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Why understanding your Nervous System

Why is it that practising a sport in training is fairly easy, but as soon as we get amongst it and the intensity builds, it can all fall apart?

If this happens to you, you're not alone. Recreational and professional athletes go through the same process. Why, because we are all human and this is the way our autonomic nervous system responds.

The autonomic nervous system is a component of the peripheral nervous system that regulates involuntary physiologic processes including heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, and sexual arousal. It contains three anatomically distinct divisions: sympathetic, parasympathetic, and enteric."

So why can things fall apart even if we have the best intention, greatest mindset and practised our skills. The outcome is down to an adaptive pattern which follows a predictable sequence.

If you take surfing for example. You enter the ocean with confidence and paddle out to the spot you want to surf. You recover quickly from the paddle and still feel strong. A wave comes and you glide into it, making the drop and riding along the wave with confidence. You feel elated afterwards and paddle back with energy.

Another wave comes, you paddle for it and miss it. The other comes and someone is on it, even though you are in the perfect spot to take off. Now you start to feel a little annoyed, the heart rate starts to elevate and your breathing speeds up, making you breathe from the mouth. You go for another wave, but miss it because you have become tense and popped up too soon, missing the wave. You start to get frustrated, which creates more tension. You start to become over aware of what other people are doing around you, maybe even blaming the other people because you missed the wave.

By now the tension and frustration has become internalised and takes away from any plans you had for catching waves. You go for another wave and feel a sense of fear and panic as the wave picks you up. You jump at the last moment, going over the falls and getting tumbles. Getting back on your board you go into survival mode. The eyes are wide, mouth open; you paddle back out and sit on your board feeling depleted. The heart rate starts to drop, breathing slows and you feel like you want to hide. You're done and start to float towards the beach.

What is really going on here?

These reactions are not intentional choices, this is the reaction and process of the autonomic nervous system and can be explained by looking at the Polyvagal Theory.

“The polyvagal theory proposes that the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system provides the neurophysiological substrates for adaptive behavioural strategies. It further proposes that physiological state limits the range of behaviour and psychological experience.”

Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) continuously unconsciously scans challenges around us and reacts to them to keep us safe. The reaction creates a sense of how the body feels and how we respond socially. This influences our heart rate, breathing, organ function etc. (view diagram above)

There are parts of the ANS which happen autonomically, but there are certain parts of the ANS which we can control, including our breathing.

Creating a sense of safety is really important. This does not mean we wrap ourselves in a donna and stay away from perceived danger. It’s about building the right skills, practice and strength to feel safe when the stimulus around us increases.

A good amount of stress for a short amount of time helps to create that fight instinct. Focus gets sharper, energy grows, breathing is steady and performance flows. When the stress gets too intense the instinct can be to run and hide.

Your role is really to bring awareness to how your mind and body respond to the stimulus and intervene with these techniques to make sure you stay with it. Here are some tips for you to try.

When surfing, there are many gaps between the waves. In other sports you may have a rest period or half time in a game. If you are sitting for too long you can become too relaxed and start to lose energy and focus. To maintain your focus you can bring attention to your breath and do a technique to get you switches on.

Taking short little puff breaths in and out from the belly through the nose can help this.

1. Sit upright

2. Take a little puff of air in and a little puff of air out of your nose at the ratio of and in and out breath per second.

3. Do this for up to a minute at a time and rest in between for about a minute.

On the other side of things, you may be over stimulated and feel the sense of fight flight, which impairs your decision making and actions.

Here you need to create a sense of recovery and calm.

1. Sit upright

2. Blow a short sharp breath out of your mouth with pierced lips for about 2 sec, then slowly breathe in a longer breath into your nose and down low into the belly. Do this 3 or 4 times

3. Then start to breathe in and out through your nose as a rate on in for 4, out for 6 until you feel a sense of recovery.

The more you train your breath outside the water, the quicker your autonomic nervous system will react and create the desired state of mind and body for you to focus and perform.

Breath Training options at Flowstate are:

Breath Class: Monday 5.30pm - 6.30pm, Coolangatta and Online

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