I slowed time with my central nervous system

Squaw Valley from the Tram

I had a very strange experience this weekend. At one point, I had the distinct feeling that I had slowed down time, or at least, I had radically changed my perception of time (after all, isn’t that really what we are talking about?)

How did I manage this time warping effect? It involved breathing, and skiing.

I was up on the slopes of Squaw Valley, and one of the chair lifts was broken, which meant that I had to find another way back to the top of the High Camp where I was meeting my family for lunch. The solution was to jump on a different chair lift, which got my above the lunch spot, and the path down was steep for a beginner like myself.

Fortunately, the steep downhill was on a very wide and open area, and I could see that it dipped down and then came up at the bottom. This meant that I could go straight down, and as long as I stayed calm, I would come to a natural stop once I was going back uphill again.

I told myself “you can do this, just don’t flinch”. I prepared myself to lean forward into the ski boots and to *not* lean back at any time. Just stay balanced, leaning forward, and relaxed. And, then I went for it. The steepest part was right at the beginning, and I quickly felt like I was going waaaay too fast. My mind was racing with thoughts such as:

  • “If I fall, this is really going to hurt!”
  • “I am out of control!”
  • “I don’t know how to handle this”

And, I was fighting those demons with “keep calm, lean forward, relax”.

At this point I thought I would try my meditation / heart rate variability practice and I took some deep breaths. That is when it happened. That feeling of break neck speed went away, and it was as though I had instantly slowed down and was in control, even though I know that my velocity was still full pelt (relative to my experience, not to Bodie Miller ;). It was an amazing feeling!

The heart rate variability practice that I mentioned above relates to the Heart Math Inner Balance HRV system that I use. It gives me feedback on my heart rate variability and thus trains me to get into a certain zone. It has been incredibly useful (e.g. if frustrated in a meeting at work, I will do the practice to calm myself down).

The importance of getting the balance right with your two nervous systems seems critical, and is something I never used to think about. Over the years my metabolic syndrome was causing my systems to fire like crazy and I am sure I was in “fight or flight” all the darn time.

I have been wondering how I can use the fact that I have an increasing control of my nervous system through training, and this skiing incident got my thinking again. Can I calm myself (and stop the sympathetic system) to let me take more control?

When I think about freaking out about going at speed when skiing, you can understand why. It isn’t the speed, it is the control. When I was driving home from Tahoe at 70 miles an hour (a lot faster than on skis!) I was very much calm because my subconscious knows how to drive. My system wasn’t worried about it, even though it is still “dangerous” no matter how good a drive you are. You have gotten a perception of your control over a situation and are calm and ready for action. As a beginner, my subconscious hasn’t gotten the habits needed to automatically know how to keep myself safe. my conscious mind is still having to say:

  • “hey mate, I know it seems weird, but put weight on your downhill foot to not fall down the hill!”
  • “lean forward more to slow down!”
  • “put more weight on the left to go right!”

With the ski run, I had worked out that all I needed to do to be safe was to not freak out, so calming myself was all that I needed to a) be safe and b) enjoy the ride. It isn’t that there isn’t a valid reason to have your nervous system kick the fight or flight systems into gear and get alertness to 11, but in this case it wasn’t needed.

I am going to continue to experiment with this. In fact, I did so again on the same trip. I have suffered from vertigo in the past. I hated heights. Once in Park City I made my wife walk down a mountain because I couldn’t handle the cable car. At Squaw Valley you get to take a tram to the lunch spot that I mentioned. Steep. It swings at points. You can fit the Washington Monument under you at the highest point on the ride. This would have made me sweat in the past. But not this time. I accepted the facts:

  • I didn’t have control over anything such as the tram falling to the ground
  • The odds of that happening were incredibly low (the drive to Tahoe was much worse odds for casualty)

And, I enjoyed the ride…. as I plan to do for many other new experiences in the future.

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