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Using Nervous System Science to Help Coaching Clients Locate Creative Energy Reserves

Posted by Dee Wagner | May 1, 2018 | Comments (2)

We used to picture that our nervous systems created one continuum of energy within our bodies, ranging from highly active states to sluggishly passive states. New science helps us see that we actually have two different types of nervous system functioning—one for when we feel safe and another for when we face life-threatening danger.

Renaissance Energy

Looking back in time, we can recognize the creativity that blossomed during the Renaissance period in Europe when people sensed safety again following the bubonic plague. The return to safety after a time of great danger creates such a sense of relief that we might picture a renaissance period as an “up time” and a plague period as a “down time.” But looking more closely, we begin to recognize that both times had their own unique versions of ups and downs.

In a renaissance period, we feel safe to fail. We feel free to invite inspiration, to experiment and to have many of our experiments fail as a natural part of the path of discovery. We probably do not like the disappointment that accompanies failure, but we sense that learning to move through disappointment has value.

Plague times bring rising and falling feelings too, but the rises and falls have a very different quality than the ups and downs in a renaissance period. A time of plagues brings huge swings between furious efforts to force solutions and a foggy kind of robotic survival.

Unhealthy Growth?

Because we experience renaissance times as good times and plague times as bad times, we can focus on the growth that is possible during the renaissance times and imagine constant growth as good. We begin to believe that constant growth is a sign of health when it is not. In the body, constant growth is cancer. What is good about renaissance times is the sense of freedom to have growth and decline. In renaissance times, we feel freedom to both succeed and fail.

As science helps us have a more accurate picture of nervous system functioning, we can encourage clients out of plague mentality and into renaissance mentality by offering assurance that failure is an important step toward discovery. Inventors fail many times on their path to creating products and services.

Frantic effort to force constant growth breeds fear of failure—plague mentality. Desperately groping for solutions elicits nervous system functioning that exists in our bodies for times when we are trapped by a predator. When facing predators, we first shoot into fight-or-flight response. Fight/flight offers short-term superhuman ability, but that energy is not sustainable. When we are not able to create solutions by desperate fighting or fleeing, we shut down bodily functioning. We move into dissociative states resulting in a lack of presence.

New Scientific Understanding

Our nervous systems do not offer a mid-level functioning between fight/flight and shutdown. If we are facing a predator, we want to bounce back and forth between between short-term fight-to-the-death motivation and a hopeless-feeling lack of motivation. We want to have superhuman bursts of fighting-fleeing attempts and the kind of lack of presence that could make a predator lose interest.

However, short-term hyperfunctioning is only worth the resulting depletion of energy reserves in dire circumstances.  Fight/flight often results in the body’s shutting down to create a lack of presence that makes death less painful when it finally comes. Neither of these states are a sustainable way to live—only a way to survive and eventually die.

Creativity Coaching

Because science helps us have a more accurate picture of our nervous system functioning, we can now encourage clients out of plague mentality and into renaissance mentality. Creativity energy builds when we use the nervous system functioning that exists in our bodies for times when we sense safety—times when we know predators are out there somewhere in the forest but those predators are not infringing on our habitat presently.

Coaches can invite nervous system functioning that makes space for creativity by:

  • Educating clients about the two different types of ups and downs—one for when we sense safety and the other for when we face life-threatening danger
  • Offering assurance that while failure brings a kind of loss, failure does not equal death
  • reminding clients that there is great value in letting go of some ideas in favor of other ideas
  • Inviting expression of feelings of disappointment, regrouping, and getting back to the drawing board, as they say with a kind of playful enlightenment that makes space for creativity

 In plague mentality, the brain shuts down. We cannot sort through ideas to determine the next steps on the inventive path. As we help clients sense that failure is not life-threatening, we invite renaissance mentality, opening space for the play that births creation.

dee wagner headshot

Dee Wagner

Dee Wagner, LPC, BC-DMT, has worked as a counselor and dance-movement therapist in Atlanta for 25 years. She presented on nervous system functioning at ICF Converge 2017 and was a regular contributor to the ICF Blog. Other articles appear in American Journal of Dance Therapy; Body, Movement and Dance in Psychotherapy; Voices: the Art and Science of Psychotherapy (American Academy of Psychotherapists); Elephant Journal and Asana International Yoga Journal. She is co-creator of the workbook Naked Online: A DoZen Ways to Grow from Internet Dating.

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

Comments (2)

  1. says:

    Interesting distinction albeit binary. What similarities and differences are you noticing about when you draw in this in the counselling context (bio lists you as a counsellor) and in the coaching context (title)? Any ideas about the implications for tend and befriend response (oxytocin)?

  2. Dee Wagner says:

    With counseling clients, it is possible to invite a more a nuanced appreciation of how trauma response can be triggered. We know from Levine’s trauma understanding, that we wake up Shut-down states with a burst of Fight/Flight and that moves us out of the nervous system functioning that invites creativity. As a coach, I offer information about nervous system functioning to help clients have patience with themselves when uninformed bosses try to push them into functioning that makes creativity very difficult. I also help managers understand how they can be crunched between bosses that demand results and employees that need space in order to be creative. “Tend and befriend” is Renaissance mentality, which Porges calls Social Engagement system functioning—day-to-day sympathetic regulated by the ventral vagus nerve. And, yes, the neuropeptide oxytocin is key in Social Engagement system functioning! At any work level, an understanding of nervous system functioning can invite empathy that boosts oxytocin.

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