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Vigilance is your foe: learn to control your ANS

hour sixteen of thirty +, Stuart Range, cr. J. Richter

I was there, I was ultimately aware of the effect of each breath of dying wind on the minuscule hairs on my face, loved my partner through the electricity in the rope. My life was connected to the slope by four steel tools too secure to let me tumble into the swirling clouds below. As I breathed in the fear one last time before moving, my eyes focused on the white and the light breaking over the col above my partner, my soul extended ahead. Then I moved with freedom, deleting my way up the hill and serving the snow with my swings.
— training journal entry, winter 2008

When being chased by a massive and quick porcupine I've instinctually broken into a run much quicker than could be expected on the fiftieth mile of a punishing overnight solo mountain run. Running through the pre-dawn of a forest of rotten birches crashing to the ground I've frozen in place listening in petrified fear to their cacophonic destruction. I've involuntary twitched toward every small sound in the nighttime forest with my fists drawn near my chin ready to jab. 

These primal, unconscious responses to fear are exemplars of how the autonomic nervous system treats perceived threats in the wild. Read on to learn more about consciously managing your fear, your body's automatic functions, and what benefits await the athlete who takes the time to befriend this ancient part of self.

What is the ANS? The ANS is the latticework of nerves that faithfully and, for most people unconsciously, regulates your vital functions like breathing, pupillary dilation, sphincter control, digestion, and heartrate. In response to fear, stress, and anxiety the ANS regulates core body functions to appropriately conserve and divert its resources preparing the body for fighting, running away, or freezing in the face of a primal threat. The status of the nervous system is triggered by and can control one's emotional and intellectual well-being. 

Why do I need to control it? To achieve full self-actualization on your long alpine pushes, or even on a harrowing-but-short daily jaunt, one must master her autonomic functions. Learning to befriend and transform fear is a deep meditational practice.

What happens if I don't manage it? An unmanaged and inappropriately activated ANS wastes precious calories, causes reactionary decision-making, and can ultimately lead to combat stress reaction and ultimately post-traumatic stress disorder. A chronically activated ANS is also uncomfortable causing severe indigestion, loss of bowel control, headaches, nausea, weakness in the extremity, profuse sweating, and sourceless anxiety. Living in a state of a constantly reactive nervous system does not allow a person to access the most refined and compassionate parts of her brain.

New service: Engage deeply in your most primal core using breath and visualization exercises. I've compiled a course of study appropriate for becoming intimate with the body's most subtle physical systems and will teach you its anatomy, its stimulators, and its fail-safe gateway. Using specialized manual and mental techniques, I'll teach you systematically what the ANS is, why understanding it is key to calm and safe mountain travel, and how to control yours to experience mastery of fear, deeper rest, and a happier adrenal system.


Sign up for a consult here and start controlling your nervous system on your next alpine climb.

HELL week pep talk

Hi Brother,

Here's some stuff on the breakthrough we talked about. HELL week is designed to differentiate between the men who can control their autonomic nervous system (ANS) and those who can't.

Associate the sympathetic nervous response with a sweating, intense, loud, rash, quick colleague--fight or flight. He rejects and resists, this is a stress reaction. He is not effective because as part of the fight or flight response, all the blood has been diverted to his core (to reduce bleeding if he is struck or cut) and away from his brain. The pH of his blood changes. His heart rate elevates to an unsustainable level and he might lose his bowels. Ever heard of someone so scared they peed themselves? He fights using all of his energy up quickly then 'flys' by ringing the bell. Many sprint athletes function in this zone to improve their short distance performance--think of what an asshole most professional soccer or baseball players are. The sympathetic nervous system is linked to combat stress reaction which eventually causes PTSD. Remember seeing me after a particularly harrowing climb? For days my eyes were wide, I couldn't sleep, I didn't want to hear loud noise, I wasn't hungry, and I avoided contact with other people. This is low grade CSR. Thank the nervous response to fear and pressure. 

The parasympathetic nervous system is thought of as the feminine response, tend and befriend. This is the response of integration, of shifting one's paradigm of acceptance to encompass all possibilities. It is the reaction I had when I got hypothermic on the Wonderland. OK, so it got dark and I'm hypothermic, what next? I suppose I'll stare at this beautiful moon awhile, circulate my breath fully, keep eating and drinking, and move. While in this state, your body is able to digest the food you put in it, you can urinate regularly, your heart rate is slower, your breathing is normal. In this state one can think clearly and accomodate stressors without breaking.

Fear is a reaction, an emotion. It is part of you so you control it. Tomorrow when the bombs are loud and someone yells while shooting a gun, pause and feel your emotions before reacting. Where does the tension sit? Perhaps there is a binding tightness behind the clavical or maybe you notice yourself suddenly squinting against the light or you feel your heart pounding in your throat. Set a logical and positive intention to your movements. Engender a feeling of detached curiosity about your situation. I do this when the pain in my legs is so intense and the sun is setting and I'm alone. The fear rises and I do not ignore it as ignoring it only makes me transition into the parasympathetic state. When we've talked before about associating with your experience, this is one reason why it works. Become your experience fully.

The gateway to the ANS is the breath and, in more advanced stages of meditation, the heart rate. Give this one a try tonight, if you are able. Put it on your headphones as it is twelve minutes long. This is a great way to sense the way you connect to your body and the rest of the universe. If you have less time, just sit with your eyes closed and hands folded in your lap for a few minutes noticing your breath.

Looking forward to talking once more before you go to sleep tonight. You will succeed because you know your mind.

I love you,