Trust Your Gut

“Follow your instincts. That’s where true wisdom manifests itself.”
—Oprah Winfrey

A hand flies a paper airplane in front of a chalkboard with clouds drawn on it along with the words "Follow your instincts."

Yes, you heard us right! It’s a scientifically proven, practical and very smart strategy to heed the old saying, “Trust your gut!” Your survival could depend on it, and your performance can as well.

Here’s how “trusting your gut” works. It all starts with the vagus nerve, which originates in the cerebellum and brainstem and travels down to the lowest viscera of your abdomen. With its many branches, the vagus nerve touches major organs—including the heart, stomach and instestines—along the way. Being structured as it is, the vagus nerve is the key to a sophisticated mind-body connection. The gut sends messages to the brain and the brain talks back all via the vagus nerve.

So, what does this vagus-driven mind-body connection have to do with performance at work? Plenty. At the more extreme end of the spectrum, it’s the vagus nerve that signals to the rest of the body when it’s time for “fight or flight.” During instances of perceived danger—say you’re asked to make a presentation to the executive team—your vagus nerve will signal the need for either a quick exit from the scene or entry into battle. Given the example circumstance, neither state serves you well. But since it’s the vagus nerve firing you up, might you assume it could calm you? Yes.

Your vagus nerve is commander in chief when it comes to maintaining grace under pressure. As it turns out, when you are psyched out, it’s the vagus nerve that interprets danger. When the danger alarm sounds, the vagus nerve disengages and the symptoms of performance anxiety heighten. Palms sweat. Hearts race. Mouths go dry. Stomachs churn. The way to stop the crippling effects of such performance anxiety? Get the vagus nerve into gear again. Engage it and regain grace under pressure. Here’s how:

  • Take a deep breath (or two or three). Deep abdominal breathing—the type where you fully engage the diaphragm, slowly and thoroughly inhaling and exhaling—stimulates the vagus nerve, slowing heart rate and blood pressure and enabling a sense of calm. Over the longer haul, this type of breathing keeps the vagus nerve properly toned, even affecting overall physical and psychological well-being. Want a healthy heart? Make sure to stimulate your vagus nerve.
  • Practice to make perfect. Well, actually, we overstate. The function of practice is not perfection, which—if you’ve read our previous two posts—you know is not really possible. Instead, proper practice decreases the likelihood of choking under pressure and increases a sense of grace instead. It’s through practice that the cerebellum portion of your brain creates muscle memory, allowing fluid and closer-to-flawless execution during performance. With less practice, you are forced to rely too much on the executive functions of your brain and to over-think performance. Paralysis by analysis causes a stumble, fumble or foul. The cerebellum and vagus nerve—working effectively together—create flow.
  • Get physical—every day. Did you need another argument on behalf of exercise? Exercise tones up the body and the vagus nerve, too! Aerobic activity, strength training and yoga all stimulate healthy vagal tone, primarily through the action of breathing. As an additional benefit, as vagal tone increases, so do mental and cardiac health.
  • Create an upward spiral. Research indicates that positive emotions, positive social connections and physical health intermingle to create an upward spiral. Psychologists tell us that when we focus on developing positive social connections or even just reflect on the ones we already have, vagal tone improves. How’s that for a way to increase grace under pressure?

In the end, it’s good to know that the emotions associated with performance anxiety—anxiety, fear, panic, even terror—are more under our control than we may think. Yes, extraordinarily challenging situations where the stakes are high may arouse our worst side. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a toned-up vagus nerve and some handy strategies to keep it that way, even troubling emotions can be properly managed for eye-popping performance.

When have you trusted your gut and come out ahead as a result?

Are there instances where performance anxiety gets the best of you? What will you do next time that happens?

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