Drain Your Nervous System

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. This week, we are going to talk about specific training and treatment that can help improve vagal tone. 

We often use Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, with our athletes. Many of them have told me it really works for them. It certainly helped me let go of trauma related to serious accidents I experienced. 

But the title does not make its purpose apparent. Let’s make it apparent — which is the most important part of a dad joke — its a parent. 

EMDR as a method to drain your nervous system.

Early on, eye movements were central to its use. The movement of eyes back and forth is called bilateral stimulation. Bilateral sounds and a tactile method have been developed, too. The sound and vibrations alternate between ears and hands.  

The research is strong. It is viewed as a gold standard treatment for PTSD. Functional MRIs confirm that it changes a person’s brain. 

Here’s how it works.

Remember that the two sides of the brain have to be able to talk to each other. The alternating sounds or vibrations from EMDR ensure they are talking.

The first phase is brain strength training. The tappers or music are on, and the athlete holds them or listens. We create resources by guiding them through visualization and mental imagery, like the OPZ, great coaches, happy places and a container for hard stuff. The vibration or sound uses Hebb’s principle to improve communication between thinking and feeling, because it involves more neurons.

The second phase is to take out a time that your brain and body won’t let go of. That could be an injury, a poor performance or a stressful family or life event. It could also be a bad experience with a teacher, coach, teammate or a parent. 

The athlete visualizes the upsetting experience while holding the tappers or listening. The result is that both sides of the brain stay online while visualizing. Your thinking brain helps the feeling brain make sense of the situation. 

It helped me get control and stop having flashbacks from a car accident I had at 19, and a bike accident I had five years ago. But EMDR isn’t just for huge events. It can even help with subtle and performance-interfering thoughts.

Many of my college and professional athletes say it makes them less reactive to similar stressors, and stress in general. It helps you clear your container and give your brain more capacity to manage stress. 

You are less likely to fall into a flight or fight freeze reaction. That improves vagal tone, which means better sleep, less anxiety and stronger immune responses. You run your brain instead of it running you.

I will caution you — you should not do EMDR without professional guidance. It’s a powerful tool that works best in conjunction with a professional relationship.

Watch this private youtube video of a coaches clinic I did in 2020.  

You can also learn more about it in this article from Experience Life.  

You’ll learn about mental fitness. Change the conversation. Share our emails and check out our Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

What Happens in Vagus…

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. My hope is that the mental health and mental performance concepts I put here are usable to anyone. I also want to help make sure they’re easy to understand.

Today I am going to talk about an important nerve in the body that influences the brain problem — but it’s rarely talked about. 

It’s a gamble. It’s the vagus nerve.  

What happens within the vagus nerve never stays in the vagus nerve. It shows up in multiple aspects of our body. The vagus regulates mood, body language, digestion, breathing, and heart rate, among others. It connects pretty much every part of the body.

It’s the transmission of the brain and runs the autonomic nervous system. It helps us shift between the branches of the nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system — which scans for danger. The vagus nerve also affects the parasympathetic nervous system, which chills us out, and the enteric nervous system — the gut brain — which is responsible for digestion. 

It also regulates the immune system. It’s one nerve with four functions. That’s sick. 

Many mental health disorders occur when our vagus nerve has low vagal tone. Depression, PTSD, anxiety, OCD and others can occur. Low vagal tone is the result of being stuck in a hypervigilant state. If our environment is chaotic, we chronically stay there. Here is a link that explains Polyvagel theory.

Heart rate variability, a measure of vagal tone, is low when we are in fight flight or freeze mode. It’s high when we are relaxed. You improve your vagal tone by adding more relaxation responses to your day — practices like massage, reflexology, yoga, tai chi, meditation, heart rate variability training and breathing practice. Daily exercise and good sleep are also great ways to improve vagal tone.

Here are some lesser known hacks. Try gargling a couple of times per day, humming, chanting and/or using mantra. I know — this sounds crazy. Practice deep breathing while taking a cold shower. Start with 15 seconds, and progress to two minutes.  

For long term practice, my go-to is meditation. Sometimes I try heart rate variability training with the Inner Balance App. Here is a video we did that talks about how it works.

But the simplest way to improve it is to be socially engaged is human interaction. Here is a video we did that talks about human connection. Connecting with people you love and love to be around is so important. You know the people when you see them. It brings a smile to your heart and your face. 

Mental Health Awareness Month

May is Mental Health Awareness Month.   

Over the last few months, five college student-athletes have died by suicide. They were: Katie Meyer, a star goalie on Stanford’s soccer team; Sarah Shulze, a top runner for the Wisconsin Badgers; Lauren Bernett, a standout softball player for James Madison; Jayden Hill, a track athlete at Northern Michigan; and Robert Martin, a lacrosse player at Binghamton.  

We have a problem. Consider this from the New York Times: In 2019, 13 percent of adolescents reported having a major depressive episode, which is a 60 percent increase from 2007. Emergency room visits by children and adolescents rose sharply for anxiety, mood disorders and self-harm. In ages 10 to 24, suicide rates, which were stable from 2000 to 2007, leaped nearly 60 percent by 2018. There is an entire series on this in the New York Times

We have seen this in our practice. Athletes are not insulated. I have worked with teams where a young athlete has taken their life. I have had a friend die this way. It’s hard to understand and it’s painful.

There is a myth that if you ask someone if they are suicidal, they will be more likely to attempt or complete it. That’s not true. Let me share something I have learned. 

It needs to be talked about — even though it’s uncomfortable. My experience has been that  thoughts of suicide often occur when a person feels helpless and can’t see a way out. I often hear things like, ‘I can’t shut off my brain and get out of my head. Not being here feels like the only way to make it go away.’

Sometimes, talking out loud helps us to realize things we have missed.

I usually ask if they are serious about hurting themselves, or if they want to figure out what exactly they’re feeling, and why they’re feeling that way. Many times it’s the latter.

If you are around or connected with someone who is hiring themselves, take them to the emergency room. Or, you can call 1-800-273-8255 or text CONNECT to 741741. Don’t leave them alone, and remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs, or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt

Help them to find a therapist. Remember that it may take trying a few to find a good fit. 

Words matter with this. Don’t shame them for what they are feeling, or tell them they have nothing to be upset about.  

Be an empathetic listener, comfort them, and be a partner in finding them help. Let them know how much you value them. 

Check out this site that talks about why this is important.

Let’s change the conversation. Talk and learn about mental fitness. Share our messages with others.

How’s Your Brain Game?

The game has changed. I actually don’t need to tell you that if you are a player, parent, coach, or scout. 

The world as changed, too. I certainly don’t need to tell you that, either.

That’s why we are partnering with Minnesota Hockey and their High Performance Programs. We want to make an impact on the hockey community at all levels. We are a hockey family, too. We believe our resources and experience can help you to change your Brain Game. 

In some ways there are more resources available to athletes to help them to perfect their game. Too often, however, we neglect one aspect of the game: our brain games. Yep – the mental side of sports.  You know – it’s the part of the game that we rarely give or receive detailed information about. Why? The myths around the brain game keep us from talking about it.

In my over 20 years working in athletics, I have seen things change in some drastic and dramatic ways.  The pressure and lack of ability to control reactions concerns me. I am encouraged though, too.

Click here to read more

Maintaining Motivation

Maintaining motivation. That’s a topic a reader emailed me about. Maybe I’ll talk about it now, or maybe I’ll wait for my motivation to show up so I can do it. Or, maybe I’ll wait for someone to walk in to hype me up.

If we waited, this video could take a long time.

We often take this approach with motivation. Somehow, we believe it’s something that just shows up. I had an athlete tell me once he prays to the Gods of his sport to deliver motivation. Or, we believe that we have to be hyped up for every practice or game to perform well. 

That’s an unrealistic expectation. There are going to be days when sleeping in, staying home and binging Netflix seem more appealing. It’s part of being a human athlete.

If you believe it’s a sign you are not committed, or that you don’t care, it will drive you bananas.  Training, eating right — all the habits can be a grind.  Life happens and sometimes we need to devote energy to our lives outside of sports. There will be tension.

Can you prepare for those days? Absolutely.  

Have a process in place. Create an environment that promotes motivation. Have your goals, your “why,” and the results you want in a place you can see them every day. Write the words “just start” on your goals sheet. Maybe make a separate sign and put it on the background on your phone. 

Have three or four key self-talk statements that anchor you. I know that’s a heavy concept.                                                                                                

The key is to just start. Have faith in your “why.”  Just starting will help you progress for the day.  Remember that progress can feel like the end of a bad basketball game with fouls, free throws, replays and timeouts.

If you’d like to learn a little more about motivation, check out this Ted Talk with Daniel Pink. It’s a classic. He also has several books you should check out.

Remember that starting leads to motivation – not the other way around. 

The Teacher Challenge

Welcome to Mental Fitness Fridays. I’m Hans Skulstad.

Lately, my followers have been asking how I learned all of this, and how I remember everything. 

The first and easiest answer is that I went to grad school to learn it, met the experience guidelines and passed the tests to be licensed. The process was clear, and I followed it. 

Then, it got more difficult. I had some freedom to decide the “what” of what I wanted to do. 

The way I learned that “what” was to teach it. Oftentimes, the things I focused on were dictated by who or what showed up in my office. I read books, went to training and experienced life — the most effective way to learn. 

Teach what you have learned to others. Sometimes the concepts I present to all of you come from something I have taught to an athlete in session. Most times, I adjust what I learned to the athlete and circumstances in front of me. I find a new way to look at things, so the athlete can understand and use it. Sometimes, in the process, I learn a lot about myself.

Here’s my challenge to you: Go back to one of my videos and pick a concept and try to teach it to someone.   

That someone could be a teammate, friend, parent or a coach. Try starting with this video — the difference between mental fitness and toughness. See if you can put it into your own words. Maybe even do some research. 

Here’s what you will find if you accept the challenge. You will need courage. You are vulnerable when you teach or coach. New ideas will pop up as you present, and you might find yourself thinking out loud. As you teach, you will have to adapt your presentation to the person you are talking to. All of these things will lead to a better understanding. 

Let’s change the conversation. Talk and learn about mental fitness. Share us on Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

Pain and Punishment

Let’s talk about another mental toughness myth: Pain and punishment lead to improvement.  

Watch this clip from Happy Gilmore that illustrates how we often let this myth play out. 

Happy never makes the hockey team.

Why do we and Happy get hooked? Every myth offers some truth. Painful experiences teach us. I’ve learned a lot from painful experiences in my life. We don’t need to inflict more pain to learn.

What’s your process for learning from the pain and the uncomfortable?  

Pain and the uncomfortable naturally occur. For much of my life, I thought that happened because of something I did. 

Clean pain is inevitable. It’s a natural consequence. It happens when we lose someone or when we experience disappointment. Sometimes we can prepare for it. Sometimes we can’t. 

Painful events usually result from a perfect storm of factors. We make it worse. We create dirty pain. We punish ourselves for trying and failing. We ignore other factors.  

Punishment is often the default cause — the first way we learn.

We say things like: 

This happened because I am such an idiot.

What is wrong with me? 

When will I ever learn? 

I can’t believe I’m so dumb.  

The answers are usually bull shit.

Think of an inspiring speech. How many start with any of that?

The adjustment is opening a door and reframing it. Ask how you can make it happen for you, instead of to you. What’s important now? Then, take action. What can you learn to move forward? What moves you toward your values? 

Sometimes, it may take time to figure that out, because the emotion and the new realities have not settled in. Then, make a conscious decision to act on your answers. 

Let’s change the conversation. Talk and learn about mental fitness. 

Good Old-Fashioned Willpower

Welcome to Mental Fitness Fridays. I’m Hans Skulstad.

I had an old school coach once ask me: “Whatever happened to good old-fashioned willpower?”  

I actually thought about it and wondered if it was even real. It’s like the concept of momentum — some people don’t believe in it. Willpower is a concept often used in sports performance and the world of changing yourself. 

I have been thinking about this concept for a couple weeks. Then on Monday morning, I heard about Will Power at the Oscars and decided it was time.  

It’s often misunderstood, misused and abused. Therefore, it can be an effective tool, but it’s limited sometimes. It’s often paired with the concept of quitting cold turkey. But too often, willpower leads us to believe we can wing it. 

You need emotional strength and commitment to change. Yes, it’s a real thing, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. I know it’s real because it’s way harder to resist “bad” foods or temptation when you’re tired, anxious, sick or feeling lonely. 

The meaning that goes with good old-fashioned willpower is what gets people into trouble. It has those mental toughness myths all tied into it. What comes to mind for you if you say to yourself: “I just don’t have the will power to…”?

For most of us, helplessness and shame come up.

Here’s what willpower actually is. It’s an emotional commitment to a way of doing things with intention and purpose. 

Here’s where the meaning that goes with “good old-fashioned willpower” causes a problem. It’s been turned into something you have. A limited resource, like the power on your phone. However, as the day moves on or the power diminishes, you are more likely to give in, which gives you a reason to mess up — so you do. 

Unfortunately, it commonly means that if you lack it, you are morally weak. You stick to your commitment — morally strong. If you don’t, you are weak. 

At this point, problem solving stops. There are no options. For example, you start binging on whatever so you can escape your moral weakness and uncomfortable feeling. And the cycle continues.

Don’t make a meaning of it. Don’t morally judge yourself by saying you were bad today or you were good today. Notice. Do things to take care of yourself. Add energy. Take a walk or a shower. Renew your commitment and start again. Have specific strategies for what might derail you. The funny thing is people who rate themselves high on willpower usually lack a plan for dealing with setbacks.

Mental fitness is an everyday commitment and choice to learning, adapting and letting go of limited old-fashioned concepts. 

Stanford professor Kelly McGonigal has written a book called the Willpower Instinct. I recommend it. Willpower is not a simple thing. A lot goes into it. She does a great job of explaining what goes into willpower, and how you can use it to change.

Let’s change the conversation. Talk and learn about mental fitness.

So share us wherever you can.

The Power of Being Grateful

A significant part of mental fitness is gratitude.

But oftentimes, we need reminders to feel grateful. Why is that? 

Humans tend to be biased toward the negative. That’s why we have survived — because we have learned to plan for the negative. Focusing on what you’re grateful for is associated with more positive emotions, promotes present moment focus, optimism and happiness. We also tend to be more helpful, generous, compassionate and forgiving toward ourselves and others. 

The picture of my son’s hockey team is something I am grateful for.  His team won the consolation bracket in the Minnesota Bantam A State Tournament.

They have a lot to be grateful for. 

1. They overcame serious injuries, illnesses and tough losses. They played through adversity — sometimes with nine players.

2. The team handled things with class. Parents and coaches, too. Throughout the playoff season, there was not one incident with the opposing teams or their parents. There were years where that was not the case. At times, parents of the other teams thanked us for a great game, even after a tough loss.

3. Most games were competitive, well-played and exciting. The game-winning goal of the region championship was a highly skilled play and came with 1.6 seconds left.

4. We have known these families since Mites. It’s satisfying to see them grow into great players and great people. The friendships feel like family.

5. They were the first Bantam A team in our association to go to the State Tournament.

6.  Fans were in the stands, unlike last year. There was also a student section that created energy in playoff games. I love kids playing for the community and friends.

7. It was fun every step of the way. 

Being mentally fit means finding the positive in things that feel negative. Doing so promotes mental fitness.

Meditation Myths

Last week, I asked you for questions that I could help answer in these videos. I received a few questions about meditation and how it works. 

Meditation can look different for everyone, but I’ll answer based on my own experiences.

First, it’s part of a practice of mindfulness, which is the practice of being present, letting go of the past and not moving to the future. 

Meditation can be practiced independently. It’s an awareness and way of looking at the world, but it’s not a religion. 

I used to think it meant actively clearing your mind and getting relaxed. If that didn’t happen, I thought I was doing it wrong. 

I’ve learned that these are myths. That can happen, but it’s more about taking the time to sit down and pay attention to yourself and what shows up. If you get distracted, you return to your breathing. It’s like watching scores on the bottom of the screen. You notice them, then return to the game you’re watching.

If you can let go of always having to be productive, it’s enjoyable. When that happens, you drop the elimination agenda and get rid of tension and distraction.  

My meditating journey started back in the early 2000s. I saw it as something similar to prayer, but without asking for things.

I met my wife working at a clinic that sponsored a mindfulness class. We did an all-day silent retreat. (Yes, I pulled it off — being silent for a whole day and finding a wife.) We believe it helped lead to our relationship. I remember during one meditation, I got distracted by my grandpa telling me to ask her out.

It was when I read 10% Happier by Dan Harris that I really got into it. He is a reporter/anchor for ABC who used it to help him get through PTSD. I started using his app. Here’s a link that will tell you more. I figured if it worked for him, it would work for me. Seriously, his book is awesome.

I just started and didn’t give up. I stopped searching for the perfect way, and found my way. It helped. 

I didn’t always know how, I trusted the process and myself. I miss mediation when it’s not part of my routine. That was back in 2016 or 2017. 

Since then, the time I’ve spent mediating has helped me to find insights into key areas of life. I don’t know if this is exactly why. But I do know that since I started, I have lost weight, become less reactive, slower to judge myself and others, calmer and realized that I need to do these videos. 

Try it for a month or so with no agenda. See what you find. You might be pleasantly surprised.