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Limbic vs Cognitive ~ A Conversation

Today I’m sharing a recent conversation between a colleague and I regarding limbic versus cognitive behavior that I hope brings you some food for thought:

Some people find the holidays a stressful time of the year. Stress correlates to an up-regulated sympathetic nervous system. We often hear “take a deep breath” as an easy way to regulate.

Let’s reframe this slightly. To take a deep breath requires being in action. With an up-regulated sympathetic nervous system, we are already doing too much. Instead, let’s be the observer.

Imagine that that the breath is like a glass of water. When you fill a glass with water, the water fills from the bottom to the top. Conversely, when you empty the glass, the water empties from the top to the bottom. As you observe your breath, feel the inhalation expanding the belly, the lower ribs, then the upper ribs and clavicle. And as the exhalation happens, watch the breath descend in the reverse order.

Being the observer allows you to tune into the sensation rather than focus on accomplishing something. This subtle reframe has a profound effect on your experience in that moment. We can’t think our way out of a sympathetic nervous system response, however we can feel our way through as we navigate sensations.

Amy Maynard Buckles: “Being the observer allows you to tune into the sensation rather than focus on accomplishing something.” Love that!  Why can’t we think our way out of a sympathetic nervous system response?

 There is a long version and a short version to that question.

The short version is related to the mechanism of information gathered by the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The limbic inputs, the sensory apparatus of the body, the five-traditional and the non-traditional senses communicate with the ANS. That information is collated and prioritized based on past experiences: our associations and hard-wired reflexives. The most relevant way that we can affect our ANS is through the sensory input of the limbic channels. This points to why breath work, aromatherapy, and the five tastes are such powerful tools that we can utilize to make change in the response to our environment.

Personally, I am most interested in the non-traditional senses. The information we take in from our environment, such as electromagnetic fields, barometric pressure, bioelectric energy, and so forth. There are unknown realms of information that we are experiencing and collating at an unconscious level. This spectrum of perception I find fascinating.

The tip of the iceberg analogy also works well here. Twenty-five percent of information is perceived consciously, while 75% of information largely goes unperceived by our consciousness. That is huge.

Buckles: Great explanation and info to share! I am curious as to your thoughts on how much of our conscious thoughts, with practice, could change the ANS response. Like in a panic attack for example.  I understand that while focusing on breath, we are out of our heads and more into our body awareness. Which, would activate the PNS. To me, that’s not thinking. However, if we gain information about our environment, our safety, and other sources of input and responses…then we can consciously choose to think differently. Hopefully not only to prevent ANS distress, but also reverse or stop it.

 “consciously choose to think differently”

That is a key to cognitive thought process.

Here is the big challenge to overcome:  thought is chemistry. The Law of Adaptation says that the body adapts to its environment regardless of outcome.

Emotions are a specific cocktail of chemistry. We get better, more efficient at making the “cocktails” of our predisposition. Those chemicals require receptor sites to plug into. Over time we end up making more of that unique composition of chemistry to fill the receptor sites. Through adaptation, we become addicted to thought. Overcoming that requires conscious effort.

If our predisposition is to respond to a situation in a familiar way, reproducing those feelings becomes easier each time we have them. You can see this in people that have “knee jerk reactions” — these folks are quick to produce the chemical signature they are familiar with.

Some people have the disposition to do that kind of work on a cognitive level; change your thoughts and change your behavior.  Others need stimulus from the other part of the brain, the limbic center. These are the people that do better at maintaining attention on sensation.

There is a loop in the brain and how we process our environment:


Sensory—>past or projection of future—>Ego or survival

Our ability to interpret the information of our sensory apparatus, and reframe from a place of being hijacked by associations that are interpreted by the ego, define our ability to cope.



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The First Breath

My partner and I were swimming in Barton Springs Pool in Austin, TX the other day. She asked me if I would give her swim lessons. She prefaced the request with, “anyone that has given me swim lessons has left me in tears.”

I thought about her reaction for a moment, and immediately zoned in that the very first thing to learn about swimming is to just be comfortable in the water. This is very similar to the first instruction in meditation, to take a comfortable seat. In meditation, the second instruction is to observe the breath. Following the sensation of the breath anchors the mind to awareness. This helps the mind from being hijacked by cognitive thinking.

Being comfortable in the water also requires finding ease in breathing. Often, people are in a fear response when while swimming. In order to not activate the central nervous system’s sympathetic response, one needs to learn specific movement skills so that breathing is not stressful.

One might think that water is a natural element, as we float in our mother’s belly before being born, and people should be at ease in that element. However, almost everyone experiences their first fear response at the moment of transition from the lungs full of amniotic fluid to the pressurization of the air from taking their first breath.

A component of the fear response is called the startle reflex. The action of the startle reflex is a sharp inhalation, flexion and internal rotation. This is in opposition to the integration of the breathing apparatus, as optimal inhalation is extension with external rotation.

Correcting the disconnect between fear based breathing to a well-integrated breathing apparatus is a must for finding ease in the water – and frankly in life!

Here is the progression I use to teach people to find their ease in water and is quite simple. You can do it on your own or have someone assist you:

Floating on your back ~
Feel the buoyancy created by expanding the ribcage and lungs.

Floating on your side body ~ Prerequisite for side stroke, side body is also the end position for breathing in the basic crawl, or freestyle.

Using fins and snorkel as props ~
This builds more confidence in the water.

Floating on your belly with a snorkel ~
Find ease face down in the water.

Building blocks of stroke technique ~
There are many levels of techniques to build a strong foundation.

Once the foundation is in place, start to remove the props ~ Development of shoulder timing to neck rotation so that one can arrive at side body also allows for a restorative breath.

Understanding the breathing apparatus is integral in any mind body activity. The charts in the Intrinsic Anatomy Poster outline all the players participating in respiration.

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The Mighty Psoas

Let me introduce to you a key muscle that is highly noteworthy and receives a lot of well-deserved attention called the psoas. This muscle supports the musculoskeletal system through several important functions.

The psoas is a multisegment muscle, as it crosses multiple joints from the thoracic lumbar junction through each lumbar vertebrae. The psoas connects the axis of the spine to the appendicular function of the hip. In other words, the psoas attaches the trunk to the thigh.

The attachment on the thigh, the lessor trochanter, gives the psoas mechanical advantage in external rotation of the hip. The psoas is a lumbar stabilizer, a hip flexor, and is also a synergist in the breathing apparatus.

The psoas is central to movement stability.

Muscles that cross single joints, and are short by design, are hardworking dependable muscles. The nervous system can count on these muscles in recruitment and compensation patterns. However, muscles that cross multiple joints don’t have as much mechanical leverage (longer lever equates to more load on the fibers). What they are good at is providing dynamic stability while the shorter, hardworking muscles provide the power.

In the case of hip flexion, the function of the psoas is stabilization of the lumbar while its synergist, the iliacus, is the power generator.

The psoas is a multi-planer stabilizer that works in a three-dimensional context.

The psoas likes to work with its favorite partner in lumbar stabilization, the quadrates lumborum,(QL). The QL has a fascial compartment just posterior of the psoas. The compartments need to have the capacity to glide across one another so discreet function can happen in the sagittal, coronal and transverse planes. In sagittal plane movement the psoas and QL work in ipsilateral pairs on the same side. This is also true for the coronal plane. Though in the coronal plane, while one side is shortening, the opposite side is lengthening. This is called lateral flexion. The function of the psoas in the transverse plane is related to the walking gait. The transverse plane pairing is contralateral. One side of the psoas is working with the opposite side QL to stabilize the lumbar as the pelvis is moving around the axis of the spine.

The psoas is a primary compartment of the greater lumbodorsal fascia. This fascial sheath connects the torso to the pelvis so that the action of the appendicular skeleton and axial skeleton wind-up and release elastic energy throughout the cycle of the walking gait.

One really can’t talk about the psoas without mentioning its relationship to the breathing apparatus. The psoas is a key player in the spinal wave: the action that assists the cerebrospinal fluid pump. Further, the psoas shares connective tissue with the thoracic diaphragm. This is significant because when the psoas doesn’t play well with the breathing apparatus, the autonomic nervous system’s sympathetic arousal stays up-regulated. This cascade of chemistry from the sympathetic response hijacks the nervous system’s ability to cope. Said another way it results in stress. (Click here to see the video: