Have you ever been in the studio and started doing something that you’ve done before, but suddenly it feels like the teacher is speaking Greek? Like you’ve never encountered this movement pattern before… and it’s really hard?
Did your body just forget? Did you suddenly get weaker? Did your muscles lose their memory? Have I just lost my mojo?
No, my friend, that situation is when I know my threat bucket hath runneth over. And never fear, it doesn’t mean you’ve regressed and will never be able to do it again.
Or maybe the opposite happens. You go to pick up the 5 lb weights as usual and think, “How are these so light? I can easily do 8 lbs today.” Awesome! Your threat bucket is lower than usual and you’re able to take on more.
What is this threat bucket? It’s a framework for understanding how your nervous system interprets and responds to stress — whether that stress is real, imagined, or somewhere in between. Basically, it’s when your brain has decided it’s reached it’s capacity for ignoring unconscious pain or threats and finally let’s you know.
You see, pain actually lives in the brain, not the tissue. Pain is an output of the brain designed to protect you. Getting smacked in the head is only painful if your brain says so based on all the information sent from neural signals.
If something really big happens, like you’ve been bitten by a poisonous snake, your body sends signals to the brain. If the brain thinks it’s important enough, you’ll feel pain. It the brain decides it’s not really important (like it thinks it was just a twig brushing your leg), you may not even feel it. (I know, sounds crazy, but it’s true! Watch this video for an enlightening tale.)
But it’s not just the big stuff. Chronic stress or inflammation can be sources a pain. So can a poor diet, lack of sleep, poor balance, etc. It often occurs below the pain threshold, meaning the brain doesn’t make us aware that it is happening. But it is another drop in the threat bucket.
Here’s the idea. The brain needs to reach a certain threshold before it sends pain signals to the body. All the systems in our body communicate with the brain through neural input. As signals from multiple systems tell our brain there are problems, we can think of this as a bucket filling up with water.
BUT, signals telling us of a problem won’t be sent until the level of water reaches the spigot on the bucket. The brain will then try to get our body back into homeostasis, or a state of balance. This can include unexplained pain, nausea, or headaches, asking us to slow down. It can also limit our output or our overall performance with decreased range of motion, decreased coordination, decreased strength, etc. because the brain does not feel “safe” to perform the task at optimal levels.
When our threat levels are low, our body and brain perform better. When they reach the level of consciousness, we notice pain, brain fog, or poor performance. If it gets to the point where the bucket is overflowing, we may become ill, have poor digestion, or experience depression
So what can you do? It’s time to try and remove some of the threats from our bucket. If there is no actual snake (ie injury) this probably means calming our nervous system. I’ve written about many ways to do this: completing the stress cycle, breathing, hook-ups, walking, talking with friends, hobbies, and nature.
Let’s also include something new for your brain to help increase your parasympathetic system response. Humming or singing to yourself (even quietly) creates vibrations that massage the section of the vagus nerve near your vocal chords. Activating your vagus nerve turns off your fight or flight reflex. It tells your brain and heart to calm down. It triggers the release of feel-good neurotransmitters including oxytocin to promote feelings of relaxation. And it tells your body to rest and digest.
Stay tuned for more ways to turn down the knob on the flow of threats into the bucket!