Brain Health Optimization Secrets (Part 2)
Dr Mark Atkinson
To feel your best and live your best life you need to train your brain and take charge of your state. This is the secret to brain optimization.
In part 1, I shared how to train your brain. Now we are going to explore how to take charge of your state.
State is shorthand for your State of Being.
It’s the totality of how you are feeling and showing up now. It's the primary determinant of how you feel and how you are in this moment.
We exist within a fluctuating undulating state.
Picture this scenario.
Didn’t sleep well? That will create a tired state from which certain patterns of thinking and behaving automatically arise. You compensate with a filter coffee. 30-minutes later the caffeine shifts you into a state of alert focus. That feels better.
Someone you care about calls. You smile and receive their positivity, the chemical oxytocin shifts you into a state of caring and affection. The call ends, and an image of your boss immediately comes to mind.
An internal alarm goes off. Your body tenses up, your focus zoomed in and the worry-based story in your head, more compelling, louder. You reach for a cookie. That feels better. The day unfolds as a rollercoaster of emotions and compensatory state changes designed to help you survive the day.
Many of these behaviors are automatic, unconscious, programmed reactions to cues from our internal and external environment.
This is not a problem, if it doesn’t cause a problem and enables you to meet the demands of life.
It becomes a problem when it causes a problem (for you or others), and doesn’t enable you to meet the demands of life.
For example, addictions (to food, alcohol, drugs, gambling, work etc) often start out as adaptive attempts to regulate our state, soothe the way we feel and regain a sense of control when we feel overwhelmed.
As they take hold, you become fixated, tolerance kicks in (a higher dose or more intensity is required to get the same effect), withdrawal symptoms arise and negative consequences for us and others are more likely. The addiction dominates our thinking, controls our actions and impairs our ability to be in a conscious and healthy relationship with reality. It becomes in charge of us.
On the other end of the spectrum, are people who are essentially healthy, without addictions and focused on fulfilling their potential at work and in life. However, they rely on a combination of stress, stimulants and/or sugar to modulate their energy and motivate them into action.
Whilst functional, and functioning okay, many start to notice (perhaps in their 30s or 40s) the presence of negative consequences of their default state management strategies. The stress is leading to heightened anxiety, disturbed sleep and an increasing reliance on alcohol or cannabis to take the edge off at night time. They might notice they are increasingly agitated at work and disconnected in their personal relationships. In summary, they sense their potential, want to do better, but don’t know how.
Whether it's dealing with addictions or improving health and performance, taking charge of your state throughout the day is an essential part of becoming a more conscious, healthy, high-performing human being.
State management and state optimization is a big topic, but to get you started here are two ways to start taking charge of your state.
Thought Stream On, Thought Stream Off
Taking control of your state starts by learning how to deactivate the habitual thought stream and mental chatter that for many people is out of control. Like a tap connected to a water supply, most people have a tap that is constantly on. Optimally we turn on the tap when we require water and turn it off when we don’t. And so it is with the thinking process, we can learn how to turn the flow of thinking on and off.
As you follow the instructions, refrain from thinking about the instructions, instead follow the instructions without trying to grasp anything or make anything happen.
- Look straight ahead, soften your eyes and de-focus your gaze, whilst tuning into the space between your eyes and the objects in front of you.
- Soft eyes.
- Next, allow your tongue to be completely soft. Mouth open slightly.
- Soft eyes. Soft tongue.
- Without returning to the front of the head to think, be with your soft tongue.
- Notice what has happened to your thought-stream.
You will notice the mind has gone quiet. Possibly still.
Softening your gaze activates the body's relaxation response (mediated by the parasympathetic nervous system) and allowing your tongue to be soft you cease subvocalization - the internal story-creating, talking-to-yourself, mental chatter. Subvocalization is mediated through and correlates with the micro-tension patterns of the tongue. The tension pattern of the tongue turns on and off the thought-stream.
Try this. Start thinking about something and notice what happens to your tongue. It becomes tense and moves upward. Now allow your eyes and tongue to be soft and watch the stream of thinking settle.
By taking control of the on/off switch for our thought-stream we discover that we have the means to shift on-demand out of a thought-based, narrative-derived sense of self, into an open, clear and present awareness-based sense of self. This capacity to shift identity and state effortlessly has been a revelation for the many people I have taught this to. With practice it becomes effortless. This is step one.
Create Internal Safety
The next step in state training is learning how to consciously create internal safety. Thanks to the pioneering work of Professor Stephen Porges, we know that our nervous system is constantly evaluating the information streaming into the body from the environment and the information arising from the body and mind for indicators of threat.
This process (of neuroception) takes place below the level of awareness. It’s a threat detection system that is constantly assessing whether this moment is safe, threatening/challenging or life-threatening and by doing so mobilizes a pre-programmed response accordingly.
Recall a situation that was challenging or stressful to you. Your Fight/Flight system (sympathetic nervous system) became activated initiating a cascade of chemical, physiological, psychological and behavioral shifts. This happened automatically. Energy was mobilized, heart rate and breathing rate went up, focus became narrowed, muscle tone increased.
In Fight, anger is mobilized. In Flight, the body is mobilized to run. This places you in a specific state (a defensive state) designed to take action that will resolve the threat. If the threat is perceived as life-threatening or too overwhelming, and the sympathetic response is ineffective, the Fold/Fawn dorsal parasympathetic response becomes activated.
In Fold, we collapse and become disassociated and numb. In Fawn, we yield to something or someone who has power over us.
Are any of these familiar to you?
When the threat is resolved, the cues of safety present and the felt sense (a whole sense of a situation) within the body is welcomed a remarkable neurological shift and release happens.
The ventral vagal branch of the parasympathetic nervous system and social engagement system becomes activated. We feel connected and seek to connect with others. This can give rise to the experience of Flow and Stillness (a blend of ventral vagal and dorsal), Fun & Playfulness (a blend of ventral and sympathetic) and Flock (the ventral state of grounding, safety, resourcefulness and presence).
With training you can learn how to access these ventral states and return to these states on-demand.
The challenge for most people is they live in a near-constant state of activated, defensiveness (sympathetic, dorsal vagal or a blend of both) either because a real threat is present within their environment and/or more commonly they are relating to their inner experience of the present moment in a way that is threatening.
What does the internal generation of threat look like?
It’s resisting what is arising within your experience. It's denying or pushing away your emotions and experience. It’s believing the inner critic. It is being harmful or hurtful to yourself. It is operating from a belief that this moment should be different from what it is.
Here is a 60-second experiment so you can experience this for yourself. It should ideally be done in a place that is quiet where you won’t be disturbed, and you can give your full focus to the experiment.
Say the following three words out loud and as you do so, get a sense of speaking those words to every cell of your body.
Notice what happens to your breathing pattern and to your level of tension as you do so.
No. No. No.
What just happened?
Almost certainly you would have noticed your breath becoming shallow (or stopping) and tension going up.
Contrast it with this.
Welcome. Welcome. Welcome.
What did you notice?
This time you would have noticed a deepening of the breath and a relaxation in your body and experience.
So what does this teach us?
When we message our interiority with a ‘no’ this is neurocepted as a threat, and the body shifts into a sympathetically activated state of defensiveness.
When we message our interiority with a ‘welcome’, this is neurocepted as safety and the body is shifted into a parasympathetic (ventral vagal) state of relaxation and connection.
Assuming our physical situation is non-threatening, we can choose to shift into a conscious state of resourcefulness, presence and connection by welcoming what is arising within us.
How do you know you are really being welcomed by another human being? Well the words they use are somewhat important, but more important is the warmth, sincerity and intonation of their voice and seeing a smile that radiates out through the eyes and face.
This is True Welcoming, and the invitation to you.
If you truly want to master your state, the way you feel and show up, practice true welcoming through Inner Smiling.
Inner Smiling is as it sounds- the experience of a smile arising and expanding from within you. Take a moment to experience this for yourself.
- Allow your eyes to be soft, soft gaze.
- Close your eyes. Soft tongue.
- Without defaulting to thinking, allow a smile to arise within you. You can initiate this by smiling using your mouth, face and eyes and allow that smile to spread through your body.
Like all practices the more you do this the easier, more natural this becomes.
If part of you is resisting this or telling yourself you have nothing to smile about or struggling to experience an inner smile, this is feedback that you are not in charge of your state. This is a really important practice for you!
As simple as it sounds, the foundations of taking charge of your state as I teach it, are Softening & Smiling. The key is to be practicing these throughout the day.
Many clients and students report a significant decrease in anxiety, reactivity and mental chatter and increase in wellbeing and contentment within a few days using these two practices. By intentionally creating an ongoing experience of safety and choosing not to continuously engage the narrative sense of self you start to rewire your default way of feeling and experiencing the world. This is how after weeks and months of training, state changes become trait (lasting) changes.
There are of course many ways to consciously work with State. What follows is a deeper, more nuanced understanding as to how State (state of being) influences and is influenced by context, your biology and an interdependent network of mental activities and dimensions.
- Context (your situation, including where you are, who is there and your relationship to them, features of the physical environment (for example, noise, light, location, temperature, time of day), expected social norms, roles and rules, cultural influences).
- Biology (the health, structure, functioning and positioning of your body, includes breath patterns).
- Perception (how you and your brain processes/interprets information and constructs/predicts reality).
- Attention (what you focus on, how you focus and importantly - where you focus from).
- Thoughts (conscious and non-conscious thoughts such as stories, beliefs, assumptions, biases, expectations, mindset, images).
- Behaviour (what you are observably doing). - Affect (your feeling, experience and mood).
Each of these dimensions provide a gateway into State.
Change one, the others shift automatically. They are linked, interdependent.
This explains why adjusting your posture, changing your breathing pattern, changing self-talk, switching focus, transforming the image in your mind, improving the health of your body (through nutrition, sleep, rest, activity etc), spending time in nature, playfulness, recreating a past state through memory recall, visiting a friend, can and do have a positive impact on State of Being.
Each is a gateway into a different State and a profoundly different way of experiencing and being in the world. Problems arise when there is a mismatch between the state you are in and the state optimally required to respond to the needs of the present moment. With ongoing training it is possible to access an optimal state of being in most situations.
In part 1, I covered some of the foundations of lifestyle-based and technology based training that can help you enhance brain health and optimize your state of being.
This is challenging, but deeply rewarding work. It is an integral part of what is required to realize Sens.ai’s highest vision: a Superconscious community of people thriving and doing good in the world.
With this in mind, I invite you to join the Sens.ai community which is designed to help you implement what these two articles have shared. This is just the beginning, there is so much more to learn!
Change is so much easier (and more enjoyable) when surrounded by a community of conscious people committed to changing their lives for the better. You are welcome to join us.
Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory by Deborah Dana
Treating Trauma and Addiction with the Felt Sense Polyvagal Model: A Bottom-Up Approach by Jan Winhall
Focusing: How To Gain Direct Access To Your Body's Knowledge by Eugene Gendlin
This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Mark Atkinson or sens.ai the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement or lifestyle program.