Week 3: Shift Your State

Week 3: Shift Your State

1. ⚖️ THEORY // Self-Regulation Strategies

Coming back to the idea that our Nervous System has three modes of being ~ Sympathetic, Ventral & Dorsal.

Ideally a well-functioning regulated nervous system would activate the appropriate branch to respond to whatever stimuli it receives.

However, there are times when the response is disproportionate or unhelpful to the situation.

To give an example ~ if I stepped outside here in Colorado and a bear started running towards me, I would want my sympathetic system to fire on all cylinders so that I could survive.

Contrast that with say if I was preparing to give one of these lessons and felt the same response such that my body started shaking with energy, my mouth dried up and my voice started going high pitched, that wouldn’t be so helpful.

I’m sure you all can grasp what I’m conveying here, that essentially when we go too far up into the activation of the sympathetic activation ~ this is where the emotions of anxiety or anger can arise — and on the upper edge of our 'window of tolerance' then we typically engage in self-regulation strategies to bring ourselves back down.

Equally, we might have a situation where we emotionally shut-down and go into Dorsal Vagal, when it would be preferable to have more aliveness and energy.

So the term "self-regulation strategy" is essentially a fancy way of saying — the stuff we do to calm down and unwind from stress or energise ourselves when we're low on energy.

Technically speaking these are "Neuromodulation" strategies, which means to bring a person and their stress chemistry out of hyper-arousal.

We've all acquired different habits or patterns of behaviour for this and I want to be clear that judgement here isn't useful — but just to firstly be aware that this is what you're doing & know that they will differ in their short-term efficacy and long-term health impact.

So as a personal example, when I was a teenager after I came home from a stressful day at school I would climb up onto the roof and smoke a rollie whist gazing out at the horizon (I don't actually think my parents know this even to this day).

I know for many of us listening we might drink a couple of glasses of wine at the end of the day or perhaps take some CBD.

The point that I want to emphasise here is that whatever we do—we want to be aware of how we feel both before and after—which comes back to cultivating the capacity for interoception we talked about last week.

My wife and I have a phrase that we like to use — "I'm onto myself"and it's this idea of becoming increasingly self-aware of our subconscious patterns. So for example, one of mine was going to raid the fridge for dark chocolate, which ironically only made things worse.

Does anything come to mind for you? Perhaps you start to bite the side of your tongue, or pick up the phone and scroll for a hit of dopamine. It's really fascinating to explore our own tendencies – ideally with a non-judgemental sense of curiosity.

From here, we get to be more intentional with the tools and protocols that we use for self-regulation and become skilled at knowing when + how to work with each.

Your 'self' is only ever seen through the prism or lens of your nervous system - which for many of us can be more protective + activated (i.e. high tone dorsal + sympathetic states)

2. 👀  PROTOCOL // The Three C’s

WHY: cultivating agency + catching early signs of reactive tendencies before they escalate past the point of no return.

The idea here is to use our interoception to notice our reactvity as early as possible.

One of my teachers, the executive coach Joe Hudson likes to say that when we’re in reactivity ~ we’re not fit for human consumption.

Whatever we’re doing ~ whether it’s at work or in conversation with family, once you CATCH emotional charge or reactivity ~ your #1 priority is to find calm and connection again.

Often this might mean excusing yourself to go outside or go to the bathroom for five minutes to self-regulate ~ and then returning to continue if you choose.

CATCH >> Notice the protection mechanism or reactive loop.

CALM >> pause to go through 3-2-1 to return to your senses

CHOOSE >> notice that more options are now available to you

CATCH // When you notice yourself in reactivity ~ and the more finely tuned your interoception the earlier you’ll be able to track this ~ practice acknowledging it out loud (without shame) ~ congratulate yourself for acknowledging it ~ drop any stories ~ receive a breath ~ and then make your priority to come back to your centre. My friend Chris Sparks also uses what he calls ‘Cognitive Canaries’ ~ which are stories or voices which come online when he’s in some kind of reactivity loop. For him this is a cue that he has been hijacked and so then to prioritise regaining connection.

Another reason that training our interoception is so important is that we can learn to associate and attune to embodied signs of reactivity, stress or fear in the body ~ regardless of whatever story we are telling ourselves in the moment.

CALM // pause for a moment here and feel into lower parts of your body, particular legs + feet + contact points. Orient and ground yourself in the environment. Now go to the 3-2-1 process.

Orient — Count 3 things that you can see or hear

Sense — Feel 2 things with either your hands or feet

Breathe — Take 1 deep breath in and let out a sigh.

CHOOSE // notice how from this state you are no longer ‘stuck’ in that state. More options are now available to you. You might still choose to get angry at your boss or whoever it is, but it will be a deliberate choice.

Everyone experiences activation of their system slightly differently, so it’s important that you know how it feels in your body.

Coming back to the idea of these three branches of the nervous system ~ the Sympathetic, Ventral Vagal and Dorsal ~ its essential that we learn to sense and recognise when we’re in each of these states, so that we don’t get stuck there.

As a sensation arises, can you perceive it whilst it’s a sensation (where you still have the capacity to respond wisely) — or do you miss it and wait until it has expanded into reactive anger? (visualise this)

3. 🪣  THEORY // Three Ways to Shift Your State

Mindset shift

As with say sleep, self-regulation isn't actually something that we DO ~ rather we can create the conditions for calm + regulation.

There are three primary ways in which we can learn to shift our state: top-down, bottom-up & outside-in.

You can think of these as being like levers we can pull on to shift how you feel and cycle between the three Polyvagal states of Sympathetic, Ventral and Dorsal.

The First Bucket

The first is TOP DOWN — this is what we typically think of when we’re trying to change our state. We try to reframe it, find our way into witness awareness, or tell a more positive story or find something to be grateful for.

The Second Bucket

The second category of CONDITIONS which I’m personally most fascinated by is BOTTOM UP – this involves leveraging the BI-DIRECTIONAL relationship between our biology and our mind.

Most of the self-development and therapeutic focus tends to tackle top-down – I strongly believe that outside-in + bottom-up protocols are under-utilised levers for shifting your state.

Your eyes are one powerful lever — for example if right now you were to more your eye-balls left, right, up, down and then RELAX YOUR GAZE as if you were looking at a wide horizon — almost as if your eyeballs are sinking into the back of your head. you will feel more relaxed.

Broader point: When we feel empowered to shift our mental and physical state, we’re less afraid in life to put ourselves in stressful situations.

There’s something that’s really important to know from a neuroscience perspective, we have almost 4 times as many neurons going from our body to our brain as from our brain to our body. What’s important to note is that the bottom-up practices are disproportionately effective for shifting our state compared to the top-down mind based practice.

The Third Bucket

The third category that we’ll be exploring later in the course is shifting or

‘We design our environment and then our environment designs us in return.’ – our environments in each moment are literally priming our nervous system towards one mode vs. another.

4. 🌬️ THEORY // How You Breathe = How You Live

Okay, so let's start out with a fairly radical idea—that we how breathe... directly impacts how we feel and even the thoughts that we have.

How are you breathing right now? Notice how you were breathing without being conscious of it.

What is remarkable about the breath is that it’s the one activity in our body that happens on it’s own—but can also be controlled consciously.

But for most of us—in reality—we rarely tune in to enquire how our breath is or consciously shift it. This might be interesting, but why does it matter?

Let’s say that for the purposes of feeling this, I’d like you to deliberately breathe faster than usual, through your mouth and into your upper chest for the next minute or so, so you can feel the effects of this.

There is a tiny cluster of neurons – called the medulla oblongata – deep in the brain stem that is essentially spying on the way that we’re breathing and using this data to then send signals to the nervous system via the Vegas Nerve.

So let’s say that your breathing is: through the mouth, is quite shallow so only into the upper chest and is fairly rapid.

The Medulla Oblongata picks up on this and sends signals to activate the sympathetic part of your nervous system.

This in turn creates a cascade effect sending signals to your endocrine system to secrete adrenaline and cortisol from your adrenals, which creating measurable shifts in your blood chemistry.

These shifts in blood chemistry then make their way back into your control centre of the brain—and they dramatically impact the emotions that you feel and even the tone of thoughts that you're likely to have.

And from here, if we're not careful, these these thoughts + feelings will then serve to reinforce or even exacerbate the very breath pattern which is generating the sympathetic response in the nervous system.

Meditation and mindfulness seeks to break this loop—and help us to avoid getting stuck in these vicious cycles—however, when we're really activated, unless we have thousands of hours of mindfulness training under our belts, this is really bloody challenging.

But what we can do, which is pretty miraculous, is intervene at the level of our breathing, to shift the blood chemistry, to directly shift our state.

By changing the way that we breathe, using for example longer exhales, we send different signals to the Medulla Oblongata – which in turn notices... and sends signals to our endocrine system to produce the neurotransmitter 'Acetylcholine' which lead to slowing down our heart rate, stimulating our digestive system, regulating blood pressure and essentially returns our body to homeostasis.

I really want to underscore this profound and deep insight that emerges from this science—that our seemly objective experience of reality is in fact entirely mediated through our neurotransmitters—and because a breathing pattern shift creates a reliable and consistent shift in blood chemistry—this will in turn radically alter our experience of life.

5. 🧘‍♂️ PROTOCOLS // How to Human User Manual

How to Human Manual

In life most of the things that we use come with instruction manuals or training. We get lessons for how to drive a car ~ shown how to engage the clutch to change gear ~ but no-one ever sat us down and showed us how to use our human bodies to deliberately shift our state.

In this session, I’m gong to share various Bottom-up Protocols for Self-Regulation that are both evidence-backed and that I have found to be helpful in own life.

No matter what is going on outside of your human body, there is ALWAYS a grounded centre available within. That's what you're here to learn.

I’m going to share 10 bottom-up practices (to change your bloody chemistry + hormones through the body) for coming back into the ventral state of calm + groundedness that you can try – I’ll briefly explain each one, with context for when and how to apply it.

NSM alumni have reported sharing them with loved ones during particularly stressful times or events.

I find that some people resonate with different practices so please think of this section as a buffet of sorts, or a choose-your-own-adventure to experiment with the practices that feel relevant to you.

The Polyvagal practitioner Deb Dana refers to what she calls the Connection <> Protection equation. And these protocols are really about moving from this highly activated or collapsed state into greater connection with ourselves and our environment.

I’d also encourage you to share your own self-regulation strategies ~ for example, previous students have mentioned how cuddling with their dogs or using saunas have been supportive for downshifing their state.

This is by no-means an exhaustive list and you don’t need to try them all ~ these are ideas for you to experiment with and see which feel helpful and also accessible for you.

In all of these – what you’re really looking out for is that big ‘sigh’ ~ which signals that your body is relaxing & downshifting into parasympathetic, as well a softening of tension + more relaxed gaze etc.

The first six are more immediate strategies that can be done anywhere. The final three generally require you to be able to access a bed or be in your own space.

Protocols for Sympathetic >> Ventral

1 // 🚨  SOS Orient with 3-2-1

One of the key principles for coming back into ventral vagal is to ground into your senses. So this is a simple tool for returning to the senses and therefore calm.

Feel into lower parts of your body, particular legs + feet + contact points. Orient and ground yourself in the environment.

Orient — Count 3 things that you can see or hear

Sense — Feel 2 things with either your hands or feet

Breathe — Take 1 deep breath in and let out a sigh.

2 // 🫁 Physiological Sigh'

These physiological sighs are essentially double inhalations followed by exhalations.

Children also do this when they are sobbing and you might notice yourself doing this automatically if you downshift into a parasympathetic state.

Your NS is self-regulating the entire time... every time you naturally let out a deep exhale or ‘sigh’ that’s a sign that your body is down-shifting gears.

3 // 🐝 Single Breath Hum (shorten this text 👇)

Firstly, remember that we have our parasympathetic neuron receptors both in our lower belly and around our throat. So when we breathe or stimulate these areas it will kick in our relaxation response.

It turns out that when you make the sound VOOO, the resonance of that sound will have a vibratory quality in your lower belly which stimulates what's known as your 'enteric nervous system'.

The more attuned your interoception, the more that you will feel it. Similarly, the noise 'HUMMM' you will feel a vibration in your head and throat area. So this is one half of the mechanism.

If lying down – turn your head to the opposite side and hum while exhaling through your nose.

The other aspect of why this is so effective, I find absolutely fascinating and it has to do with nitric oxide.

There's one study that I found in which researchers found that what they referred to as 'Single Breath Humming' caused a 15-fold increase in Nitric Oxide compared with quiet exhalation. 15-fold is HUGE.

Nitric oxide, is a natural vasodilator, meaning that it relaxes the inner muscles of your blood vessels to increase blood flow and lower blood pressure.

The researchers in this particular study that I've linked to in the course notes believed that humming causes the air to oscillate, which seems to increase the exchange of air between the sinuses and the nasal cavity — which also has an effect of increasing sinus ventilation (in other words clearing a stuffy nose).

I've also found this to be effective and reducing the effects of Zoom fatigue when my eyes feel tired.

This is also EXTREMELY effective if you ever find yourself in an ice-bath. Practice this or even doing it into the water and you'll feel the effects instantly—it will kick in your parasympathetic and you'll be able to access calm even in the icy temperatures.

I found one 2019 study which looked at the connection between playing the 'Didgeridoo' and the stability of autonomic nervous system. The connection here is that as you might imagine didge players are essentially humming constantly while they're playing, strengthening their respiratory muscles via what's known as the 'phrenic nerve' as well as stimulating this parasympathetic response and releasing nitric oxide.

If you don't mind trying something weird—and let's face it lots of this stuff is WEIRD by conventional standards. You can increase the impact of these oscillations by placing your thumbs deep in your ear canal and your ring finger on the bridge of your nose.

Take in a full breath and hum on the exhale for as long as you can. Repeat this for 5 or 6 times and feel the effects of the Nitric Oxide in your system.

It’s worth noting that singing, chanting and gargline also activate these same muscles which stimulate your vagus nerve. This have also all been shown to increase heart-rate variability & vagal tone.

4 // 🔺 Triangular Alternate Nostril Breathing

The ratio of the inhale to exhale is what really matters—and for this breath you want the exhale to be twice as long as the inhale. I typically recommend starting with inhale of 3 and exhale of 6, and then working up to 4-8 or 5-10 if you have sufficient capacity.

But why through alternate nostrils? It's a good question, in the yoga world they say that it helps to balance the hemispheres of the brain but I was unable to find any data to support this, whilst this may be true, my theory is that because we're reducing the aperture of airflow — breathing only through one nostril not both, it's enhancing the air-hunger which doubles down on the CO2 in our blood system which enhances the parasympathetic response.

Some people also use 4-7-8 – which adds a hold of 7 at the top of the inhale. In my experience these are fairly similar but it’s up to you, your interoception and your lung capacity to decide what works best.

5 // 👀 Optic Flow

This came from the research of Andrew Huberman is what he calls 'Optic Flow'.

Because like the breath, our visual system is bi-directional, it means that we can actually turn off the stress response by changing the way that we are viewing our environment, regardless of what’s in that environment.

So what he calls optic flow or panoramic vision is when you keep your head still, you'll find that you're able to dilate your gaze such that you can see more of the periphery—above, below and to the sides.

You can try this now whilst listening assuming that you're in a safe place to do so. Simply close and gently roll your eyes upward as if you're sending them back a couple of inches to widen your visual field.

Keeping both eyes closed scan your environment all around, up, down, left, right. Do this a few times... and now open your eyes maintaining this peripheral vision and see how you feel.

NB. there’s an interesting connection here between this and the idea of ‘Expanding Awareness’ as taught by the Alexander Technique.

6 // 👐 Self-Havaning Technique

I'll mention briefly that there's a technique called 'Self-havening' which is designed to increase our 'neuroception' which is our felt sense of safety.

In this pretty simple technique which you can find many videos online that guide you through applying soothing self-touch to your hands, upper arms and face. This isn't something I've used much myself but I'm mentioning it because I have good friends who have found it incredibly beneficial.

 🏡 At Home 🏡

7 // 🪨  Using a Belly Stone

NB. this can be useful if you’re experiencing intense anxiety or a panic attack…

Find a roundish object ~ I like to use flat stones ~ that weighs somewhere between 3-5kg and place it on your belly, just above the hips, as you are lying down on your back.

Breathe through your nose and into your belly such that the stone rises on the inhale and then let it go with a ‘sigh’ on the exhale.

After a few rounds feel your breath reaching lower and lower down towards the hips + pelvis ~ which is where there are clusters of parasympathetic nerves which help to trigger the relaxation response.

If you can’t find a stone, a somewhat less comfortable but no less effective version is to lie on your front with a relatively firm surface or carpet, and then breathe down into your belly such that you feel the resistance from the ground.

8 // 🤸‍♂️  Spinal Decompression

When the spine lengthens, the nerves that run along the spine are stimulated. These nerves are part of the body’s parasympathetic nervous system.

There are two ways to approach this:

  • Forward folds have an effect as the front of the body works to pull the chest toward the thighs, the muscles along the spine lengthen.
  • Hanging either from your hands or upside down using ‘moonboots’ is also a fantastic way to release tension and extend your spine. We've evolved from apes and in my opinion our bodies are actually built to hang off things. I have a couple of wooden rings that I will hang off in the morning, evening or after I've been sitting down for extended periods of time.

9 // 👐 Self Myofascial Release:

With a soft fist of your right hand, gently press against your sternocleidomastoid - the largest muscle in the front portion of the neck that begins under your ears drawing the tissue back, and slowly rotating your head to look over your left shoulder.

Repeat on the opposite side.

You can also do this using a soft inflatable ball in place of your soft fist.

10 // 🛌 Guided Interoceptive NSDR Protocol

This is a category coined by Professor Andrew Huberman but it’s also referred to as the practice of ‘nidra’ which roughly translates to ‘effortless relaxation’.

This is one of the most impactful protocols, especially if you’re feeling under-rested or over-worked – in part because it doesn’t require you to DO anything, so there’s far less motivation required than with some of the other practices.

During a 20-40 minute practice you will downshift the nervous system, strengthen ventral vagal tone & build your interoceptive capacity.

For coaching clients of mine I recommend 10 days of Nidra – lying down for 30 minutes every day (between 2-4pm) as a transition out of their work day.

The before + after impact is remarkable.

If you were to measure your brain waves during the practice, you'd see that they are rapidly moving from active beta, into alpha and eventually down into what's known as a "hypnagogic state”—which is the threshold between alpha & theta waves, kinda like a knife’s edge where the body technically “sleeps” while the mind is lucid.

In one study I came across, a nidra practice was delivered weekly for 16 weeks, remotely to 32 patients suffering from generalised anxiety and they reported that their overall state anxiety was decreased by 41%.

Protocols for Dorsal >> Ventral

For the times when the response to stress is withdrawl, or shutdown or numbness.

Holding an Ice-Cube

Include Co-Regulation Section as new #2

Bonus Reflection:

  1. Identify the automatic self-regulation strategy you may use to artificially regulate your nervous system.
  2. Ask What short-term benefits is this habit giving me? (e.g. comfort, numbing, dissociation from feelings)
  3. Is there an unmet need that I have? ? (e.g. seeking connection, co-regulation, giving me energy or calming me down)
  4. How could I meet this need in a healthier way or with a more intentional

A. 📝  NOTES // Science of Touch


Record my own nidra practice — one for each week, increasing in length — starting with 10 minutes, working up to 30 minutes — hone in on the WHY of NSDR in that it is increasing both our interoception & our neural wiring for downshifting (ventral vagal complex).

How can we map our nervous system?

As humans, we have and will continue to experience all Polyvagal states.

We may be in a joyful, mindful state and then all of a sudden due to a trigger, be in a really frustrated, possibly angry state, worried about what may happen to then feeling completely shut down.

This is the human experience. We are going to naturally shift through the states.

However, when we stay in this fight or flight or this shut down/freeze state, that is when we begin to have significant physiological effects and also mental/emotional effects. This is why it’s really important to identify the states for each of us.

1. Identify each state for you.

The first step is to think of one word that defines each one of these states. For example, if we are in our ventral vagal state, or “rest and digest” state, we could say that we feel happy, content, joyful. etc.

When we are in our fight or flight state we could use the words worried, stressed, overwhelmed, etc.

In the freeze state, we could use the words shut down, numb, hopeless, etc.

The first step is identifying the word that we correlate with each of those three states.

This is really important because then we’re able to recognize which state you are in and identify with it quickly. This will allow us to really tune in to our body and understand how we feel in that state, so we can help ourselves get out of it.

2. Identify ‘triggers’ & ‘glimmers’.

We’ll want to identify triggers for your fight/flight state as well as your freeze state. These could be things like a fight with your boss, an argument with your spouse, the death of a loved one, if someone cuts you off while driving, etc. It is whatever things that cause you to feel stressed. You want to eventually have at least one trigger, if not many, written down for each of those states.

Glimmers are the things that bring you to that optimal nervous system state. It could be something as simple as petting a dog or something bigger like going on a vacation.

Moving out of Dorsal

As the dorsal vagal state promotes immobility and shut down, many suffering from depression and severe trauma are often held in dorsal, and unable to “move forward.” The key to moving out of dorsal is not meditation, or sitting still, it is safe physical movement that moves the skin, fascia and signals mobility to the nervous system.

Walking, tai chi, qigong, yoga, swimming, any type of safe and healthy movement, including moving the skin through ball rolling or self massage, a little, a lot.

Because of the hierarchy of the polyvagal theory, it is difficult to leapfrog from dorsal to the safe and social ventral state – the progression is through the mobilized, sympathetic nervous system.