Week 1: Nervous System Fundamentals

👉 Link to Week 1 Handbook 👈

1.1 📝 Overview ~ Nervous System Fundamentals

Welcome to the Nervous System Mastery private podcast feed. Thank you for being here.

I’d like to begin by giving you a sense of the arc of the journey that we’re going to be going on in this training.

In the first week we’ll be setting the context for NSM with what I call the RISE out of Reactivity framework.

In the second week, we’ll be exploring interoception ~ which is our capacity to sense, track and feel our inner landscape.

Then in week three we will introduce protocols for shifting your state in real time and effectively leveraging your physiology.

Week four will be especially juicy as we dive into working with emotional charge & unkinking the emotion hosepipe.

Finally, week 5 will bring an intentional lens to our daily rituals, protocols for optimal nervous system health and prompts to redesign our environments such that that they design us in return.

So coming back to this initial week ~ we have three primary learning outcomes – by the end of these episodes yo will…

  1. Firstly, gain an understanding of what Nervous System Mastery actually means for yourself and the community.
  2. Secondly, you will develop an understanding of the RISE out of Reactivity framework and how with practice you will be able to make more intentional decisions with greater agency.
  3. Third, you will understand the three operating modes of your nervous system ~ an overview of what is known as ‘Polyvagal theory — which will provide a crucial pillar in learning how to recognise and label the signs of each mode.

1.2 🫁 Intro ~ What is Nervous System Mastery?

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??

So firstly, 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 and powers an unfathomably complex interconnected pipelines sending information across over 100 billion neurons.

It's pretty astonishing, we take it for granted most of the time, and frankly we – as in the scientific community – are only beginning to understand how it operates.

I’m aware that many of you have a broad spectrum of motivations for enrolling in this course, and that’s amazing.

Some of you desire to work with sensations of anxiety or improve your sleep or relationships… others work in professional clinical settings or are just deeply intellectually curious. Whatever brought you here, my hope is that that you will discover even more than you anticipated in the coming weeks.

I’d like 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 sense that this will be a life-long journey for myself, and really all of us ~ 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 come across a powerful quote paraphrasing holocaust survivor Victor Frankl in which he said:

“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.

When we master our nervous system this space between stimulus and our response grows exponentially. We have more choices. And that feels empowering.

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

“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.”

Most of us don’t realise the ways in which we’ve been subtly imprisoned by engrained maladaptive patterns of our own nervous systems. Instead many fall into the traps of beliving that we’re either broken in some way or that we’re victims of our environment & conditioning.

But what I’ve learned is that we have so much more agency than we think and that through relentless internal curiosity ~ we can bring greater awareness to ourselves, our reactive patterns that may no longer serve us + 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.

1.3 📽️ 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, went to a fancy university and staying true to my over-achieving path helped to build a startup for 5 years and then taught entrepreneurship in London…

I’m sure many of you can relate to the feeling of achieving your goals, or even praise from peers, but still feeling like something was missing on the inside.

This was definitely my experience. This reached a crescendo when I hit a burnout point working in the startup I had cofounded.

What I didn’t realise at the time was that I had spent the better part of my life essentially operating only from my mind and feeling relatively numb from the neck down. The burnout experience was my body trying desperately to get my attention, but I still wasn’t paying attention.

The day that truly turned my life upside down was on October 24th 2017.

My fiancé at the time, a doctor named Sophie Spooner, suffered from an anxiety attack whilst on shift. 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 and learn about the science of the nervous system in great depth under the guidance of Edward Dangerfield and others mentors.

Years later, I gave a TEDx talk that I called ‘The Gifts of Grief’ ~ which you’re welcome to watch in full ~ but essentially the greatest gift that I experienced was learning how to listen to my body and have the courage to feel & 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 bizarre in some ways to look back to my 25yr old self. My life feels almost unrecognisable five years ago compared with today.

I’m in a deeply loving & nourishing life marriage, 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 creativity ~ like this training, writing 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, to listen deeply to my body and nervous system & 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.

1.4 🔺 Theory ~ The R.I.S.E. Framework

I’m going to share a framework that is at the core of of this training that also provides the roadmap for this curriculum.

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. And I became really curious about what made the difference between these two groups of people.

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 a friend of mine likes to say: ‘You are not fit for human consumption?’


The Framework is called ‘RISE out of Reactivity’.

The R stands for Reactivity (how to escape being hijacked by our subconscious)

The I stands for Interoception – which is our capacity to sense, track and feel our internal landscape.

The S stands for Self-Regulation – which is the art of skilfully using the levers of our body to shift our state.

The E stands for Emotional Mastery – which is the skill of recognising, feeling and expressing emotions in a healthy way without getting stuck or kinked.

Don’t worry if it’s not entirely clear right away, we’ll be diving deeper into each stage in the coming weeks — but for now here’s a high-level overview or each

First is ‘R’ for Reactivity

One definition of Nervous System Dysregulation is when we are stuck in reactivity. In extreme cases this can look like ‘total exhaustion’ or burnout.

For others, this limbic hijack turns into anxiety, aggression, or engaging in addictive behaviours.

We can’t entirely escape reactivity on some level, but we can make drastic improvements with consistent moments of practice – such that we recognise and catch ourselves before it spirals.

Second is ‘I’ for Interoception

I like to frame this as learning how to taste your inner landscape – like a chef expanding his taste palette.

The key skill here is increasing our internal sensitivity + listening to feedback from our bodies. And like becoming a chef, this capacity for interoception can be trained and improved.

Third is ‘S’ for Self-Regulation

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

If you are taking part in this training — then you likely desire to be able to efficiently down-shift and ground in stressful situations or perhaps cultivate more focus and flow in your work.

The good news is that this is actually pretty straightforward with the right protocols and understanding why they work from first principles.

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

What’s interesting about this is we don’t have direct control over the autonomic or ‘automatic’ nervous system – but we can learn the levers to effectively and indirectly shift.

In later episodes, we’ll unpack the three state-change buckets of top-down, bottom-up, and co-regulation protocols.

Last but not least is ‘E’ for Emotional Mastery

This is likely to be the most interesting, challenging and even confronting section as we’ll be wading into our emotional landscape.

Some people, particularly high-achievers, become very adept at self-regulation to mentally override or numb their feelings.

At the other end of the spectrum, others who may be extremely sensitive, can be overwhelmed by their intensity.

Most of us have at least one or two emotions that we feel uncomfortable expressing in a heathy way.

So – What does Progress Look Like?

The aim of this program is to guide you through each of these core areas – to understand what progress looks like and how to put in the reps to improve your skills and capacity at each stage.

This is the journey of nervous system mastery and it’s never finished — but rather we become attuned to increasingly subtle shifts.

The learning curve is steep in the beginning — but then so are the returns that you’ll see in your life in terms of increasing depth in your relationships, an increased capacity to work creatively without burning out and in my experience an increased sense of aliveness and joy for life itself.

1.5 🚦 Theory ~ Three Operating Modes

Imagine trying to learn how to drive a car without telling you that there's a gas pedal, a brake, an emergency brake or a dashboard. That’s what I think living without this knowledge is like and these are what I’m going to share with you today

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.

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 from the scientific community. But despite that, I've found it to be an extremely helpful and practical map to describe the territory of the nervous system — that is used by highly skilled somatic practitioners and researchers all over the world — which is why I'm choosing to share it here as part of the core curriculum.

🚦 Illustrating the Three Modes of Being

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 and none are ‘bad’. The only question is if our states of being are well-suited and adaptive to the situation at hand.

These three modes are only a map of the nervous system — and one should never mistake the map with the territory.

However it is a very useful map with important + practical implications, which is why I’m choosing to make it a focus of this training.

So returning to the metaphor of learning to drive a car, the sympathetic branch of your nervous system is like your gas pedal.

This increases the activation in our system. In fun contexts or when we are within our window of tolerance, we call it stimulation; in overwhelming contexts, we call it stress or anxiety.

Then there is the PARASYMPATHETIC branch of your nervous system – the rest and digest that you may have heard of. However what is less well known is that there actually are two primary branches of the Parasympathetic Nervous System — these are known as Ventral Vagal + Dorsal Vagal and they play very different roles.

The ventral vagal branch is like your footbrake, ideally this is used lightly, most of the time whereas the dorsal branch is more like the emergency handbrake or park.

And guess what — you’re using all of these modes right now as you’re listening. Take a Deep inhale… and hold your breath at the top

This is activating your sympathetic accelerator

And now let it go in a sigh.

This is activating your ventral footbrake.

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

First — The Gas Pedal aka Sympathetic branch'

Think of a moment in recent memory when your entire system felt highly activated. Perhaps you were angry about something, or working to a deadline… or perhaps you just had too many cups of coffee… take a moment to think of something.

Now what I’m about to share however is very helpful information, because it will enable you to detect when you or others around you are in this state of what’s known as ‘High Tone Sympathetic Arousal’.

In this state several things happen to our biology when we’re in this high-alert state

  • 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.
  • There may be tension in the eyes to help look out for danger.
  • There may also be tightness in the neck and shoulders, sometimes these are rounded forward to protect the internal organs
  • Our gut and digestive functioning is also inhibited ~ because why waste precious resources digesting food if there is a threat imminent?

And essentially our body is mobilised for action. Which is incredibly helpful for short periods of time. It’s only troublesome if this response is disproportionate to the stressor or situation & as with say revving the engine of a car, we want to be able to access the footbrake to slow down.

Which brings us to the second mode — the

'Ventral Vagal Branch' — Somatic practitioners refer to our vagal as the tend + befriend or social nervous system — because it is primarily concerned with 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 and feels good.

Our immune & endocrine systems are functioning well and our heart rate slows down to a resting level.

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.

Think of a moment when you feel this sense of deep connection and ease. Perhaps it’s walking somewhere in nature, in an intimate 1:1 conversation or curled up with your partner or pet on the sofa. Take a full breath in and ‘sigh’ right now – the feeling of this ‘sigh’ is your ventral brake being activated.

There are certain breathing practices, toning or humming and physical movements we can harness to restore this vagal brake – which we’ll dive into later in this course. But for now just make sure that you can identify with the sensations and feelings associated – such that you’ll be able to recognise when you’re in ventral or not.

Okay finally the Handbrake or "Dorsal Vagal branch" //

The dorsal vagus is a large, primitive nerve that is common to all animals, including fish. It goes down the spine (Dorsal just means situated on the upper or back side).

When this is lightly active, it helps us to get into states of deep rest and relaxation, modulates our heartbeats and digestion et cetera.

However, the dorsal is also like I said – the handbrake – in that it acts like a FUSE switch when there is too much charge or stimulation running through our system.

This is the freeze or immobilisation response that kept our ancestors alive in times of extreme stress.

In today’s world, the phenomenon of ‘burnout’ is essentially this dorsal branch fuse switch tripping after extended periods of chronic stress.

In the literature this is known as Hypoarousal and is a way to move away from pain by disassociating — often experienced as deep lethargy, withdrawal or exhaustion.

Dorsal shutdown can also occur through the emotions of guilt or shame or when we feel that we are unsafe in a certain environment.

Is there a moment in your life when you can recall feeling immobilised or frozen or collapsed in some way?

It’s also important to know that if you find yourself ‘stuck’ in Dorsal, the best way back to the connected and safe state of Ventral is actually to activate the sympathetic branch ~ to release any activation energy. Sometimes if I feel that I’m shut down, I’ll go for a run or intense exercise or a hot sauna to release the mobilisation energy, and then relax into ventral from there.

It's also interesting to note that these modes operate in parallel and we can also blend them.

For example, Play or Flow states are a combination of sympathetic and ventral — where we have mobilising energy but we still feel safe and grounded.

Our baseline capacity for ventral tone was typically formed in childhood – but can be improved like a muscle. And the stronger our ventral tone, the more activation energy we can hold ~ these states – for me surfing in big waves – are the times when you likely will have felt most alive.

Blending ventral + 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 or NSDR protocols.

Finally — it’s important to mention that our goal here isn’t to stay perpetually REGULATED and CALM — because life happens but rather we want to create anti-fragility in the nervous system — to be able to recognize when we’re being pulled into a survival response or reactivity — and from that state knowing how to return to a state of ventral 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 with this work is accessing flexibility, dynamism, capacity and for many of us, retraining the Ventral Brake such that we're able to recover swiftly after intensity and down-regulate.

Part of what makes this challenging however, is that the states of Sympathetic and Dorsal can make themselves sticky – or self-propelling – which can be why when you’re frustrated or in Sympathetic, you will notice a tendency to see the world through that lens and find other activities or reasons to perpetuate that state.

So a degree of meta-awareness or psychological distance between ourselves and our state is essential to cultivate as well – this is where self-reflection and the tools for interoception come in – which we’ll come to later.

To wrap up this section — it’s vital that you remember these three modes — if the technical terms don’t stick or resonate then 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’.

1.6 💁‍♂️ Exercise ~ Mapping Your Modes of Being

In this week’s NSM Student handbook there is a section called I’m onto myself — mapping the three modes of being.

Here the invitation is to move this from abstract theory to exploring how these three states feel in your body – to take this theoretic knowledge and make it intimitely practical.

There are seven prompts that you can answer for each of the three states – Sympathetic, Dorsal and Ventral and you’ll see examples listed for each of the areas.

  • What is a time or situation when you remember experiencing this state?
  • How is your awareness? Do you feel open and expanded with many paths forward — or narrow and contracted with binary options?
  • How is your posture in this state? – is your posture protective and ready to confront or relaxed and open?
  • What internal sensations do you experience? – perhaps there is a sense of heat in your chest in sympathetic, or knottedness in your belly in dorsal. Although there are similarities, everyone has their own unique combination of sensations in these states.
  • If this were a landscape, what might it look like? – I like this question because our internal state changes our experience of the external environment too. So for example I associate a sense of guilt or shame with being like wading through a dark and murky swamp.
  • What thoughts or beliefs sometimes loop in this state? I think of these as being ‘cognitive canaries’ ~ or indications that we’re moving into a state of reactivity – perhaps it’s the voice of an inner critic or a limiting belief that once kept us safe but no-longer serves.
  • What is my unconscious self-regulation strategy in these moments? (i.e. an undesired habit or substance that I sometimes to use to self-regulate? For many, it might be reaching for a certain substance like tobacco or alcohol to down-shift from stress – or perhaps caffeine to numb and mask sensations of dorsal shutdown.

In your own time — complete this table in the workbook so that you can begin to create an embodied understanding of each of these three modes and how you relate to them.