Meet Mark

Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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November 11 2018

Sunday With Sisson

By Mark Sisson
27 Comments

Hi, everyone. Hope you’re enjoying your Sunday morning. For those of you accustomed to receiving Sunday With Sisson in your inbox, I wanted to give you a heads up that the team and I are making some changes (just technical) with the newsletter and “Sunday With Sisson” for just a few weeks. Some of you may notice some temporary interruption in your email delivery from MDA. It’s all part of upgrading our systems. Unfortunately, there’s never a good time for these things.

In the meantime, I’ll be posting “Sunday With Sisson” letters each Sunday on the blog until we’re back to our full mailing capacity. Enjoy, and—as always—thanks for joining me here. 

Good morning, folks,

I’ve been thinking about our two main nervous systems: the central nervous system and the autonomic nervous system.

Regular waking conscious experience is controlled by our central nervous system. It’s the overseer or the director or the pilot (even if you subscribe to the idea that this effect of “controlling” your actions is an illusion, it feels like it).

But then there’s another system that lies underneath our conscious experience—the autonomic nervous system. The ANS regulates all the automatic and subconscious functions in the body, like breathing, heart rate, sexual arousal, stress, fear, and elation. These are the things we’re aware of but can’t directly control. We experience sexual arousal but can’t just will it to occur. It happens to us.

And our autonomic nervous system is always watching us….

Say we spend a few weeks mulling over a big decision, like asking for a raise, quitting a job, or pursuing a new business venture. At the end of the day, however, we decide to stay the course and forgo the risk.

Or maybe we want to approach that attractive man or woman, but ultimately we do not.

What is our ANS learning about us?

When you’re faced with a scary decision or situation and you shrink, your ANS learns that you’re weak, afraid, and lesser than the thing that scared you. Any future encounters with scary things will be even scarier, because your ANS has adapted to your decision. It just wants to keep you safe. If you shrunk away from the job interview or pretty woman or hard workout, it’s going to assume that you did so out of self-preservation. The next time you see a woman or man you like or want to change your profession or get back in the gym, it’s going to be even harder to go through with it.

Small decisions don’t escape the ANS either. If you pause over the donuts in the break room for a few seconds, thinking about how much you shouldn’t eat the maple bar, and then grab and devour the maple bar, you just sent a very strong message to your ANS:

This guy can’t resist maple bars. He loves maple bars. They’re probably good for him. He should eat maple bars all the time.

And then it gets much harder to resist the maple bar in the future.

What if we could reframe our decisions this way? What if, for this week, we could see each choice, each temptation, each opportunity as a means to calibrate our ANS. I wonder what the payoff could be if we chose to invest in a new psychological set point. We’re always one decision away from claiming a bolder version of ourselves.

Enjoy your Sunday, everybody.

Best,

Mark

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27 thoughts on “Sunday With Sisson”

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  1. I would like to see these musings remain as the new Sunday blog post, personally.

  2. Very interesting. I’ve often thought about that when I am altering my food or movement, and the times that I am really suffering and struggling with it, my results are poor. Makes more sense now. I’ve also continually experienced that when I am really staying true primal, that lizard brain of ‘want’ shuts up.

    Mark, you know I love you, but…I wish everyone would stop referring to women as girls, unless they actually are still girls. It seems a small thing, but to consciously make the change can be a powerful thing. Men & women. Boys & girls. Different.

    1. Thanks for mentioning that Colleen, once I was old enough to die for my country (17 in my case) “girl” just didn’t cut it anymore. I find that many women have to be reminded too.

  3. Mmm, fascinating – I love this mindset shift! I’d like to retrain my ANS about what this a threat and what is not, could be a powerful tool against anxiety!

  4. Lol. In the world of Christianity this is called practicing virtue. Virtues are habits that dispose us to doing good instead of evil, and they must be practiced. Nice to see secular and religious convergence.

    1. Agreed, though what I prefer about the secular point of view is that it comes without judgment about the actions and behaviors of the individual. It views them more as choices that could be beneficial or detrimental towards the individual’s long-term goals, and let the individual make their choice, guilt free, based on that knowledge and their own self-determined priorities.

  5. When my anxiety is really running away with me, I talk directly to my amygdala – “Ok amygdala, we are going to repeat that activity with or without anxiety, your choice.” It’s the only thing that really leads to a reduction in fear. It might still be a drag, but it’s a little less of a drag.

    1. Awesome idea! I’m going to try that too. I talk to parts of my body too, although often it’s like “sorry about last night, liver.” 🙂

  6. This may be the best thing I’ve ever read. I’m a little speechless. Not sure if it’s what I needed to hear or something we all needed to hear but it’s profound. I’m looking forward to implementing this advice. Thank you Mark!

  7. I’m guessing that he wants the email addresses so he can help market himself to everyone. Give him what he wants and he’ll give you his musings. 🙂

  8. Hi Mark – I love your emails. This one on our nervous system is great. I know I will be greater if I do something different (in the right direction).

    I noticed that you used the word “girl” twice. I assume that you meant some women over the age of 18 years old? I may be sensitive, but I wonder if men would use the word woman (or women) more than the word “girl” when they are referring to women that are over 18 years old, wouldn’t our world be just a little better? Just a thought.

    Brent

    1. Brent, a couple other readers mentioned it, too. I appreciate the feedback and just updated the post to reflect that. Best – M

  9. I think you can control sexual arousal with your imagination (i.e. fantasy). Would that be the Central nervous system taking over for the ANS?

  10. Intriguing idea but would love evidence of ANS learning capability cited as per your usual style.

  11. I read about this a while back, each small decision making it easier and easier to make that decision again, and harder and harder to make the healthier decision. It was what I needed to get this reminder.
    I’ve been stressed as hell lately, more emotional than I’ve ever been in my life and never relaxing until my head hits the pillow when my 2 toddlers fall asleep at night.
    I also recently tried Dunkin Donuts new gluten free fudge brownies (mistake!), and became obsessed.
    Connecting these musings with my recent almost daily decision to eat 1-4 brownies in a sitting will perhaps make it easier to stop and think and make the harder decision (to *not* eat the brownie), so that next time, that same decision won’t be as hard.
    So thank you for this.
    🙂

  12. For me, it’s coffee. For years I couldn’t drink it at all except when traveling in Europe (don’t know what the difference is)
    Since I’ve reached advanced middle age (I’m 76). I’m able to drink 1 large mug. I want two of those. I’ve tried timing the second one at various times of day. Doesn’t work. When I have the second one, I get jitters and it interferes with sleep. I worship Sleep and all the blessings that a good night’s sleep bestows. Most days I cave to the cravings. What will today bring? Can I coax my ANS to work with me? It’s early yet. Maybe “Do or Don’t Do. . .There is no “try'” is worth trying. Thanks for the post and thank you for updating the girl/woman thing.

  13. I hate to be pedantic but the two main nervous systems are central and peripheral. The ANS is a subset of the peripheral nervous system and sometimes placed at an even lower classification level when PNS is divided into motor and somatic (afferent and efferent).