👉 Link to Week 3 Handbook 👈
3.0 📝 Summary ~ Key Ideas + Overview
Welcome to week three of Nervous System Mastery.
This week is going to be all about self-experimentation and playing with the physiological levers of your body to shift your state.
By the end of this week you will:
- Be able to identify and shift unconscious habits which you may have been using to artificially regulate your nervous system and replace them with more intentional practices.
- You will learn about the three primary ways to shift the state of your nervous system in any context & specifically how the way that your breathing patterns are directly influencing your thoughts and feelings.
- You will be able to use the THREE C’s to catch early signs of reactive tendencies before they escalate past the point of no return.
- And you will have a chance to experiment with what I call ‘If THIS then REGULATE’ ~ which includes four core protocols that can be used anywhere to regain find calm and connection in real-time, no matter where you are or what you are doing.
- Finally, be sure to check the journal prompts and protocol library in this week’s NSM Handbook.
3.1 ⚖️ 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 judgment 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.
- Ask what short-term benefits is this habit giving me? (e.g. comfort, numbing, dissociation from feelings)
- Is there an unmet need that I have? ? (e.g. seeking connection, co-regulation, giving me energy, or calming me down)
- How could I meet this need in a healthier way or with a more intentional strategy?
3.2 🪣 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 & Co-regulation.
You can think of these as being like levers we can pull on to shift how you feel and cycle between the three Polyvagal modes of being Sympathetic, Ventral & Dorsal.
🗯 The First Bucket – Re-framing
The first is Re-framing which is what psychologists call ‘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, tell a more positive story or find something to be grateful for.
In the literature this is sometimes referred to as ‘Cognitive Reappraisal Theory’ ~ in which we ‘re-appraise’ the meaning and context of our emotions.
One example I heard from the Free Solo climber Alex Hannold was that he experiences what most of us would label strong fear as ‘intense arousal’ almost to the point of wonder and fascination.
As another example: let’s say you’re about to go on stage to give a presentation. The sensation of nervousness could be re-framed to ~ I’m noticing a lot of energy running through my system right now ~ that means that I must really care about this… perhaps I’m feeling excited right now.
🌬️ The Second Bucket – Biological Levers
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.
Your eyes are one powerful lever — let’s try this right now as you’re listening… Move 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 — Co-regulation
The third category ~ is co-regulation.
John Muir once wrote ‘When one tugs at a single thing, he finds it is attached to the rest of the world’
The same is absolutely true of our nervous systems. We are constantly tuning our state to be in limbic resonance with the environment and people around us.
We are social ape we have evolved to need human connection, it is as essential a need as sunlight or nutrients.
When we were growing up, we literally didn’t have the neural circuitry to regulate ourselves and relied on the co-regulation from our primary caregivers.
Now that we’re adults ~ and particularly adult men ~ we seem to have this belief that we should be able to face any challenge on our own. I call it Lone Wolf Syndrome.
It’s also not just other humans that our nervous systems are dancing with ~ but also other animals. You know how sometimes dogs will appear to take on the characteristics of their owners… there’s one study that found that emotional contagion exists between dogs and their owners ~ even finding a positive correlation between human and dog HRV levels.
What is the mechanism? How does it work?
As you co-regulate with another human, your brain’s mirror neurons are activated—this enables the person in the deregulated state to literally ‘mirror’ your calmness… to the degree that your endocrine systems are literally tuning into each other and producing similar hormones.
So it’s quite literally true to say that to a certain extent ~ we become the average of the five nervous systems we spend the most time with.
So how can you experiment with this in your life?
- Firstly consider who are you co-regulating with on a regular basis? Perhaps it’s your spouse, your kids, your pet, or your co-workers. And just acknowledge that your nervous systems are shaping each others.
- If you have a partner, spouse or close friend ~ try exploring your co-regulation capacity. You can try say a 20 second hug breathing together and pay attention to how you feel before and after.
I remember when I was going through some of the depths of my grief, I would lie next to a couple of close friends ~ and literally feel my nervous system downshifting in their presence.
I remember that a dog that we used to look after in Bali, Kala who got scared whenever there were thunderstorms, and so she would come and basically lie on us using brute force whenever she sensed a storm ~ and you could feel her calm down in real-time.
I have a theory that we even co-regulate with the voices of podcast hosts that we listen to. Certain hosts are high-energy and invigorating ~ whilst others are calming and more tranquil.
3.3 🌬️ Theory ~ How You Breathe = How You Live
Okay, I’d like to make a fairly radical claim—that how we breathe... directly impacts how we feel and even the thoughts that we have.
What is remarkable about the breath is that it’s the one activity in our body that happens on its 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.
Deep inside your brain is something called the INSULA - which is a funnel for interpreting all of these signals about breath rate etc from the body... its the hub for our somatic bodily and interoceptive signals — from here signals are relayed via the medulla oblongata to activate the sympathetic part of your nervous system.
So let’s say that your breathing is: through the mouth, is quite shallow so only into the upper chest and is fairly rapid.
This in turn creates a cascade effect sending signals to your endocrine system to secrete adrenaline and cortisol from your adrenals, which creates 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 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 – or other Top Down Interventions – generally seek 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 a neurotransmitter that leads 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.
3.4 🧘♂️ Theory ~ If [THIS] then [REGULATE]
In life most of the things that we use or buy come with instruction manuals or training. We get lessons for how to drive a car ~ shown how to engage the clutch to change gears ~ but no one ever sat us down and showed us how to use our human bodies to deliberately shift our state.
So you can think of this theory as a ‘How to Human’ user manual of sorts – I’m going to share examples of Nine Bottom-up Protocols that are both evidence-backed and that I have found to be helpful in my 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 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.
These protocols will be effective regardless of whether you are experiencing Dorsal or Sympathetic – however, if you feel a Dorsal shutdown – it can be extremely helpful to begin with move your body through stretching, opening up the chest and breathing deeply into the areas that feel stuck or closed. Self-massage or explicit verbal reminders that you are safe also work wonders – and know that there maybe some sadness, anger or other emotions that surface as you begin to thaw your system. And that these are here to be welcomed – this is the work of emotional fluidity that we’ll be diving into next week.
I’d also encourage you to share your own self-regulation or co-regulation ideas — for example, previous students have mentioned how cuddling with their dogs or using saunas have been supportive for downshifting their state.
There are in all likelihood, hundreds of practices which assist with nervous system regulation – and bonus points if you can stack these — for example you might try co-regulating with your dog or cat whilst chanting VOO-HUM and massaging your neck.
Really this is an invitation to play around with each of these these and use your interoceptive capacity to notice how each shifts your internal state.
Another cue that you’re looking out for is that spontaneous ‘sigh’ response ~ which signals that your body is relaxing & downshifting gears into parasympathetic, as well as a softening of tension + a more relaxed gaze etc.
This is by no-means an exhaustive list and you also 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 the following episodes I’ll guide you through four potent bottom-up practices (to change your bloody chemistry + hormones through the body) for downshifting into the ventral state of calm + connection that you can use anywhere.
You can find the other five in the Week 3 Workbook along with a writing prompt to recall scenarios on your day-to-day when these might be useful.
At the end of the workbook — you can also refer to what I’ve called NSM self-regulation cheat sheet in the NSM workbook if you need reminders of how these fit together.
3.5 👀 Protocol ~ Catch Reactivity with the 3 C’s
In this episode we’re going to explore… cultivating agency + catching early signs of reactive tendencies before they escalate past the point of no return.
So, the idea is to use our interoception to notice our reactivity 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.
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 center. 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 at 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 — Label three things that you can see.
Listen — Label two things you can hear
Feel – Label one thing you can feel with your hands or feet
Finally take one 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 the 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 ~ it's 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) —
3.6 😨 Protocol ~ Cultivating Calm Anywhere
In this protocol episode we are going to stack four calming protocols together – it’s important to note that these can all be practiced individually or combined according to your personal preference.
We’re going to begin by orienting by using ‘3-2-1’ — then performing five Physiological Sighs, followed by two rounds of unilateral nostril breathing and then finally five single breath VOO-HUMs. If you follow along you should be feeling supremely calm and relaxed by the end of this.
Before we begin, notice how you feel internally and ensure that you are in a place – ideally seated – where you can remain for the next few minutes.
🚨 Okay, first let’s Orient with 3-2-1
Orient — With your eyes open, label 3 things that you can see in your environment
Listen — Now, Tune into two sounds that you can hear
Feel — One contact point on the ground with your feet or hands
🫁 Second, we’ll perform five Physiological Sighs
These are a full inhalation or double inhalation through the nose followed by a completely effortless and relaxed sigh.
Let’s practice five rounds along with me.
👃 Now we’re doing to do two rounds of Unilateral Nostril Breathing
Raise your right hand, and use the right thumb to block the right nostril, and the ring finger to block the left nostril.
Okay let’s begin by inhaling through the left side for a count of 3 – 2.. 3… – now hold at the top for 3 – 2….3 – then exhale for a count of 6. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.
Now close left and inhale right for three – 2…3.. – hold for 3, 2, 3. – Exhale left for 6, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.
Let’s repeat one more round on both sides.
Inhale left for a count of 3 – 2.. 3… – now hold at the top for 3 – 2….3 – then exhale for a count of 6. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.
Now close left and inhale right for three – 2…3.. – hold for 3, 2, 3. – Exhale left for 6, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.
Now lower your right hand and pause for a moment.
🐝 And finally we’ll wrap up with five VOO-HUM breaths.
This will involve taking a full breath and for the first half of the exhale make the sound VOO – and for the second half make a ‘HUMM’ for as long as you can until your lungs are empty of air. We’ll repeat this five times.
Inhale and begin –
And finally pause – be as physically still as you can – to feel the cumulative effects of these practices four practices – as well as calming effect of the nitric oxide in your system from the humming.
You’re welcome to stay still for as long as you wish. When you’re ready to continue with your day, gradually come back into the space and get up when you’re ready. The practice of these four calming protocols is now complete.
3.7 🔥 Story ~ Thawing Dorsal Shutdown
The funny thing I’ve found from teaching NSM so far — is that as soon as I commit to sharing something, life gives me the opportunity to put it into practice.
Yesterday morning, when I had scheduled time on my calendar to record this very episode — I woke up in something of a funk.
Without going into too much story — I had had a conversation with my partner Kelly the night before, in which my experience or the story that was looped was one of not feeling like I was ‘enough’ — although I didn’t realise this until the following day.
So yesterday morning, as I was about to do a workout outside, I noticed a lot of resistance and a feeling of lethargy, even though I’d slept well. Mentally, I noticed some looping thoughts, emotionally I didn’t feel much at all, physically I wanted to get back into bed and curl up in a ball. In hindsight all text-book signs of being in dorsal.
At this point I sensed that I was in a trigger — my body was responding completely disproportionately to the conversation that we’d had the night before — so here’s what I did:
- Despite wanting to curl back up in bed, I found my way over to my yoga mat and begun stretching and inhaling deeply through my nose – then letting out sound on exhale. With each breath and stretch I could feel a bit of energy and aliveness coming back online — and with this came feelings of fear and not especially pleasant sensations.
- From here, I made my way back to the bed – put on an evocative instrumental music playlist — and begun to take more full inhales with the sound.
- Almost as soon as I did, tears started flowing from my eyes. My lower body begun to shake a little and I allowed myself to soften into this – with my hands gently placed on my belly to invite softness.
- At this point, I had no story or context of what this was connected to, but just stayed connected with my breathing — allowing some full sighs and VOO-HUMs to come through – and allowed this energy to shift in my lower body — and offered myself reminders of being safe to feel what was here. Using my breath to resource and ground myself.
- After a couple of minutes, I felt a constriction around my neck, almost like the experience of being strangled — and so I reached for my pillow and made loud sounds into the pillow.
- Almost instantly the intensity disappated and once again a deeper sadness and grief emerged — I still have no clue what this was related to, but my sense was that it was an experience from my early years of childhood.
- Finally, after some minutes — I felt a wave of relief and my first full breath – which was a cue that my body was ready to drop into relaxation — I switched the music to something deeply relaxing — and lay there for about 20 minutes to integrate the experience.
So there you have it — that was what the first two hours of my day looked like yesterday, and I then felt so much energy and creativity afterwards, and was very glad that I took the time to go in instead of avoiding.
I’d like to give some more context to this story — the first is that I’ve surfed emotional waves of this type several hundred times at this point, and I remember how challenging it felt when I was just learning how to trust my body in this way.
There is also a wide spectrum of how deep into dorsal we might be — sometimes it might just require a brief walk outside or a few breaths – in other cases there might be deeper emotions to surface and release.
The general principles — I hope to share are as follows. Firstly noticing that you’re in a state of withdrawl or shut-down is half of the battle, and not projecting your experience or blaming someone else for the way you feel. Basically you have to allow yourself to let go of the story and come into your body.
In this case — my partner beautifully pushed one of my buttons – as spouses and loved ones are uniquely talented at doing — and this surfaced an old pattern in my nervous system, which was presenting itself to be acknowledged, felt and re-integrated.
I’m hesitant to share any specific ‘protocols’ when it comes to thawing the dorsal freeze state, because each experience is unique — however there are some general principles here.
These three principles are:
FIRST, Bringing some gentle sympathetic arousal energy back into your system will be necessary in the beginning. The best ways to do this are breath – sound – movement – and coming back into your senses. Or a combination of all these. Gentle shaking can be helpful. The practice of ‘bellows breath’ or exhaling quickly through the nose is also an effective starting point that cues the adrenals to fire and bring more energy into the system.
SECOND, be aware that as you do this, some emotions or sensations will likely rise to the surface — this could be in the form of grief, anger, shame or any combination of the above. We’ll explore how to skilfully work with these sensations next week — but the key is to gently acknowledge and welcome them back into a felt sense of safety — and from there, trust the wisdom of your body to move or express however it wishes. This may look like tears, or anger, or holding parts of your body. Or all of the above.
THIRD, I’ll name that going into the emotions this is also probably the exact opposite of what your mind might be telling you to do — in my case my mind was telling me that I need to record the episode today or I would be behind, it was a very crafty avoidance mechanism — and it does often require considerable courage to CHOOSE to lean into the experience. Please only choose this path if you have a safe environment to go into the feeling — and choosing not to feel is fine too if you’re not ready, but just know that at some point you will need to investigate this path.
FINALLY, sometimes – especially if you are new to this work — and even if you’re experienced, we don’t always have capacity to hold ourselves through strong emotions & it may require the support of a somatic therapist or loved one to hold space for you and co-regulate as you begin to thaw from the frozen dorsal state.
Okay, so there you have it — this is one data point of how thawing out of dorsal can look, there are also a thousand different ways in which it can unfold — but the core principles of trusting the wisdom of your body and welcoming all sensations – no matter how much they suck – is the life-long journey and a core part of being human