Jeremy Snape

09 Mar 2017

67. UNDERSTANDING YOUR PHYSIOLOGY

While as coaches and leaders we understand the importance of team chemistry, our own internal chemistry goes unnoticed.

Words: Jeremy Snape, Sporting Edge

There is now scientific evidence of the near perfect partnership between mind and body, a non-stop conversation of micro-messages that governs everything we do.

While you are busy directing the team under pressure or presenting a corporate sales strategy, your body and brain are working in complete harmony to regulate your performance.

The body’s main function is to maintain what we call ‘homeostasis’ – the balance of everything from temperature and oxygen levels to blood pressure, all of which must remain within narrow ranges. So how does it keep these lifesaving processes constant in the face of the stress and emotion of modern life?

CHEMICAL WEAPONS

The nervous system is linked to a secret armoury of neurotransmitters and hormones, which can be deployed within seconds. These fall into two groups: some are controlled by the sympathetic nervous system and serve to rev us up, while others are governed by the parasympathetic nervous system and bring us back down again. A constant feedback loop between the brain and body allows their levels to be increased or decreased.

When faced with a situation that the brain perceives as threatening or dangerous – albeit anything from public-speaking to an email sent to the wrong person – it triggers the stress response. This powerful, primitive warning system kicks in at incredible speed. The brain sends a signal to the adrenal glands, ordering the release of adrenaline, which provides the energy needed to respond to the perceived threat – to fight or flee.

Adrenaline also has various physiological effects, including increasing heart rate and blood pressure, causing the air passages of the lungs to expand, enlarging the pupils of the eyes (narrowing vision), and redistributing blood from the digestive organs to the muscles for flight.

FROM RISK TO REALITY

While this mechanism is necessary in certain situations, there are dangers in allowing our response to be entirely automatic and it is important that we get involved at a cognitive level if we are to remain in control.

Left to its own devices our natural chemical cocktail can lead, for example, to what neurobiologist and former Wall Street trader John Coates calls ‘irrational exuberance’. This is where the feeling of invincibility and desire for success leads us to take bigger risks than we normally would consider acceptable.

In his book, The Hour between Dog and Wolf, Coates explains the evolutionary backstory to this behaviour. When wild animals overcome a successful challenge they get an extra shot of dopamine, which has a role in motivation, reward and addictive behaviours, and testosterone, which is linked to aggression, dominance and competitiveness. This ‘winner effect’ shapes the animals’ behaviour; they start to graze in more exposed areas, for example, or take on more dominant rivals to expand their territories. So we produce chemicals as a result of success and these in turn encourage us to take more risks.

This chemical overdose, Coates postulates, could be how we get brought back down to earth after a purple patch; our decision-making is blinded for a while, until we take things too far and failure gives us a reality check.

REST AND DIGEST

Thanks to the parasympathetic nervous system we are able to return to a more sustainable state, the short-term ‘fight and flight’ system subsiding and the longer-term ‘rest and digest’ systems taking over.

The vagus nerve plays a key role in this process, slowing the heart rate down and bringing the processes of repair, immune function and digestion back online. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter thought to help regulate mood, appetite and sleep, is also released, assisting in returning the body to a more restful and measured state.

However, there are also things we can do to help deactivate the effects of the stress response. For example, try 30 seconds of very slow, deep breathing. With nerve endings picking up signals from the diaphragm, signals of slower, deeper breaths reinforce the feedback loop to deactivate the physical effects of stress.

It is also important to ensure you are fuelled for a day of high performance thinking as, while your stomach can wait until dinner time, your brain continues to use up 20 per cent of your blood glucose. Keeping it waiting can lead to impulsive and bias driven decisions.

Your brain also needs oxygen, and the best way to provide this is through exercise, which also has the benefit of providing a dopamine and serotonin uplift. While getting out of the front door may be a short-term challenge, the benefits will set you up for the rest of the day.

With a new era of leadership emerging, people are looking to work smarter, not just harder, and with increased awareness of what drives our moods and motivations on the inside, we are more likely to make the right decisions on the outside.