Step 3: 6 Ways to Hack Your Nervous System To Consciously Manage Stress
By: Dave Asprey
June 14, 2012
Stress is an epidemic. It is one of the most widespread and debilitating conditions in the world, yet many people act as if it is completely natural. If there was one thing that could be called the antithesis of The Bulletproof Executive – it is stress. Stress sucks up the reserves you should be using to create more resilience.
Here are just a few things stress does to your body:
- It weakens your immune system.
- It makes you fat and shortens your lifespan.
- It can contribute to sexual dysfunction for men and women.
I spent a great deal of time and energy learning to consciously manipulate my stress including 10 days meditating in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, then talking with Buddhist monks around Tibet. It was an eye opening and fascinating experience, but I was far from done.
Later, I spent about $20,000 dollars to have myself attached to a proprietary, eight channel EEG amplifier with some custom brain training protocols. In seven days, I learned to put my brain into a mental state that, under normal conditions, takes people between 21 and 40 years of daily Japanese Zen mediation to achieve. Along with that state comes stress management that results in much higher IQ and creativity levels.
In 2010, I became a certified trainer and coach in another powerful stress reduction method called Heart Math. I also bought second EEG machine (my first was in 1998).
This is on top of years of meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, sound, and other neurofeedback techniques.
As a busy executive with awesome kids and a hot, Swedish, doctor wife, why on earth would I spend my time shaving my head, playing with electrodes, and hiking up mountains?
Because I let stress hold me back for too long. I was an angry person for the first half of my life. I carried around so much unconscious – and sometimes conscious – frustration and even hatred that it literally made me sick. When I began upgrading my body, conquering stress was one of my top priorities.
On some levels, the brain is like software. Negative emotions, hostile feelings, and recurring irrational thoughts corrupt our consciousness. After years of being stressed, if you’re like most people, you’ve probably programmed your body to become hardwired for tension.
Stress holds you back in all aspects of life. It weakens your immune system, costs you precious time that should be spent enjoying life. Stress hurts your interpersonal relationships and alienates others. It decreases your ability to make rational decisions and perform at work. Stress sucks.
Most people have no clue how important it is to manage stress – or that it’s even possible. They go through life thinking they’ll just bear it until retirement or vacation. Or even worse, they convince themselves that they don’t really feel any stress because they don’t have a reason to feel it. In the mean time, they go through mini nervous breakdowns on a daily basis mistreating themselves and the people around them.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: stress is not a rational thing – it is an irrational feeling, and it will only get worse unless you learn to manage it. The good news is that stress, like everything else, is hackable, so you can convert stress into a tool that makes you stronger instead of saps your energy.
The science of stress
Stress is the disruption of homeostasis and is not always bad. In regards to exercise, stress is needed to produce training adaptions. In order to learn, you need to stress your brain in new ways – learning a new language, solving a math problem, creating a new business/product, etc.. Humans are designed to handle small, intermittent bouts of stress. When stress becomes chronic, it becomes a disease.
The effects of stress on your body are very real. The symptoms of stress come in four varieties: cognitive, emotional, physical, and behavioral. Here is a short list of the various symptoms:
- Memory problems
- Inability to concentrate
- Poor judgment
- Seeing only the negative
- Anxious or racing thoughts
- Constant worrying
- Irritability or short temper
- Agitation, inability to relax
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Sense of loneliness and isolation
- Depression or general unhappiness
- Fat gain
- Aches and pains
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Nausea, dizziness
- Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
- Loss of sex drive
- Frequent colds
- Eating more, or less
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Isolating yourself from others
- Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
- Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
- Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)
However stress is effecting you, you need to learn to identify it and manage it. Once your body becomes conditioned to respond a certain way, it’s hard to change that response. Rewiring your brain and heart and nervous system hacks your stress response allowing you to become far more resilient with more energy to use adapting to positive stress.
Here are my top ways to simultaneously reduce your exposure to stress, and improve your stress handling abilities.
The top 6 ways to reduce & manage stress
1. Have fun
This is the most basic and easiest way to reduce your stress level. It sounds simple, but many people don’t practice it enough. To me, this means spending time with my kids, cooking, climbing mountains, talking with my wife, or even biohacking. I’ll cover this more later in the series, but for new realize that it’s common for adults to forget to spend time having fun. Family and career considerations – and the ever-present email waiting for replies – can suck the fun out of life. It’s your job to schedule fun time the same way you schedule meetings.
2. Synchronize your heart & brain with Heart Math
This is my “Honda daily driver” of brain upgrades. There are more expensive, sexier ways to hack your stress, but nothing comes close the the Heart Math technology when it comes to reliably training your heart and brain to work together. A healthy, relaxed person has high heart rate variability (HRV) which means that amount of time between each heart beat is different with each beat. Low heart rate variability is a sign of intense stress. When your sympathetic nervous system is under stress, your body will release stress hormones, and your heart develops an inflexible unchanging beat. This state is correlated with a host of diseases and even overall mortality from all causes.
The emWave2 is a device smaller than an iPhone which uses infrared sensors to calculate your HRV. When you have low HRV, a red light appears. Your job is to do everything possible to make the light turn green while following the device’s guidance, which steers you to breathe in and out every five seconds. You can also listen to music to help, meditate (See #3), or do anything else you can think of that doesn’t make you move around a lot. Spending at least ten minutes every day working with your heart rate variability is transformative. Doing it before bed can fix sleep problems, and it can help with emotional eating, daily stress, and even physical performance. This technology changed my life and career. It is simple to do and everyone I’ve ever known who did it for a month had huge positive changes in the way they felt and the way they treated others simply because they learned to consciously control their fight or flight responses. This stuff belongs in every school.
The goal of meditation is to become more mindful and be more directive with your attention and responsive (not reactive) to your thoughts. Meditation allows you to identify, observe, and master your emotions. Instead of blindly reacting to outside stimuli, you can optimize your thought process and react as you see fit.
Several ways to practice mediation are counting, reciting mantras, breathing, practicing mindfulness and positive self-talk.
You can reduce the amount of stress you experience through mindfulness of your thoughts and feelings. At the same time, you become better able to cope with the stress you still face. When you learn to meditate right (hint: Heart Math is a head start), the stressful voices in your head start to silence themselves.
In fact, mine are gone. There is silence when I want it, available on demand, at any time. No songs stuck in my head, no critical voices from my past, no worrying. Just me.
4. Pranayama Yoga
“When the Breath wanders, the mind is unsteady, but when the Breath is still, so is the mind still.”
– Hatha Yoga Pradipika
You need to learn how to breathe. Most people suck in air using the intercostal muscles of their chest. The right way to breathe is with your diaphragm, also known as belly breathing. This kind of breathing helps you relax and control your heart rate.
The best way to describe this type of breathing is to describe Pranayama Yoga.
Pranayama is the art of Yoga breathing. One of the five aspects of yoga is breath control. According to pranayama yoga, there are three kinds of breathing:
This is also known as clavicular, or collarbone breathing. This means you are breathing primarily with the upper chest and lungs. High breathing is shallow and inefficient since a large amount of oxygen fails to reach the lower lung. This is the worst form of breathing, and it is the one you revert to when stressed or angry.
This is the best possible form of breathing. It utilizes your lower abdomen and diaphragm to pull air in and out of your lungs. To practice low breathing, breathe into your stomach as you suck air through your nose, and your stomach will compress first on your exhale, following the breath up. Your chest and shoulder blades will not move much – only your stomach.
As you might expect, this is somewhere in between high and low breathing. It’s “better” than the former, but not as good as the latter.
There are four phases of proper breathing.
1. Inhale (Puraka in yoga-speak)
This should be a continuous, long breath.
2. Pause & hold (Abhyantara Kumbhaka)
This is a pause before exhaling. You should not move any muscle during this process.
3. Exhale (Rechaka)
This should be a controlled, relaxed, continuous exhale.
4. Pause After Exhaling (Bahya Kumbhaka)
This is just like the first pause and starts the cycle over again.
Controlled breathing is a great first step to mastering stress. Even a few minutes a day, done for 2 weeks, can have amazing effects. Add it to your morning routine and see what happens.
You can use this technique any time you experience discomfort or tension. Instead of kicking a trash can or thinking dark thoughts about that screaming baby in the airport when your flight gets delayed, take a few slow deep breaths and put your focus only on what it is like to breathe. You’ll feel better – I guarantee it.
You can learn more about Pranayama Yoga by clicking here.
My favorite two breathing techniques are:
The One-Minute Breath
- Breathe in to the diaphragm for 20 seconds.
- Hold for 20 seconds
- Exhale for 20 seconds
- Breathe in to the diaphragm through the back of the throat for 4 seconds
- Hold for 4 seconds
- Breathe out slowly through the back of the throat for 6 seconds
- Hold empty breath for 2 or more seconds
At first, it is common to feel like you’re going to die when you hold your lungs without air in them for even a second or two. Your brain rewires itself to be calmer when you practice slow breathing.
5. Art of Living
The Art of Living Foundation is a global resource for people trying to reduce stress. Their key principle is that “Unless we have a stress-free mind and a violence-free society, we cannot achieve world peace.” It was founded in 1981 by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a spiritual leader who in 2010, was named the fifth most influential person in India by Forbes Magazine.
Their introductory course is focused on simple breathing exercises to give you “more energy to handle the stress of daily life.” There are workshops all around in the world where Art of Living practitioners work with you to perfect your breathing. If you are interested in trying the course, click here.
I did this daily for 5 years and still practice it on occasion. I met a group of overwhelmingly successful entrepreneurs once a week on Saturday morning at 7 am to practice it together, and I learned the technique from a successful American venture capitalist named John Roberts. I met Sri Sri in person along with Nobel Laureate Myron Scholes, who also practices Art of Living.
There are white robes involved (you don’t have to wear them, but Sri Sri and some trainers from India do). It’s a simple, repeatable method used by 25 million people worldwide to reduce stress, including severe stress like that found in war survivors. It works, and it is not a cult or a religion in any way, or I wouldn’t recommend it.
6. EEG neurofeedback
This is the Porsche of brain upgrades. It’s more expensive but faster, and worth every penny. You can pay to be treated by a professional (akin to renting a Porsche on a track with a pro driver) or, you can buy your own unit and learn to hack your own brain (buy a sports car and learn to drive it).
EEG neurofeedback, neurobiofeedback, or neurofeedback, is the process of understanding how your brain responds to certain emotions. Electrical sensors are placed on your scalp in various positions, and you are taken through a series of tests to try and alter your brain state. During the training, you receive real time information about what your brain is doing. This allows you to use various mental techniques to change the way your brain functions. You actually learn to change the electricity coming from your brain.
Click here if you want to find a Neurofeedback center near you.
Stress is one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated problems in modern life. Diet, sleep, and exercise are all important, but mental and physiological stress will undermine your best attempts at anything unless you mange them. You don’t have to go to the same lengths that I did, but you will get better results just by taking some simple steps like meditation, breathing, or best of all the Heart Math Emwave2. By rewiring your brain and nervous system to handle stress more efficiently, you will become a more effective person in all walks of life, and the stress you do experience will be the kind that makes you stronger.
It doesn’t get any more Bulletproof than that.
How do you manage stress? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!