How Your Neurobiology Helps You Thrive

by Susie Amundson

l had a reckoning this morning: I’m disconnected from my body.

And the big surprise? I’m turning into a bitch.  Whiney. Judgmental. Attitude of scarcity. Dark messages. And that’s just with my Tall Beloved.

Imagine what the rest of the world gets?

For starters, I’m not smiling (under my mask) at any of the tourists who have inundated our cosmic hamlet. At the beginning of the summer when the tourists flooded in and the Alaskan summer solstice was dawning, my mantra was generous: “There’s plenty of room at the table for everyone.”  At Safeway, the harbor, the streets.

Now as the summer is closing, my inner voice snaps: “Get away from the table, you mooks.”

It Got Me Thinking

Nervous systems are set up to thrive and survive, if you’re of a mammalian persuasion (you’ll need to self-assess here, friends).  At the start of the summer, I was in full thrive-mode.  Three months later, it feels like full-on survive-mode.

In survive-mode, we move into protective and defensive neural states (there are two of them). In turn, our thinking brain shuts down.  

In other words, we go offline from our prefrontal cortex. That important front part of our brain letting us focus, solve problems adeptly, respond flexibly, make wise decisions, and demonstrate empathy and warm-heartedness.

And yes, basically be and act from your best self. 

Survival Mode Doesn’t Work Well

Whether you are leading a work team or your own life, full-on survival mode sucks.  It doesn’t feel pretty from the inside. It doesn’t look pretty from the outside.

It means you’re stuck in your sympathetic nervous system thrashing out, enraged, getting all judgy, restless, or on a hypervigilant alert most of the time. (qualifier = calling people ‘mooks’)

Or you’ve fallen down the stairs to the basement of the dorsal vagal network (below your diaphragm) where you are shuffling despair, powerlessness, not-enoughs, and exhaustion.

And typically? Full-on survival mode is a swirl of both.

Where’s the Thrive Switch?

A better place to hang out in our nervous system (or at least visit more frequently) is the top floor or the ventral vagal network. It’s where you have a heart-face connection with yourself and other mammals. You feel Calm, Alert, Kindred, and Engaged.  As in, eating CAKE.

Once this network is activated, your prefrontal cortex goes online. It’s science.

In thrive-mode, you will think more clearly. Be more creative and productive at work.  You will boost your colleagues’ productivity.  Demonstrate more collaboration and greater perspective in life.  Move that protective ego out of the way of your team’s shared goals. And express more appreciation and generosity to your colleagues.

This is brilliant news for the workplace.  Along with home life. (Go ahead and ask my Tall Beloved).

You Can’t Think Your Way Out of This

Access to your thrive-mode and thinking brain is through your body.  Yup, it seems counter-intuitive. Yet you’ve got to sync up your mind with your body’s visceral experience in the present to spiral upward. Then thrive’s neural switch goes “ON.”

In other words, when those neurophysiological reactions are overtaking the lower neural zones, you need a tiny toehold of wisdom.  To flash in the moment on what’s happening in your body’s viscera and show up for it.  

If that sinking feeling of powerlessness is stirring in your gut, your mind has to meet it.  If that eddy of restlessness is moving you toward your vice of choice, take pause and lean into that felt sensation. If you are blaming a co-worker, drop your squirrel brain’s storyline for a moment.

And partner up with your body. Experience that visceral charge.  And yes BEWARE: Your mind will do everything to distract and dissuade you. It doesn’t like sticky, icky physical sensations.

Use your attention to simply: Notice the visceral sensation. Breathe into it. Observe its energy and movement (no judgy here). Place your hand on it.  Meet the charge gently and let it know “it’s OK.”

Partnering Up with Your Neurobiology

A neurobiological reaction (aka emotion) lasts anywhere from 5 to 90 seconds from start to finish. When you can tune your mind’s focus on your body’s visceral reaction and not move your attention elsewhere, you will craft a new and indispensable skill. For work, and life.

Try it once and see what happens. And then keep practicing again and again. (here’s the details)

Building the neural muscle that syncs your mind with your body will help you hang out in the ventral vagal network enjoying more CAKE.  It’s a way to resource up.

Because up there on the top floor, we see more clearly.  And magically, my ‘mooks’ change back into humans just like you and me.

Wishing you wellness, wisdom, and wholeness,

Susie

#polyvagaltheory #neurobiologyatwork #emotionalstrength #storyfollowsneuralstate