Have you described yourself with any of these words recently? I certainly have!
For 6 months or so I have been tossing and turning my way into a pattern of not sleeping well. I either wake up multiple times during the night or I wake up at 3 or 4 am bursting with energy. Sleep experts casually recommend sleeping an extra 30 minutes for better health, mood, creativity, and more. That is not an option for me, and it is frustrating, confusing, exhausting, and I have been clueless as to what to do. Until two weeks ago…
I was in a conversation with a friend of mine and he asked me, “If you had to pick a metaphor to describe how you feel, what would you choose?” The image that immediately spun, spit, and swirled into my mind was the Tasmanian Devil from the old Looney Toons cartoons. Not sure where that came from, but hey, we all have our demons.
Even more interesting was when I asked myself what image I would choose to represent how I wanted to feel. I imagined a Zen monk with long flowing robes, in total bliss, slowly strolling through beautiful gardens. Absorbing the vibrant reds, yellows, oranges, and greens of the fauna around him. Smelling the pungent scents of wet earth, the mixing of sweet and calming aromas of the flowers. The feel of the warm sun on his face. Hearing the soothing melodies of the birds, the chirping of insects, and the crunch of leaves beneath his feet. That he was me. I could feel, smell, and hear it all. I experienced immediate calm. That experience, what I felt, stuck with me for the remainder of the day.
That night, still feeling the shift I had experienced earlier and curious about it, I dove headfirst into the black hole that is “research on the internet” with the hopes of finding something useful. What I found turned out to be life-changing for me. I explored the world of the autonomic nervous system, in particular the sympathetic and parasympathetic responses. I read articles, watched YouTube videos, read through checklists, “life hacks,” and more.
The autonomic nervous system is one of those topics that we all learned at least a little bit about in high school biology, and that most of us have long since forgotten. It is also one of those subjects that reappears as a living paradox: everything I learned was obvious as I researched more about it, yet it had been so NOT obvious over the last two decades of my life. These systems, however, have an impact on how we show up throughout our lives. While valuable knowledge to gain in high school, these principles are even more valuable when we apply them to leadership and the unconscious impact we have on others and our work.
I am not going to spend much time describing the science behind any of this (the Internet is already filled with more information than any of us could handle) but for the purposes of this article, the sympathetic nervous system is the “fight, flight, freeze, and appease” part of us. The parasympathetic nervous system is the “rest and digest” part. They are meant to operate in balance with one another, sometimes equipping us with energy and focus in response to threats (more often than not, these are perceived threats in our modern world), and then calming us down to rest, recover, and, most importantly, sleep.
As I read and learned more, it became clear to me that I was experiencing an over-active sympathetic nervous system. I have done a lot of meditation and mindfulness practices over the years and most people’s advice to “practice mindfulness to settle your mind so you can sleep” was straight up annoying—a swirling mind is rarely my issue. What I realized was swirling was my body—my nervous system—not just my mind. I do not know if this is fully backed up by the science (can the body swirl?), but it was, in my experience, a helpful way of understanding it.
I can recall many years of feeling my heart race at various points throughout the day, or noticing my fingers curled and tense, a huge amount of energy flowing through me, accompanied by frantic action and a mesmerizing swirl of thoughts. It was always more exhilarating than exhausting, in the moment at least, and the story I told myself was that this was a great state to get into—it made me super productive, playful, and I often enjoyed it. That is how life-hackers describe “being your best,” right? But, as I looked back on those times, an honest assessment also saw the exhaustion when I crashed, the drain on my physical energy and health, the lack of focus or deep fulfillment from anything I accomplished in that state, the brusque ways I treated others… and the list of downsides went on.
I suspect that many of you can see aspects of yourself in what I have described. Western culture encourages this unhealthy behavior. We hustle and cram more and more into our days for maximum efficiency, but it often backfires in the long run. The negative effects of an overactive sympathetic nervous system are plentiful, and scary—suppressed immune system, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, and more. Not to mention that this behavior and the mood it can produce is highly contagious—if a leader shows up like this, chances are their team will respond similarly in time. The research is plentiful, but even more importantly for me, I wanted to sleep and feel better right now!
Given the common reports of anxiety, overwhelm, and burnout among leaders worldwide over the last few years, practicing habits that lead to greater calm should be a high priority. There are many ways to calm the sympathetic response and to bring on the parasympathetic response. I continue to explore and experiment with new methods, and I encourage you to do the same. For now, here are few that have been working for me and that you might enjoy:
Our nervous system is conditioned to support whatever behaviors we most often engage in, and chances are your nervous system, like mine, is currently wired to be wired. So, if you are searching for an antidote to all the crazy like I was, make this a habit that you practice throughout your day until it becomes a part of your routine. Many of the techniques are easy to do in the middle of a meeting without anyone even noticing. Better yet, start your meetings like we often do at Conversant with just 15 seconds dedicated to creating a space for conscious transitions between meetings and for calming and restoring balance to everyone’s harried nervous systems. The key is to slow down your breathing, to reconnect to your body, and to become purposefully present. [If you are interested in exploring Presence further, check out our series of short videos on cultivating Purposeful Presence for you, your team, or your organization.]
I am determined to rewire my nervous system for balance, sustained energy, and calm engagement, so that burning my energy throughout the day feels more like a well-tended fire, less like a jet engine. I have already noticed a significant improvement in my sleep, my mood throughout the day, and a much less frenzied engagement in my work and relationships. My journey has just begun, and I am excited to see what further benefits I discover from this new, and simple practice.