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At the heart of our ability to perform at our best lies a complex and often overlooked system: the nervous system. This intricate network serves as the body's command center, orchestrating and regulating every aspect of our being. From decision-making and emotional regulation to learning and productivity, our nervous system plays a pivotal role in shaping our performance outcomes.

In this article, we'll delve into the inner workings of the nervous system and explore how understanding and regulating it can unlock our optimal performance potential.

Understanding the Nervous System:

The nervous system comprises the brain, spinal cord, and a vast network of nerves that extend throughout the body. It serves as the communication hub, transmitting signals between the brain and various organs, muscles, and tissues. This constant exchange of information allows for seamless coordination of bodily functions, ranging from basic reflexes to complex cognitive processes.

The Impact of Nervous System States on Performance:

The state of our nervous system profoundly influences our ability to deliver a given output. When the nervous system is in a stressed, sympathetic state, characterized by heightened stress, our cognitive functions may be compromised. Vision and thinking become narrowed, leading to literal tunnel vision and impaired decision-making. Emotions may run high, and creativity may be stifled as we struggle to think outside the box.

Conversely, when the nervous system shifts into a calm, parasympathetic state, the opposite occurs. We gain access to a broader range of information and perspectives, enabling us to make more informed decisions. Emotional regulation improves, allowing us to navigate challenges with greater ease. In this state, creativity flourishes, and our ability to adapt and innovate is enhanced.

In the previous article "What does Peak Performance Really Mean and What Drives It", we covered a version of The Human Function Curve[i] below: 

As  you can see there is an optimal point for performance, decision-making, and neuroplasticity- how we learn or unlearn things in response to experience.

The key to maintain this optimal level is:

1: Build Awareness - Regularly assess where you are on this curve (e.g. build check ins daily, weekly, monthly).

2: Regulate Your State - Move up or down the curve to inch towards your optimal level. Continuously work to be more effective in anchoring your state on demand by practicing some of the tools set out below.

Regulating the Nervous System for Optimal Performance:

Given the profound impact of nervous system states on performance, it's essential to develop strategies for regulating it effectively to move up and down this curve as needed. Practices such as mindfulness, deep breathing exercises, and progressive muscle relaxation can help shift the nervous system from a state of stress to one of calm. These techniques promote activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, facilitating improved cognitive function, emotional regulation, and overall performance.

In addition to mindfulness practices, lifestyle factors such as regular exercise, adequate sleep, and healthy nutrition play crucial roles in maintaining nervous system balance. Physical activity helps dissipate stress hormones and promotes the release of endorphins, enhancing mood and cognitive function. Quality sleep allows the nervous system to rest and recharge, supporting optimal performance during waking hours. Nutrient-dense foods provide the building blocks necessary for neurotransmitter production, which is essential for proper nervous system function.

The Seesaw of the Nervous System:

Our nervous system operates like a seesaw, balancing between states of alertness and relaxation. A mentally and physically healthy person can effectively switch between action and rest, focus and sleep. This flexibility is anchored in the nervous system and is crucial for productivity and maintaining healthy relationships.

Think of it as a seesaw where one end represents alertness and focus, and the other end relaxation and rest. The key to being functional is the ability to smoothly transition between these states. However, many people get stuck at one end, becoming either chronically activated or exhausted, relying on stimulants like coffee to wake up or wine to relax.

The seesaw analogy highlights that it's not just about being on either end, but about the tightness of the hinge of the seesaw. What I discussed above are tools that help calibrate this hinge to make it easier to move from sleep to alertness, from alertness to relaxation, and back to work, without getting stuck in one position.

Imagine life as driving a car. We often get good at pressing the gas pedal but need to practice using the brake to navigate turns effectively without burning or spinning out. Thus, sustainable peak performance involves practicing downregulation activities to strengthen our 'brake' and enhance our resilience, allowing us to adjust and respond with ease.


The state of our nervous system serves as a powerful determinant of our performance outcomes. Recognizing the profound impact of nervous system function, we can take proactive steps to optimize our performance. Consider the following key points:

- Understanding that the inner workings of the nervous system is crucial for optimizing performance outcomes.

- Mastering the duality between the states of our nervous system is key to better decision-making, productivity, emotional-regulation, performance and learning.

- Implementing strategies to regulate our nervous system - such as breathing practices and lifestyle interventions - and tightening the hinge on the "seesaw" can unlock our full potential.


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[i] Nixon PG. The human function curve - a paradigm for our times. Act Nerv Super (Praha). 1982;Suppl 3(Pt 1):130-3. PMID: 7183056.


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