Hello, you Boldly Unbounded Soul ✨
When was the last time you felt connected—to yourself, your environment, and those around you? Which moments throughout your life have you felt the deepest sense of connection? A sense of calm, groundedness, curiosity, compassion, and mindfulness?
For me, it was training my horse, Breeze, using the horse whisperer philosophy. Scuba diving in the ocean and witnessing sea life. Standing up on a surfboard and feeling that wave. Facilitating mindfulness sessions and observing energy shifts. Spiritual coaching exercises with my coach that tap into my highest self. Sharing a genuine smile with a stranger on the street...
We have so many of these moments in our lives, but how often do we notice them? And how often do we listen to the body for cues? Really listen to the body?
Our bodies are incredibly intelligent, yet the majority of how we operate in this world is with our minds, especially at work. This reminds me of a client I worked with. She led the HR function in a multinational finance company, and the company was going through a merger. She was leading the change management—including bridging significant cultural differences, improving recognition, and addressing a culture of poor performance—while bringing up to speed the new director of their region.
While she was satisfied with her life, constantly in problem-solving mode took a toll on her leadership and well-being. She was experiencing self-doubt, stress, anxiety, and poor sleep. Work was on her mind 24/7… until she recognized she was primarily living in a protection state.
It became clear she needed to shift to connection instead of protection. She needed to balance body and mind. She learned how to regulate her nervous system, create mental space and disconnect, and be more strategic in her executive presence. Once she did that, she felt calmer, became a trusted strategic partner to the director, and improved team accountability and performance.
In a past newsletter, I talked about how your thoughts (or beliefs) equal your actions. And your actions lead to your results. But, it goes deeper than your thoughts. It starts with the body, and more specifically our autonomic nervous system.
It All Comes Down to The Autonomic Nervous System
Let’s do a quick intro to the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and how it works. The ANS regulates involuntary physiologic functions like heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and digestion.
Within the ANS, neuroception plays a pivotal role. This refers to the neural circuits that scan the environment for safety or danger. Based on what it picks up in your environment, it sends you one of two messages to your nervous system:
You are safe; or
You are in danger.
This perception then triggers a response:
Connection, if you’re safe. Connection leads to feeling calm, grounded, curious, compassionate, and mindful. Your nervous system is regulated.
Protection, if you’re in danger. Protection goes in two directions. The first, flight for fight. It leads to feelings of anger, irritation, frustration or fear, anxiety, and panic. The second, is freeze. It leads to feeling hopeless, numb, dissociation, shame, and auto-pilot. Your nervous system is dysregulated.
The connection and protection states release the associated chemicals, and you experience an emotional response. That emotional response then informs your thoughts, which leads to your behavior and actions. It looks something like this and the repeated pattern shapes the stories we create to make sense of our world.
Fascinating, I know! But wait… why is it so important?
Neuroception is a primitive function that happens subconsciously. A lot of the time we’re not even aware of how much it’s impacting our responses. Think about how that translates to leadership—the decisions you make, the way you respond in a moment of stress, the assumptions you make about a situation…
“Your attitudes, actions, and the way you see the world are the result of the autonomic nervous system moving between states of connection and protection." Deb Dana, Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection
your map to Connection & Protection
So what do these responses look like? here’s a handy visual to show how the nervous system responds to the perception of safety vs. danger according to Polyvagal Theory by Stephen Porges (for all you physiological nerds like me).
Leadership and Neuroception
If your leadership experience is anything like mine, I imagine you experience a steady flow of ‘danger, danger! situations’ in your day-to-day. In reality, they’re not a threat to survival, but your body doesn’t always recognize the difference.
Pressure to deliver business targets. Shrinking runways. Performance issues and difficult conversations. Back-to-back meetings. Board meetings.
They can all = danger, danger! depending on your window of tolerance. Every person has a unique window of tolerance for daily stress and challenges, heavily influenced by chronic stress, childhood trauma, or developmental stress. The more stress or trauma, the narrower the window may become. The impact? It becomes more difficult to adapt to and recover from stress.
The autonomic nervous system is designed to help you navigate life's daily challenges, but that difficulty may lead to chronic stress if not managed well. 91% of female executives have felt a surge of 'exponential stress' in the workplace, according to KPMG's 2023 Women's Leadership Summit report. The effects? It limits decision-making and effective communication. It also decreases job satisfaction, productivity, clarity, and self-trust.
Befriend Your Nervous System
As a leader, it’s key to be able to do two things when it comes to your nervous system:
Leverage stress to work for you. The right amount of stress can improve performance. Check out my full guide on stress relief at work.
Recognize a dysregulated nervous system (fight, flight, or freeze) and bring it back to a regulated state (connection).
Where do you start? Here are 3 actions to get to know your nervous system and begin to regulate it:
How do you know when you’re in a state of connection (safety) or protection (danger)? Start by mapping out your neuroceptive cues. What is a cue of connection or protection…
... from inside the body?
... from the environment?
... between you and another person?
Examples: muscles relaxed, fewer thoughts, slow breathing
Examples: quiet, warm, clean, nature, with animals
Examples: wanted physical contact or friendly facial expressions
Examples: constricted chest, sweating, tight jaw, feeling heartbeat
Examples: loud and busy, super bright lights, big crowds
Examples: being criticized, angry facial expressions, unwanted physical contact
Internal vs. External Responses
Now that you know what cues point to connection or protection, how do you experience those responses? Which ones are only known to you? Which are visible to others?
For example, when protection is only known to you, it might be a tight chest, feeling frenetic energy in the body, or emotions. When it’s visible to others, it could be your breathing, body language (closed-off versus open), facial expressions, or communication.
For connection known to you, it could be a relaxed body or an expansive feeling in the heart. Visible to others, it might be a sparkle in your eyes, open body language, or an authentic smile.
Make a list of what you experience for each state: Connection, Fight or Flight, and Freeze. Look for them during your day—inside and outside of work. Ask your coworkers, friends, and family.
Practice Regulation Daily
The beauty of neuroception is that it changes based on experience and you can expand your window of tolerance. It takes time and consistency.
As always, reach out with questions and ideas, or to share your deep connection moments with me.
P.S. Need help decoding your cues? I’ve got 5 questions to ask you that will challenge you to go deeper. Would that be interesting to you?