Body Talks: Life’s Most Delicate Balance

Modern life has left us deaf to nature’s subtle internal distress signals. When we stop to listen, we begin our journey to health and happiness.

Listen to your body when it whispers so you don’t have to hear it scream.”

(Author Unknown)

I work with many highly successful people. They are captains of industry, busy professionals, leading artists and international athletes. They’re all striving for the same thing that you are—to live a happy life and to make a difference. Like you, they want to wake in the morning thrilled and excited for another day of growth and achievement.

When we first meet, they are the picture of success—well-dressed, confident, and composed. As we talk, they become comfortable sharing more of themselves. Before long, I’m in deep conversation with the real person—the authentic, hard-working, caring leader, who hopes to balance hopes and fears, and is intent on remaining a good person even as they strive for success.

Too often, as our conversation progresses, they start sharing painful personal stories. I discover too many crumbling marriages which lurch between blatant flare-ups and prolonged, destructive silence on their journey of cumulative destruction. I find careers that are threatening to implode due to exhaustion or conflict with key colleagues and customers. I find artists who can no longer create; athletes who can no longer compete; health care providers who no longer care.

And it breaks my heart.

These are good people, like you and I, with so much to give and gain, and with wonderful intentions, but something in their lives has gone horribly wrong, even as they worked so hard to be that exemplary leader, colleague, spouse or parent.

In all cases, as we look back down the sad path that brought them to this point, we recognize that this has been a gradually evolving reality. It didn’t happen overnight.

What went wrong? How did they miss the signs warning them of impending doom?

For so many of my clients, the problem is that they have ignored the signals that report the state of life’s most delicate balance.

Each of us must balance effort with recovery, work with rest, stress with relaxation, energy expenditure with replenishment. As living creatures, we simply need to get this balance right to achieve sustainable success.

We’re used to this concept in our daily lives. We always know how much energy is left in our cellphone batteries. We know how much gas is left in our cars. We understand that we need to top-up or risk shut-down, and we know that we must watch the dashboard or screen to see how much further we can push the device before it refuses to work anymore.

But, human beings don’t have dashboards with fuel gages. We don’t have liquid crystal screens with little red-or-green battery icons in the top corner.

So, how should the corporate athlete know they’re headed into the burn-out zone, where stress becomes distress and they start making critical errors? How should the artist know that they’ve depleted their creative reserves before they run out of inspiration? How should the parent or spouse know that they’re at risk of exhausting their child or partner’s tolerance, before it’s too late?

Luckily, our body has millions of powerful sensors—we just have to listen to them.

Mother Nature provided us with an intricate nervous system that regulates this balance. It functions behind the scenes—the autopilot that we’re largely unaware of … until things go horribly wrong.

The autonomic nervous system has two components, known as the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic nervous system jolts us into action. It is the adrenalin-based communication channel that brings our body into high-alert and high-activity. It was originally designed to help us capture prey to feed our tribe, or to run away from big scary creatures that wanted to feed us to their own children. But we still use it today to mobilize our biological resources for vigilance and action.

Mother Nature knew that we would need down times when she could get her recuperative forces to heal and repair our bodies, enabling growth and biological vitality. She designed our parasympathetic nerves, largely under the control of the giant Vagus nerve which descends from our brain into our chest cavity where it exerts its suppressive influence on organs like our heart and lungs. The Vagus nerve works like a large brake. When it fires, it slows us down, preventing overuse while our bodies are nourished and replenished.

Both systems are guided by delicate sensors, that measure heart rate, blood pressure, levels of important chemicals like glucose, and hormones like adrenaline. Few of these sensors report the intelligence they gather directly to our conscious brains, but there are important signals that we can become aware of that can alert us to imminent burn-out.

The first step is awareness. You can heighten your awareness of several of these biological signals through careful listening, and disciplined practice. When you sense things are going wrong, you can react to avert danger.

Three simple exercises to help you become sensitive to your body’s distress signals:

Each exercise starts with you sitting quietly for a few minutes. I know, if you’re an overachiever, even this is difficult :-).

  1. Can you feel the level of tension in your neck muscles? Rate it on a scale from 1 to 10. Now, slowly try to reduce the tension by 3 points. If you started at 9, then by the end of your session, you should be at 6.
  2. Can you estimate the depth and frequency of your breathing? Estimate depth as a percentage of maximum. A tiny shallow breath would be 10%; a huge deep breath would be 90%. Count how many breathes you take in a minute, then slow it down by half, while doubling the depth. So, if you’re at 14 breathes per minute and 30% of max volume, then go to 7 breaths per minute at 60% of max.
  3. Can you guess your heart rate? Take a guess, then count it. Set a timer for a minute and count your pulse. How close were you? Once you have your actual heart rate, then try to slow it down by 10 beats per minute …

By now, you’re asking me: “how do I do this”?

That’s the secret. I’m deliberately not going to tell you how to slow everything down. I want you to experiment. Try different things and see what happens.

First, you need to get familiar with your physiology. You need to sense when your muscles are tense. You need to know when you’re breathing shallow and fast, or worse, grinding your teeth and holding your breath. And you need to know when your heart is racing for no good physical reason.

Each of these are appropriate physical responses for short periods of stress. But when they’re sustained, they’re an indication that you’re headed for trouble!

If you want a hint on how to begin to control these automated functions, start with your breathing—you’ll be amazed how many other physiological parameters you can control by simply breathing differently.

If you practice these techniques, and learn how to read the copious signals your body is emitting constantly, you’ll be in a much better position to self-regulate the critical balance, averting many of the (man-made) disasters that erode your health and happiness.

Have fun,

Roddy


About the Body Talk Series:

I have a strong interest in WHealth Tech – that is the technology that enables us to quantify our health and happiness. There is an epidemic of equipment that we can strap on, wear or carry that helps us measure our bodily functions and sometimes our emotional and mental state.

I’m not yet convinced that we’re doing better than Mother Nature. She has equipped us with the most intimate and delicate sensors. More than this, over millions of years she has helped us to prioritize the messages we get from these sensors to not only survive, but to thrive.

The progress we’ve made as modern humans (like electricity, computing, and cellular communications to name a few) has led us into a lifestyle that has eclipsed our original biological design. This mismatch is massively disruptive to our health and happiness. I’m a little worried that our obsession with technological probes will further diminish our sensitivity to critical internal information, compounding our precarious position.

This article is one in a series that is designed to focus your attention on natural signals of health and happiness.

Read more here:

Body Talks: Listen to the Sound of Sleep

Body Talks: the Blazing Fire of Inflammation

Read more about the role of the Vagus nerve in The Power of Love

 

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