Self-awareness is a huge perk of being human. Unfortunately, it can also lead to chronic illness.
Zebras are horse-like creatures with beautifully striped coats that fascinate children and adults alike. Zebras have a distinct advantage over humans in one particularly important area of life: how they manage stress. To understand this phenomenon, we need to begin with the concept of interference. In my book, Unleash the Peak Performer Within You, I share the Performance Formula. Simply stated, it reads:
Performance = Skill – Interference
What is Interference?
Interference is a term representing anything that prevents your skills from taking over to produce a high level of productivity and performance. A short list of potential interference includes anxiety, ADD, emotional control problems, and poor sleep. There are many more sources of interference, and they all get in the way of good performance. Eliminating or reducing your interference represents a direct path to improved performance.
As you begin the journey of learning how to reduce interference and change your health trajectory, understanding and strengthening your autonomic nervous system is vital.
The Autonomic Nervous System
What is the autonomic nervous system (ANS)? The ANS is a branch of your nervous system that regulates involuntary functions and is constantly assessing the environment around you and sending information to the brain. This ongoing process keeps you healthy and safe and goes unnoticed as you go about your day. Its goal is to balance your body to its environment.
Functions such as heart rate, salivary secretions, eye dilation, digestion, and adrenaline release are governed by your ANS.
Your ANS has two branches, each at one extreme of functioning. These branches are called parasympathetic (rest and digest) and sympathetic (fright, fight, or flight).
An example from animals is in order…
Stress Responses: Humans vs. Animals
When a zebra is being chased by a lion, its blood flow concentrates to core life-sustaining organs. Digestion slows and heart rate increases. When you face a stressful situation, your body will do the same thing.
Once a zebra has eluded the lion, it returns to a “rest and digest” state or parasympathetic response. This is when the body returns to balance with its environment.
Animals are always one-to-one with their environment. This is where the difference between humans and animals becomes evident. Animals live on instinct. We are different; we are capable of conscious thought.
When you experience stress, your sympathetic branch of the ANS is activated. It’s what’s commonly referred to as a “fight-or-flight” response. It’s okay when a mortal danger presents itself. It’s not okay when you chronically respond to everyday life this way.
In fact, when you unproductively manage stress in this way, it leads to common and preventable disease such as type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and high blood pressure to name a few.
Because we are self-aware and have the power of creating theater of the mind, humans can and do ruminate about past events and worry about future concerns. We can literally invent stress in our minds by looking back or ahead.
The fascinating thing about this is that your body doesn’t differentiate between real events playing out in front of you, such as a stranger threatening you, and an event playing out in your mind. Either way, you end up with a stress response. When the conversations you are having with yourself are chronically stressful, you are putting yourself into chronic stress.
The research is settled: chronic stress and chronic debilitating disease are highly correlated. Learning to manage stress properly is one thing you can do to significantly improve your health today and tomorrow.
So now you know why zebras don’t get ulcers, but people do! Our habit of unwittingly placing ourselves in a state where our bodies think a lion is chasing us drives a cascade of reactions in our brains and bodies that make us physically and mentally sick. Our ability to perform at a high level is then severely compromised.
Chronic stress, and all its negative consequences, represents serious interference. Learning to manage stress well will reduce your interference and improve your performance.
How to Reduce Interference
Strategies to improve your autonomic nervous system balance include heart rate variability training, deep diaphragm breathing, optimizing sleep, daily movement, and practicing gratitude. Additionally, learning how to properly process thoughts and not hang onto them, leading to endless ruminations, is key.
The next best step is to assess imbalances in your autonomic nervous system, then seek training from a qualified organization and provider to help you regain control. The goal is to become your own best coach and learn to self-regulate your responses to life’s events. In doing so, your nervous system will then work for you rather than against you. When it does, you will live healthier and become a peak performer based on your definition of success and performance!
Steve L. Adams, MBA is the author of Unleash the Peak Performer Within You and founder and CEO of Tiger Performance Institute. His passion lies in helping high-achieving entrepreneurs, professionals, and CEOs achieve sustainable peak performance through his innovative, hyper-personalized, precision health optimization system and performance training. You can check out Adams here at www.steveladams.com, and learn more about his training programs at www.tigerpi.com.
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