside my nervous system and was compounded by burnout and many unfelt stressors from previous years.

It’s funny that my life feels almost unrecognisable five years ago compared with today.

I’m in a deeply loving & nourishing life partnership, which I attribute largely to the work that we’ve both done to come into relationship with our nervous systems.

And my approach to work, for the most part, has shifted away from struggling and what my friend describes as ‘over-efforting’ towards applying effort to creating the conditions for my creative contributions ~ like this course and the podcast ~ to flow with greater ease.

There’s so much more that I could say here but looking back, if I hadn't taken that time to go inwards & follow my desire to understand what was going on internally ~ I'm pretty sure my life would look very different today (and not in a good way).

And on a more somber note, I genuinely believe that if Sophie, my ex-fiancé and others who experience severe mental health challenges had access to these protocols and somatic wisdom, the likelihood of mental health-related tragedies taking place would be largely mitigated.

3. 🔺 THEORY // The ‘R.I.S.E.’ Framework

FORMAT: Audio + PDF

Okay so here I’ll be presenting the framework that is at the core of of this training that also provides the roadmap for this curriculum.

It’s called ‘RISE out of Reactivity’.

I’d like to share briefly about where this framework came from ~ in the startup founders and executives that I was coaching & the emotional resilience research interviews that I was conducting ~ I noticed that some were able to continuously rise and expand their capacity, whilst others tended to fall victim to their triggers and reactive tendencies.

So I got really curious about what made the difference between these two groups of people…

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But before we dive in ~ I invite you to take a moment to reflect on your own life, and what are the moments that stand out to you as having led to over-reacting or shutting down? Perhaps you got angry at a co-worker or loved one and said something you regretted ~ or felt overwhelmed in a certain situation and emotionally withdrew or shut-down. Where does this reactivity show up in your life? What are the times when as my teacher Joe Hudson likes to say – ‘You are not fit for human consumption?’

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This is the core NSM framework, don’t worry if it’s not entirely clear right waay, we’ll be revisting them & diving deeper into each one area in the coming lessons — but for now here’s a high-level overview.

The R.I.S.E. Framework

  1. Reactivity (how to escape being hijacked by our subconscious)
  2. Interoception (the antidote to reactivity)
  3. Self-Regulation (work with the levers of your body)
  4. Emotional Mastery (unkinking the e-motional hose)

‘R’ for Reactivity

Nervous System Dysregulation = stuck in reactivity.

The bottom of this section is actually ‘shut-down’ or burnout.

For some people, reactivity means going into withdrawal or shutdown. For others, this limbic hijack turns into anxiety, aggression, or engaging in addictive patterns.

From the perspective of the nervous system, what’s happening is an increase in sympathetic tone.

It’s worth noting that we can almost never entirely escape reactivity on some level, but we can make drastic improvements with consistent moments of practice.

‘I’ for Interoception

I like to frame this as becoming a sommelier of your inner landscape. The key skill here is increasing our internal sensitivity + listening to feedback from our bodies. Like becoming a chef, this interoceptive palette can be trained.

‘S’ for Self-Regulation

Self-regulation is a fancy way of saying our capacity to shift our internal state. A regulated nervous system is fundamental to navigating the world with agency and ease.

This is likely the reason that many of you are part of this program, because you desire to be able to efficiently move out of anxiety or stress, or perhaps cultivate more focus and energy. The good news is that this is actually pretty straightforward with the right protocols.

Although here if we remember the ‘Hollow Pot’ story, it’s not possible to directly shift our state, just as we can’t decide to ‘sleep’ — what we can do is create the appropriate conditions for the desired state to emerge. In future sessions, we’ll unpack the three state-change buckets of top-down, bottom-up, and outside in protocols to cultivate calm and connection.

As we train these neural highways — practicing down-regulation reps — they become easier to access over time.

‘E’ for Emotional Mastery

This might be the most confronting section — as it’s a form of shadow work. Some people, particularly high-achievers, become very adept at self-regulation to mentally override their feelings.

And although this is absolutely essential in certain situations (i.e. a boardroom meeting) if we do this all the time, it’s a form of emotional by-pass. Or put another way, the emotional charge is simply stored in the body to be fully felt later.

If unaddressed, this accumulates as ‘Allostatic load’ or ‘Emotional Debt’, which creates high fragility in the nervous system — which is another way of saying reactive tendencies are amplified.

So What does Progress in R.I.S.E. Look Like?

The red essentially represents what is outside of our awareness, so we can’t change what is here, but over time the green area increases, and the area of reactivity is reduced. This is the journey of nervous system mastery.

  1. Interoceptive Awareness: this includes the increased somatic capacity to sense, track and feel physical + emotional sensations in our internal landscape. This also includes a cognitive self-awareness of the early warning signs that we’re moving into a trigger and potentially towards an unskillful reactive response.
  2. Self-Regulation Capacity: again, this has the mental component of being aware of the tools + practices that down-shift our nervous system, and the second is how efficient our body is at responding to these practices (this is connected to the strength of our ventral vagal tone which increases with practice).
  3. Emotional Mastery: what is our comfort with cleanly expressing the full spectrum of emotion? Do we resist + judge ourselves when guilt, anger, or grief arise? Or are we able to let them be metabolised?

4. 🚦 THEORY // Three Operating Modes

FORMAT: Audio + PDF

🎛️ Most of us Are Flying Blind // Imagine someone asking you to fly a plane - without telling you that there's a gas pedal, a brake, an emergency brake & a real-time dashboard.

I want to begin by clarifying that "the only problematic nervous system state is the one that you get stuck in" ~ all nervous system states have value. The only question is if they are well-suited to the moment.

🤓 Intro to PolyVagal Theory

The real-time dashboard is our capacity for Interoception which we’ll dive into soon ~ but what’s very critical to know about your nervous system is that there are THREE BRANCHES, not just TWO as you might have previously thought.

Understanding what is known as POLY - which means MANY - VAGAL theory & how these three modes of being feel in your body is absolutely essential to noticing when we are hijacked and how to return to calm, connection and groundedness.

To be more specific, there’s the Sympathetic Branch which I’m guessing most of you have heard of, and that is like our gas pedal – this increases the activation in our system. In fun contexts, we call it stimulation; in overwhelming contexts, we call it stress.

Then there are TWO separate branches of the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) – these are known as Dorsal Vagal + Ventral Vagal.

So before diving in, I will preface this by saying that this is still classed as a 'Theory' or 'Hypothesis' initially proposed by Dr Steven Porges, and like many novel theories, has received its fair share of back-and-forth criticism and rebuttals. But knowing that, I've found it to be an extremely helpful map to describe the territory of the nervous system — both in my work as a breathwork practitioner and emotional resilience researcher, which is why I'm choosing to share it here as part of the core curriculum.

NOTE >> REWRITE THIS SECTION TO BE MORE ENGAGING 👇

🚦 Illustrating the Three Modes of Being

To illustrate the difference between these three branches, I find it helpful to work with the analogy of a moving car — and at the simplest level: the sympathetic branch is like your gas pedal or accelerator as we prefer to say in England.

The ventral vagal branch is like your footbrake, to be used most of the time — and the dorsal branch is the handbrake.

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So let's unpack each of these three in a little more detail...

The Gas Pedal aka Sympathetic branch' — this increases the activation in our system. When it's within our window of tolerance, we call it stimulation; when it's too much, we call it stress.

When enlisted in a survival mode, this system activates fight + flight and what’s known as the HPA axis ~ which is a really important circuit that connects the hypothalamus + pituitary gland in your brain to your adrenals (which you’ve probably heard of) that sit just above your kidneys and pump a lively cocktail of cortisol + adrenaline into your system.

In this state, our facial expression changes. We're able to detect lower pitch sounds, and there's less change in the rhythm and pitch of our voice — which is how we can sometimes tell if someone is freaking out on stage.

We may also feel the tension in our eyes (to look out for danger), tightness in our neck and shoulders again to protect ourselves, and gut functioning is inhibited or even knotted.

You can feel this now ~ during an inhale, your sympathetic system gets activated

The footbrake – aka 'Ventral Vagal State' — this is the system that our protocols this week are concerned with. vagal = tend + befriend is more about nourishing connection and belonging.

When we are in 'high ventral tone' we feel in flow, calm, creative and at ease. Co-regulation with others is possible. Our immune and endocrine systems are functioning well. Our heart rate slows down to a resting level.

The most obvious time that I feel this in my life is when I’m cuddling my wife or our dog. I can literally feel my body relax in real-time and I have data from my Oura ring that shows a spike in my Heart Rate Variability.

The literature has also shown that the Ventral Vagus is very related to our internal surveillance system, which Dr. Steven Porges describes as 'Neuroception' – and supports the perception of safety. When this is functioning well, it's described as having a good tone.

When the vagus nerve is working well, we're primed for communication and social interaction. We'll be able to smile with the upper part of our faces, and due to shifts in the muscles of our inner ear, we're able to listen and connect to one voice in front of us even in a busy room.

You can feel this now ~ during a relaxed sigh or exhale your ventral brake gets activated

Handbrake - "Dorsal Vagal State" // we will talk about the Dorsal Vagal in more depth in week 4 on Resilience. However, for now, it's enough to know that this state is correlated to our freeze or immobilization response that acts to keep us alive in times of extreme stress. It's more like a handbrake because there's no 'myelination' and is the most primitive part of our nervous system.

The Dorsal kicks in after extended periods of chronic stress — it's essentially like the fuse in our system that kicks in when we say that we experience 'burnout'— known in the literature as Hypoarousal and is a way to move away from pain by disassociating — often experienced as deep lethargy, withdrawal or exhaustion.

In my life, Dorsal kicked in often through the emotions of guilt + shame ~ I remember getting into trouble at school as a kid and feeling this kind of frozen contraction which was very hard to shake out of.

It’s also worth knowing that if you find yourself ‘stuck’ in Dorsal, the best way out is to activate the sympathetic branch ~ to release any activation energy ~ perhaps through heavy exercise or shaking ~ and then relax into the Ventral from here.

It's also interesting to consider that we can also blend these states.

Play, for example, is a combination of sympathetic and ventral — we have mobilizing energy but we still feel safe and social. The stronger our ventral tone, the more activation energy we can hold ~ these are the times when you likely will have felt most creative or alive and joyful.

Blending ventral and dorsal is a state of deep rest and can be extremely restorative—this is what we're accessing when working with Non-sleep-deep-rest protocols.

It’s important to mention that our goal here isn’t to stay perpetually REGULATED and CALM ~ but rather to be able to recognize when we’re being pulled into a survival response or reactivity ~ and from there knowing how to return to regulation ~ which is the ‘S’ in RISE that we’ll be coming to later on in this course.

So, to emphasise once more ~ the real key here is accessing flexibility and for many of us, retraining the Ventral Brake such that we're able to recover swiftly after stress and down-regulate our system.

Important Point // These states make themselves sticky (self-propelling), which is why when you’re frustrated or in Sympathetic, you will notice a tendency to find other activities that perpetuate that state.

Take-away // it’s really important that you remember these three modes ~ you might even prefer to choose your own words for each ~ for example Sympathetic might just be ‘activated or alert’ ~ Ventral Vagal might be ‘Connected’ or ‘Tend + Befriend’ and the third Dorsal could be ‘freeze’, ‘shutdown’ or ‘deep rest’.

Finally, if you’d like to go much deeper into the science of Polyvagal theory, there’s a recent book from Deb Dana called ‘Anchored’ that I highly recommend as a very accessible intro to this work.

5. 💁‍♂️ EXERCISE // Mapping Your Modes

Angie’s ideas: Name the different states

Recall a situation where

(1)you get stressed out,

(2)when you feel safe and relaxed

(3)when you feel burnt out/ lethargic/ disassociated.

If the names are confusing… give them a name to help you recognize the state.

List out a couple of ideas of how you will talk to them or help them get out of the states (don’t worry if you can’t come up with a solution yet, you will learn the responding toolbox in the next few weeks)

For example, the Angie that gets stressed out and stuck in sympathetic state is the Fuzzy Hair Angie, the Ventral Angie is the Cotton Candy Angie, and the dorsal Angie is Slug Angie.

Who’s that!
Fuzzy hair Angie
Cotton Candy Angie
Slug Angie
What happened?
-Stressed out by meeting -in a family conflict -late for work
- had a cup of green tea - take a walk - read a book with my cat
-too many social events - work overnight for several days
How to respond? (refer to protocol)
protocol xyz
???
protocol abc

You can also write this down in your workbook, or even share it in Circle.