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Nervous System Basics, Breathwork Step-by-Step, Conflict-Avoidance Tendency

🤸‍♀️ Stretch 45

Source: Stasia Burrington

Hey hi hello!

This month, I’m experimenting with short video clips about what you usually read in this newsletter, all centred around one big question:

What can we learn about our nervous system that will help us improve our focus, motivation, moods, resilience and creativity?

If you prefer video over text, you might enjoy this! Follow along on Twitter or Linkedin.

🤸‍♀️ IN THIS WEEK'S STRETCH:

  • Understanding your emotions. Start by understanding the basics of your nervous system.

  • New to breathwork? A simple exercise + a few ideas on how you can build a breathwork habit.

  • Your brain’s conflict-avoidance tendency. A decision-making razor by Naval Ravikant.

💪 UNDERSTANDING YOUR EMOTIONS BY UNDERSTANDING YOUR NERVOUS SYSTEM

Thoughts and emotions are not abstract or conceptual, only existing in your mind.

They’re embodied.

Every emotion you feel—from the lethargy of a boring afternoon to the anger of a heated argument—can be traced back to physical processes happening inside you.

Why is this important to know?

Because understanding the biological framework behind your “negative” emotions can give you an empowering shift in perspective.

Sure, negative emotions can be unpleasant and uncomfortable, but they’re also entirely normal.

And most importantly:

They’re under your control.

One of the most important concepts to learn about here is the distinction between two branches of your autonomic nervous system (ANS):

  • The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)

  • The sympathetic nervous system (SNS)

Imagine these two systems as teams of neurons, each assigned with specific tasks to respond to changing conditions in the outer world, and maintain balance in your inner world.

Today, I want to talk a bit more about why it’s so important to have a balanced interplay between these two systems.

Here’s how it’s described in a book I recently started reading (and highly recommend!), Buddha’s Brain:

  • The PNS conserves energy in your body and is responsible for ongoing, steady-state activity. It produces a feeling of relaxation, often with a sense of contentment—this is why it’s also called the “rest-and-digest” system.

  • The SNS is the opposite and is designed to make you feel alert and activated, get you ready for action and movement—hence the nickname “fight-or-flight” system.

These two wings of the ANS are connected like a seesaw:

When one goes up, the other one goes down. (Makes sense—you can’t be highly relaxed and highly alert at the same time.)

Parasympathetic activation is the default resting state of your body, brain, and mind. It allows you to function normally while enjoying a sense of peace and tranquility.

But when the unexpected occurs —a sudden annoyance or a startling event—you experience what's called sympathetic activation.

That’s when your SNS kicks into high gear, raising your heart rate and dilating your pupils, preparing you to confront the situation head-on. We can thank the SNS for keeping us alive over the past 200,000 years.

Source: Breathwork workshop with Jamie Clements

The problem we face today is the SNS doesn’t necessarily require an actual life-threatening emergency.

Any situation that is experienced as a threat will activate your SNS. A critical comment from your partner, an important client meeting, even just thinking about this client meeting. Yep, heart rate shoots up!

Now, it would be an easy jump to think that we want to avoid parasympathetic activation as much as possible.

But that’s not the case.

We want to be able to activate and switch on these branches when we need to. We might need to focus, run, get something done. But we also need to be able to relax and calm down.

So both states are vital for our survival.

The only problematic nervous system state is the one you get stuck in. Think of chronic stress and burnout.

As outlined in the book, this is what a balanced autonomic nervous system looks like:

  • Mainly parasympathetic arousal for a baseline of ease and peacefulness

  • Mild SNS activation for enthusiasm, vitality, and wholesome passions

  • Occasional SNS spikes to deal with demanding or threatening situations

If you’re thinking: great, this is all very interesting, but how do I actually do that?

The visual system and our breath are two of the strongest, innate levers we can use to balance our nervous system.

I’ve described the “peripheral gaze” visual trick in detail in a previous edition.

And to learn how to use your breath, keep reading… 😉

🫁 WHERE TO START WHEN YOU’RE NEW TO BREATHWORK (A SIMPLE STEP-BY-STEP)

My cousin (hey Carl! 👋) told me he loves the newsletter but has one point of feedback for me…

“Interesting stuff on the whole breathwork thing, but what’s still not clear to me: for folks who are new to this, where do you start?!”

Great point, thank you Carl!

Let's break it down into a few manageable steps:

Step 1: Develop breath awareness

When you’re starting out, bringing your attention to your breathing several times throughout the day will give you a much greater insight than immediately trying to set aside 30 minutes for breathing exercises.

So don’t do that.

Start with developing a sense of breath awareness.

Keep a post-it on your computer or set an alarm for every few hours, and pay attention to your breath. Don’t do anything about it but just watch it for a moment. Is it slow or fast? Deep or shallow? Relax your face and shoulders, and notice where you feel the breath go in and out.

Do this for a week. It sounds effortful but you’ll be surprised to see how quickly your brain learns to pay attention to your breath. Before you know it, it’ll become habitual.

Step 2: Integrate 1 exercise into your day-to-day life

From there, we’re going to incorporate one single exercise into your day-to-day.

It’s important we start with just one. The number of breathwork techniques is mind-boggling, so it's important to start slow and simple.

I’d recommend starting with 1:2 breathing, because the effects are so noticeable, and it allows you to play around with what it feels like to activate that PNS we talked about earlier.

And the more noticeable the effects, the more motivated you’ll be to keep going.

The idea with 1:2 breathing is simply to extend your exhale to double that of your inhale. This requires you to consciously focus on slowing down the exhale. Making the exhale longer than the inhale activates the parasympathetic nervous system.

Here’s how you do this:

  • Sit or lie* down in a comfortable position.

  • Place one hand on your belly, just above your navel, and one hand on your chest.

  • Take a deep breath in through your nose for 3 seconds, feeling your belly expand.

  • Exhale through your mouth (with pursed lips) for 6 seconds, feeling your belly deflate.

A couple of extra notes on this:

You can play around with the duration, depending on your capacity—like 4 seconds in and 8 seconds out, or 5 seconds in and 10 seconds out.

It’s important that you focus on using your belly to breathe. Only the hand on your belly should be moving. The hand on your chest remains still. Try to breathe into your hand with some oomph, and breathe out through pursed lips, so it feels like an active exhale. This can take some practice but if you keep at it, you’ll get it.

You can count in your head, or you can use an app. I recommend Breathe, for two reasons: it’s free, and there’s only a few options so you won’t get overwhelmed. You can also easily adjust the preferred duration.

Breathe app

*If you’re lying down, keep your back neutral by bending your knees until feet are flat on the floor hip width apart and let knees fall in together.

Step 3: Make it a daily habit

If you’re entirely new to any form of mindfulness practice, you’re going to have to learn the habit of taking a few minutes out of your day to… seemingly do nothing productively. You’ll just need to blindly trust in the fact that this will be valuable for you in the long-run (more on this later on in the email.)

So the key is to start SMALL. Start with 2-3 minutes per day, and slowly build up.

Here are a couple of ideas on how you can make this a habit:

  • Habit stacking. Attach breathwork to an existing daily habit. For example, you can do a quick 2-3 minute breathing exercise before or after brushing your teeth, or while waiting for your coffee to brew. Linking breathwork with an established routine will make it easier to remember and incorporate into your day.

  • Set a timer for the same time every day. For some people, a few minutes of breathwork might be best in the morning, for other people it’s between calls or right before lunch. There’s right or wrong answer.

  • Use the Done app to track your habit. I’ve written more about how I use this app here. You can turn on a notification that alerts you every day as a reminder.

  • Any kind of visual cue in your living space or work space that can act as a gentle reminder throughout the day (post-its, symbols, images, a small figurine, etc.)

Step 4: Don’t get discouraged

Important step. Some days you’ll forget or not feel like it. That’s fine, and definitely not a reason to stop. Just start again the next day.

Also, every second of every minute will feel like a struggle—impossible to focus on something as “boring” as your breath. That’s entirely normal. As I’ve written about before: it’s not about focus. It’s about RE-focus.

You should fully expect to lose your focus every few seconds. The point is to continually bring your focus back to your breath.

Don’t get annoyed at yourself. Don’t say you can’t “do” breathwork. Just keep going. Your brain will catch up. (And you’ll start to see there’s nothing boring about the breath!)

To the Carl’s out there: If you’re new to breathwork, does this step-by-step help? What’s still confusing? What’s not working for you? Where are you getting stuck? Hit reply and let me know!

📚 YOUR BRAIN’S CONFLICT-AVOIDANCE TENDENCY (TO KEEP IN MIND WHEN MAKING A BIG DECISION)

I’m sorry to put it so bluntly but… your brain is incredibly short-sighted and you shouldn’t trust it with your biggest life decisions.

Generally, it will prioritise short-term gratification over long-term benefits—even if those long-term benefits far outweigh the immediate results.

Here’s how investor and modern day philosopher Naval Ravikant puts it:

“If you have two choices to make, and they’re relatively equal choices, take the path more difficult and more painful in the short term. What’s actually going on is one of these paths requires short-term pain. And the other path leads to pain further out in the future. And what your brain is doing through conflict-avoidance is trying to push off the short-term pain. By definition, if the two are even and one has short-term pain, that path has long-term gain associated. With the law of compound interest, long-term gain is what you want to go toward. Your brain is overvaluing the side with the short-term happiness and trying to avoid the one with short-term pain.”

The Almanack of Naval Navikant
🤔 Is there a big decision in your life you’re struggling to make? Can you think about it through the lens of this quote?

You might be considering a job change that requires you learn new skills, or going back to school. Short-term pain: effort to learn and maybe initially earning less, but the long-term gain could be a more fulfilling and more lucrative career.

Or maybe you’re dreaming of moving to a new city or country. Definitely lots of short-term pain there: the admin, the costs, the discomfort of being away from friends and family. But the long-term gains are enormous (I speak from experience, 11 years abroad and 3 countries in )

Breaking off a toxic relationship might cause short-term emotional pain, but the long-term peace and potential for healthier relationships in the future make the pain worthwhile.

In these situations, your brain will do everything it can to convince you to focus on whatever’s easiest NOW, and make any future challenges appear much more difficult and uncertain than they truly might be.

Yet these are the kinds of decisions that determine the course of your life and how fulfilled you’ll feel at the end of it. So approach them with as much honesty and “silly-brain-bias-awareness” as you can.

P.S.: Check out the book Almanack of Naval Ravikant—a collection of Naval’s wisdom from Twitter, podcasts, and essays over the past decade. This book, and Naval’s way of thinking, made a huge impact on me in terms of how I think about decision-making, work, making money, personal freedom and discipline.

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