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Are you so wound up you can't slow down? Not performing like you want to? Perpetually injured? Can’t fight the funk?
Some of the toughest training there is for all athletes is training the relaxation system.
For action athletes, being present without the risk of death is a surprisingly difficult task. When you slow down and you're jumping out of your own skin it's a good indicator there's some balancing of your nervous system to be done.
Less is more
The body is a magnificently profound organism which is wired not only to survive but to thrive and optimize itself given the opportunity. As action athletes we are accustomed to the “get after it” attitude. Terms like “go hard or go home” are pretty standard self and community motivational speak. So for those who love a thrivy-strivy kinda life, the strategy for peak performance becomes less about striving (you’ve got that down) and more about activating your super powers by training yourself to relax into the stress response, bringing you into the present moment. This allows your body to optimize and provide what’s needed right then to survive, whether it be heightened intuition and super sensory powers as you push your boundaries or natural pain relief when injured (your body working smarter not harder). The counter intelligence to the stress response is called the relaxation response, the yin yang of the nervous system.
Take yourself to the brain gym and set yourself up to flow.
The term Relaxation Response (RR) was discovered and coined by Dr. Herbert Benson MD, founder of Mind Body Medical Institute, professor of medicine Harvard. It is your individual ability to release chemicals and brain signals that make your body & mind slow down, increasing blood flow, oxygen and reward chemistry to the brain and potentially kicking you into a flow state - basically natural neuro hacking.
The RR is the ticket to the flow train and your secret weapon to cultivating peak performance. Think of it like throwing a drogue, it slows you down just enough for safety and to optimize the opening into your next adventure. The RR prepares us for an optimal opening into the flow state.
The RR does the exact opposite to the Stress Response by slowing heart rate and breathing, lowering blood pressure, relaxing your muscles and slowing catabolism (break down). That translates to better digestion, sharper memory and problem solving, reduced inflammation and faster recovery. Eliciting the relaxation response gives you the power to naturally relieve pain and majorly improve your mood. Regular practice activating this response programs your neural pathways, allowing you to drop in quickly. The more you practice relaxing into stress the greater the chances of hitting a flow state on demand. This is mainly because whether you flow or not is determined by your system's perception of stress to skill. By practicing the relaxation response you can set yourself up for peak performance.
Why is it so hard for athletes to just relax?
It’s counter intuitive. When we want to be better at something we assume working at it more, not less, gets the best results. Even when we are tired and intuition says we need sleep, we still push through. Working hard is definitely what gets results; working too hard gets a freaked out nervous system that can take you hostage.
We are chronically stimulated. Generally speaking the central nervous system has a speedy side and a chill side ( sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems). Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that bind to specific receptors and allow the nervous impulse to fire or not fire. How freely and rapidly your nerves fire and how stressed you feel is determined by how effective your inhibitory neurotransmitters are at slowing your roll. Two key players are Glutamate (excitatory ) and GABA (inhibitory) which act like an accelerator and brake to your nervous system. Think too much coffee - those racy jitters, that's glutamate without GABA inhibitory influence - No GABA = no pauses between words and you’re running around like your head’s chopped off with fluttering bits n pieces. Caffeine and other wonderful stimulating life activities prevent us from putting the brakes on and we eventually run out of gas- aka adrenal fatigue, insomnia, chronic fatigue & panic attacks, which are all barriers to peak performance.
I don’t need to relax, I like to go go go.
A constantly firing nervous system eventually depletes certain neurotransmitters, throwing the balance off and allowing excitatory chemistry to dominate your experience. The relationship between GABA and Glutamate has significant influence on our reward chemistry and are vital for regulating our ability to control pain, how well we sleep, how happy we feel, hunger & stress, and how inclined to sexy time we feel, or not. The right amount of stimulation and you’re on your game, looking good and feeling good. Too much and you’re an irritated, unproductive, blurry-visioned, sexually muted mess.
GABA gives us a feeling of control in the nervous system; without it nerve cells fire too often and too easily. As the internal sense of control is diminished, often hyper controlling behaviors surface as means of compensating like trying to overly control your partner or surroundings and micro managing at work. Low GABA activity means the neural pathways for pain and addictions go unregulated, leaving you with express-pass pain signals, making it really hard not to B-line for your self medicating “vice” of choice. Without enough GABA, excess Glutamate overly stimulates nerve cells in the brain causing neurological inflammation and cell death. This is the major contributing factor to disorders like migraine, ADD, fibromyalgia, OCD and anxiety.
Rest is how the body reboots itself.
The Relaxation Response initiates the parasympathetic nervous system which is the rest, digest and repair or heal mode. It is the body’s evolved system for switching off the “fight or flight” response. Not enough time spent in relaxation mode means we stay saturated in stress chemicals and inflammation and the body can’t heal itself. No matter how good your diet is, without enough rest you don’t digest or absorb your nutrients properly which affects your immune system, metabolism, hormones and neurotransmitter synthesis. This shows up as leaky gut, bacterial overgrowth, IBS, and general unhappiness etc. Know many action athletes with gut issues?
Love going hard every day? Train too hard without rest and the body can’t calm down enough to integrate what you’ve been doing, so the body hasn’t truly learnt it. Rest gets your training into your body and out of your head faster. Rest is paradoxically necessary for the brain to be industrious and get work done. Some physiological processes only occur when the brain is at rest or sleeping. Unrested, our assessment of risk and ability to focus declines and coping mechanisms go down the toilet. Many studies on meditation show brain breaks and rest or downtime improve attention and motivation, boosts productivity and creativity, and improves decision making - all essential components to peak performance.
Hard wired for survival, the body will do everything it can to survive when challenged. High consequences certainly help kick us into a flow state but when reserves are low, say low GABA and Serotonin from living a fun lifestyle, you may not be able to initiate your relaxing chemistry to calm your brain enough to think straight, which means you stay peaking. It is in that state stress can take over, mistakes happen, or you die. The body has the built in ability to heal itself given the opportunity. That opportunity comes from the parasympathetic nervous system and rest.
There are many ways to elicit the relaxation response- massage, energy work, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, meditation, visualization, prayer, dancing. The most effective take it anywhere and free method is by focusing the mind and breathing.
Sleep glorious sleep
So many people have trouble with it yet it is vital to health. Sleep allows the body to detoxify itself, promote muscle mass, repair cells and tissues and maintain a healthy balance. Your immune system relies on sleep to stay healthy. Ever noticed when you're sleep deficient you have trouble fighting common infections?
6 Tips supercharge your brain and set yourself up to flow:
1. Balance blood sugar and eat brain boosting foods. Tips in part 2 http://www.skydivemag.com/article/appetite-for-adrenaline-part-2?category=skydivemag%23latest&fwd=1
2. Take mini brain breaks throughout the day Daydreaming, light meditation, breath counting, zoning out in the shower, looking away from your computer/phone and simply blinking gives the brain a mini break.
3. Activate your relaxation response daily - 20min Relaxation response meditation Pick a focus word that means something to you. Close your eyes, relax your body, face, jaw, and allow your tongue to release from roof of mouth. Breathe naturally. On the exhale repeat your focus word to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up when your mind wanders, simply bring it back to the breath and point of focus.
4. Sleep Athletes need at least 8 hours of sleep a night. Teas to help you sleep - kava kava, Valerian, Ashwagandha
5. GABA boosting beverages The 3 above, green tea & oak aged barrel whiskey - said to increase GABA effect via aroma as it reaches the brain as an inhalation, give it a sniff!
6. B6 is a GABA co factor This is required for synthesis of GABA. Make sure you’re not deficient.
Tap into your wildly intelligent system and set yourself up to flow.
Lucie Charping Peak Performance Health Coach, Fusion Flow Retreats, San Diego CA. www.fusionflow.co