Want to Develop Vertically? You Must Focus on Upgrading Your Body’s Nervous System

Ryan Gottfredson

by Ryan Gottfredson

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roller coaster

Recently, I had two interesting situations with my daughter:

  • Our rule is that bedtime is at 8:00. My daughter can read until 9:00 if she wants to, but then it is supposed to be lights out. One night, I made sure she was done reading at 9:00. An hour later, I walked past her room and her light was on and she was still reading. Her emotion to finish her book outweighed her need for sleep.
  • My daughter is in a running club, and she practices 2-3 times a week. One day, she didn’t feel like running, but she went because she knew it was a good investment in her future self.

In each instance, her physical needs and emotional needs were in conflict. It is a fundamental aspect of all of our lives.

And, the reality is that the better we can effectively regulate our physical and emotional needs, the more effectively we operate.

Our ability to effectively regulate our physical and emotional needs is directly related to the quality of our body’s nervous system. And, the quality of our body’s nervous system is directly related to our altitude of vertical development.

Thus, if we want to develop vertically, we must focus on upgrading our body’s nervous system.

To fully appreciate this, it is helpful to understand three things:

  • Adult development
  • Our body’s stress response system
  • Trauma’s impact on our body’s stress response system

Adult Development

In the field of developmental psychology, the primary focus, from 1880-now has been on child development. From a century-plus of thought and research, we have learned that as children go from infancy to adulthood:

  • They go through multiple distinct developmental stages.
  • They go through these stages rather automatically – it is a function of age.
  • They develop relatively quickly.

kid growing

In the 1960’s, some developmental psychologists started asking and answering whether adults develop, and if they do, whether they go through different developmental stages. What we have learned is that:

At each stage, individuals’ nervous systems are programmed to fulfill specific needs

  • Mind 1.0 – Safety, Comfort, & Belonging
    • One’s nervous system is really sensitive to any threats to safety, comfort, and belonging (e.g., constructive criticism). Thus, these people are wired to be self-protective.
  • Mind 2.0 – Standing out, Advancing, & Getting ahead
    • One’s nervous system is not sensitive to safety, comfort, and belonging; but it is sensitive to failure, getting held up, and problems. Thus, these people are wired to be actively invested in making progress, and are often seen as being more “high-strung.”
  • Mind 3.0 – Contributing, Adding Value, & Lifting Others
    • One’s nervous system is not sensitive to failure, getting held up, and problems. This allows them to focus on learning and improving in the face of failure, advancing a purpose, and seeing problems as signs that we are pushing the boundary. These people are not protective or high-strung. Instead, they are centered and balanced.

Are you starting to get a sense that people can differ in the quality and tuning of their body’s nervous system?

Our Body’s Stress Response System

Our body’s nervous system performs many functions. One of its primary functions is to help one’s body effectively take on and navigate stress. It is a survival mechanism.

roller coaster

When we feel unsafe (e.g., on a roller coaster), our heart will beat faster and our palms will sweat. This is evidence of our nervous system preparing our body to navigate the stressful situation.

Also, have you ever been injured where you can remember that instance of injury with incredible detail (e.g., burning your hand on a stove top)? This is your nervous system imprinting that experience so that you are unlikely to experience a similar injury.

Or, have you ever been injured where you can’t remember anything about the injury? This is your nervous system protecting you from psychological or emotional pain involved in that experience.

One thing to note about our body’s stress response system is that it has a capacity limit. It can only take on so much stress before it has to take drastic measures to protect ourselves. These drastic measures have long-term effects on our body’s nervous system.

Trauma’s Impact on Our Body’s Nervous System

Trauma is not something that happens to us. Trauma is the impact or side effects from going through situations where we experience stress that exceeds our body’s capacity for stress.

There are four neurological effects from trauma

  • Dissociation – Our mind and body disconnect (e.g., numbing) as a way to limit the pain we experience. While helpful in the moment, this leaves a lasting reduced connection between mind and body that inhibits one’s ability to connect with one’s body and be self-aware.
  • Disintegration – Our brain has three major brain regions: reptilian (home of signal input and primitive instincts), mammalian (home of emotion and meaning making), and human brain (home of cognitive processing). In a healthy nervous system, these three brain regions work effectively together. When someone experiences trauma, they become disintegrated, where the reptilian and mammalian brains are overly sensitive and reactive, and the human brain has a hard time stepping in to regulate the other two brain regions.
  • Misencoding – With over-sensitive reptilian and mammalian brains, we are prone to see safe things as being dangerous. For example, we might be prone to see constructive criticism as being an attack. Thus, rather than use it as intended (for improvement), we resist it.
  • Narrow Window of Tolerance – With over-sensitive reptilian and mammalian brains and a tendency to misencode, this shows up as a narrow window of tolerance, where it becomes easy for us to be sent outside the optimal zone for our cognitive functioning.

Thus, when someone experiences trauma, their body has a difficult time making meaning of their world in cognitively and emotionally sophisticated ways. In other words, they have a low vertical altitude.

Vertical Development = Healing and Improving Our Body’s Nervous System

Unfortunately, most people (estimates are 80%+) have experienced trauma (experiences that leave us with neurological changes). The more trauma we have experienced, the lower our vertical altitude. But, the more we heal from our trauma, the higher we can go in our vertical altitude.

Thus, if we want to elevate our vertical altitude, fundamentally, we need to focus on healing from our past trauma and improving our body’s nervous system.

For ways to do that see this article series: Trauma & Leadership – Part 8 – Three Lessons Learned

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