PLEASE, take some time off…and Nervous System Primer

Many of my blog posts come directly from my personal experiences that I try to then craft into a lesson or  universal message.  This one will be the exception as I will present more direct and clinical (scientific) information. I’m going to try to win you, dear audience, over and make the case for taking some time off of your athletic or active pursuits.  In essence, I’m making the case for why slowing down is essential to our well-being and certainly our mental and emotional health.  

For many of us, the late fall or early winter marks the transition from summer and beautiful autumn activities to a darker, slower, and sometimes-a funky period.  For some…there is an energizing and exciting winter season ahead…so the timing may not be exact, but I’m hoping the concept will prevail.  As most of my clients know, I’m way into the science of psychology and mental health but I throw in a dose of woo-woo here and there too.  On the woo-woo side of things, there can even be an energetic feel in nature of slowing down, transition, and some darkness…we all start to feel a little different, don’t we?  So what would it be like if we normalized this, learned about it, leaned into it a bit and didn’t see it as a “problem”.  I was visiting with my doctor the other day and she told me that she sees a huge uptick in mental health related appointments this time of year…interesting.  

I remember back in the day when I was just a young pup, cycling and racing for ten months at a time with my eyes wide open with ambition and possibility, my very savvy and Yoda-like coach (well before his own time), Crawfish, would speak to me about the need to take a good chunk of time off of cycling-2-4 weeks.  Begrudgingly, I would comply but  if I’m to be honest, it was far less about understanding him and more about continuing my tendencies to people please.  I just wanted Crawfish to like me, I didn’t give a crap about his mumbo-jumbo science stuff.  He spoke in cryptic terms of “the central nervous system” or CNS for short.  This was when the Training Peaks platform had just arrived on scene and it wouldn’t be for another few years that the concept of trying to quantify CNS scores would be presented.  TSS, total stress score, was not even a thing yet.  Wow, have we come far-now with all the gadgets, rings, bands etc attempting to and promising to deliver a clear picture of our insides.  Oh reader, you might sense a bit of cynicism here and you are accurate.  Here is the deal: these devices CAN be helpful, they CAN help one to be more connected to patterns and details, but they can NOT ever, nor should they, quantity the ultimate human experience or the FELT-sense.  There are simply some things that just cannot be measured and certainly not by a strap or an electrode.  

So what was all this CNS rest stuff about? Basically it was a way to allow all the things besides my cycling legs and aerobic conditioning to get to chill and mellow out; a reset for all systems with the CNS being the gatekeeper.  (more on that later).  Admittingly, as a typical 25 year-old, I thought, “This isn’t for me- I’m the exception!  I recover great, I have loads of energy, I’m seemingly happy.”  Ha, how it is to be young and somewhat naive, or cocky, or in denial or maybe a bit of all three. Anyway, like others before me,  it wasn’t until I got into my thirties that I started to notice the toll that all this high athleticism and perfectionism and just flat out going-all-the-time was taking.  I’m going to pivot here, as the point of this blog is not a personal memoir but rather to present some rationales for why being in chronic go mode is unhealthy mentally, emotionally, physically, and for some: spiritually.  

As most of my clients know, I approach mental health and wellbeing from a Nervous System lens now (NS) or more appropriately the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)and the reason being is simple: I’ve learned that using this lens versus a more traditional “problem-solving-talk-therapy” model, clients actually get better faster and for longer.  However, it takes a bit of suspending old beliefs: that our mind runs the show.  They are a factor, but I believe that our biology and the need to survive runs the show-enter our Nervous System. My classic example: why do we jump back when we see a stick-knowing it’s a stick?…our minds cannot protect us from our biological impulses.  We’ll get to the rest and take-a-break part in a round about fashion. 

Nervous System Primer:

Here’s my quick and dirty NS primer, I’ll be geeking out way more in months to come but there are some basics that need to be explained in order for me to make the case for rest.  Oh, and our ANS is part of the greater CNS…details, details.

Our ANS basically has two sides, if you’ve taken any yoga classes then these terms may have been tossed around:  sympathetic and parasympathetic.  I don’t favor the pithy explanations like: rest and digest as it over simplifies and distills the functionality too much.  Our parasympathetic is needed for us to feel calm, connected, regulated and then consequently we sleep and poop well.  It’s not just sleep and poop though, as the simple description implies.  On the other side,  we have the sympathetic system which many of us high achievers and active people use and over-use.  It’s the action side of the system-the mobilizing side.  It’s what gets us going in the morning, gets us working, running, playing, and it’s the stress detection side of our system.  Fight or flight is usually what people think of but it functionally is much more than that.  Things that are stimulating or activating are on the sympathetic side…too much stimulation (which is all relative to the individual)  our primal fight/flight/freeze patterning kicks in.  Let’s be honest, at the start of a race…doesn’t it feel like we are primal beings-sweaty, nervous, anxious, ready to pounce or if we’ve been too anxious sometimes we feel flat, numb, -that’s the freeze is coming on.  Our digestion at the start of the races follows suit right? Yes, that’s because our biology is dominant.  A million mantras of: “be calm” cannot override the body’s innate mobilization state.  “Be calm” to a highly mobilized system will likely do the opposite. 

Anyone that has worked with me surely has seen from time to time my NS chart I pull out, it’s basically a giant bell curve with much of the previous information labeled on it-so think: giant bell curve.  Too much stimulation/activation-higher up on the curve you go, which then puts a higher demand for relaxation and regulation on the other side.  Ideally, a healthy system is much like a wave pattern, ups and downs, sometimes peaks, sometimes gentle bumps, but the key is that there is completion and regulation from higher sympathetic states to lower, regulated states. In future blogs I will expand even more and discuss the physiological and emotional responses to these states, as this already feels way too brief of an explanation.

In short, for every uptick on the sympathetic side (activation side) we need a down tick on the parasympathetic (deactivating side) for long term health, restoration and well being.  The simplicity stops there though…it’s all about the FELT sense. This does not mean lay on the coach and rest!  What is deactivating for one person is different for the other.  But listen up here my athletes:  PHYSICAL ACTIVITY IS NOT DEACTIVATING!-it falls on the other side.  So when someone says to me, I NEED to run to relax, we take a look at this-it’s a bit wonky because it’s a stimulating way to try to get unstimulated-catch?  Too much of this over long periods of time can set up some very tricky and problematic issues-that’s where I tend to see exercise addiction/compulsion develop.  More on that another time.  So, no need to fear, no need to stop exercising or training-but rather let’s call a spade a spade and then find other strategies to effectively bring our systems into balance.  For some, cooking dinner with their spouse (in a non-stress state) or helping kids with homework, or going for a gentle walk with the dog is deactivating.  And for others-it is indeed a nap or a rest.  I tell my clients that for me personally, one of my most deactivating and regulating practices is simply coming home in the evening and putting all of my things away, organizing, and putzing around…I can feel my breathing slow down and my heart drop-but it’s all through the lens of slow, mindful and calm.  That is the key.  Most every athlete I know and myself included-has a very dominant sympathetic “go mode” and so it takes more time to explore ways to not GO more.  Again, it’s all in the service of health, restoration, and well being. 

Soundbite:  I have yet to meet a highly-sympathetic dominant, anxious, athlete that can run their way into feeling truly calm, connected and at peace, exhausted and tired but not calm and regulated.

Taking a Break:

Now the backdoor to why it’s essential to take a break if you are a highly active athlete or achiever.  BTW, it’s hard to quantify numbers and I often see folks in the depths of denial about their activity levels…but let’s just say if you train, race, or participate in a physical activity with any type of structure or intensity this is for you.  Over time, our sympathetic NS starts to get fatigued-even without our own detection.  Naturally, the more in-tune one is with oneself the detection gets a bit more accurate-but as endurance athletes we are extremely good and need to be good at NOT feeling pain or discomfort.  Unfortunately, this sets us up for not being very good at sensing our bodies in a subtle way.  So as the days, months, years press on our NS starts to get a bit overloaded.  Early morning or late workouts, adherence to structure, intensity in our bodies, the flat out physical demands of our sports, the mental and emotional energy needed to participate or race, the demands on family and relationships, nutrition, rehab-prehab…the list goes on and on and on!  All of these factors become compoundingly big hits to our NS-the more frequent we do our sport, the longer or the more intense-the bigger this gets.  

I give the metaphor of my Mac computer…NS is the operating system-life is all the different applications that are running-too much and my computer sends my little rainbow pinwheel of death.  And what do we all do, we turn it off!   We walk away.  Pounding more keys, opening more apps makes it worse and I suppose at some point smoke might start coming out of the sides.  So like our computers (although we are very much NOT like computers) we need to rest and let our systems re-boot. 

How to deal:

 So like our computers (although we are very much NOT like computers) we need to rest and let our systems re-boot. Sorry for the lame metaphor but we’ve all experienced this and it’s easily translatable.  This break as good ‘ol, Crawdad, would tell me takes weeks to sink in…not just “a rest day”.  And so I present my case:  take some time off should you seek longevity, happiness, joy and yes, even performance.  Be ready for all the demons of denial to start to speak to you…but it’s true, time off is really needed to let the whole NS reset.  

Most athletes struggle with this greatly…because (back to my primer) our NS are so used to activity that it can feel like detoxing from a drug-really, it can feel that powerful.  We can get anxious, irritable, and downright almost depressed (not clinical)-I call it the down-time “itchiness”.  I have yet to really find a way to get through it without just getting through it, but I feel like normalizing can be one of the best strategies and understanding WHY it’s needed.  Another strategy that can be helpful is moving our bodies in a different way, but moving them.  Yoga classes instead of interval sessions, mellow hikes instead of long mountain runs…a dog walk-that’s always good stuff.  Run versus ride, or back the other way, slowly and in the spirit of adventure.  Please don’t just replace the volume and intensity though-that’s NOT the point.  

It’s so hard to wrap our heads around this but we actually do want to de-train a bit.  I find this is the hardest piece to let go of, the ten months of hard work and dedication to get to the pinnacle of being “fit” is left to slowly decay into a fresh start…yes.  It’s funky but needed.  Some of us struggle with our body image during this time as well.  Normalize this-but also don’t get sucked in.  A few pounds in the off-season (all scaled to relative size) can be a bit hard to embrace but with soothing self-talk and reasoning, it’s important and it will serve us better once we ramp up again.  Trying to maintain a low body weight year round is a recipe for physical and mental/emotional damage.  Next month I’ll be doing a deep dive into that topic:  weight gain, holidays, healthy body image…all that good stuff.  If body image becomes the dominant problem during the break then it may be something to address with a credentialed mental health provider.  

So I’ll leave it here-as my intentionally short blog is now several pages long…please take a break, rest well, and honor that cool primal biology that we all have.

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