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@Clues 2024
"You don't actually experience the world—instead, you filter reality through the state of your nervous system."
Jonny Miller

Who is Jonny Miller? 

Jonny Miller is an entrepreneur, teacher, podcast host, and an expert in nervous system management for high-performs such as entrepreneurs, executives, and busy professionals. His journey toward nervous system mastery stemmed from his personal experience as an entrepreneur, and also from a tragic loss in his life.

In 2017, Jonny's fiancée suffered from an anxiety attack — the changes in her brain chemistry in that moment led her to the misguided conclusion that she needed to take her own life.

Since then, Jonny has come to believe that if she and others like her had known about and had access to self-regulation practices, these tragedies could be avoided.

In the years since, Jonny has co-authored the comprehensive Emotional Resilience in Leadership Report with Jan Chipchase, and spent thousands of cumulative hours researching, training & mentoring high-performers and professionals — from the CEO of a rocket-launch company to startup founders recovering from burnout as well as busy parents, early-stage solopreneurs & school-teachers.

He is also the creator of the Nervous System Mastery course where he has taught hundreds of high-achievers and entrepreneurs how to rewire their neurobiology with evidence-backed protocols. This course educates and equips people with a personal toolkit to cultivate calm, upgrade resilience & increase their daily sense of aliveness.

Previous students of Nervous System Mastery have included professionals hailing from Slack, Google, Automattic, Facebook, Twitter, IDEO, Salesforce, Amazon, Polygon, Youtube, Meta, Microsoft, Apple, Paramount, Adobe, Calm Company Fund & Harvard Business School.

Additionally, he is a Founder and Researcher at Curious Humans where they facilitate masterclasses, coaching services & retreats for founders of high-growth startups, ambitious executives and those operating in fast paced environments seeking to invest in their resiliency. He also hosts the Curious Humans podcast and writes an excellent monthly newsletter.

What are his core ideas and contributions?

Jonny believes that the attention you devote to the world is far more than a casual act; it's a deep ethical commitment.

For him, envisioning the nervous system like a sublime musical composition to which you carefully listen alters the entire game. In his view, this kind of focused listening actually transforms the texture of your nervous system.

Jonny is driven by a central idea: Your grasp of reality is profoundly shaped by the quality of your attention. And that attention is intrinsically tied to your nervous system, which thrives when you stop dwelling on your thoughts and start connecting with your body's sensations.

Why does Jonny find this crucial? He notices that many people feel the world is fractured and headed in the wrong direction. Yet, they rarely contemplate how they themselves might be part of the problem. While he concedes that societal education has been lacking in this aspect, he's convinced that a lot of our negative behaviors—like acting out of unconscious anger or lacking empathy—are rooted in a collective inability to regulate our nervous systems.

For Jonny, when we all take full responsibility for our emotional state and actively participate in practices that re-anchor us—down to our neural wiring—we're not just self-improving. We're taking a substantial step toward knitting society back together and fostering planetary healing.

There is a "how to" manual for our nervous systems that we can all learn

My guess is that no-one ever taught you how your nervous system really works... let alone that with training you can learn to consciously control it.

According to Jonny (and others many others including experts like Gabor Maté) we live in a broken culture that traps us in co-dependant addictive cycles – meaning we are addicted consumers of various external substances, pills or products promising to change our state.

Why are we trapped? Because no-one taught us the art & science of 'interoception' — meaning your capacity to experience our inner-landscape & consciously self-regulate.

Worse still, prolonged periods of high-stress causes 'allostatic overload' to accumulate—this increases the fragility of our nervous system leading to anxiety, exhaustion & ultimately burnout.

Walking this path of truly mastering your nervous system means feeling in total control of your internal fuel system — either pressing your foot on the gas pedal or recovering from intense output — whatever the moment requires.

We can nourish our nervous systems through daily practice

Jonny also teaches that there are methods we can utilize to maintain a healthy nervous system. One particularly powerful method is knows as Non-Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR).

This method employs a strategy of guided body scanning to usher you into what's referred to as a "hypnagogic" state—a kind of limbo between waking and sleeping.

One underrated advantage of NSDR is its ability to heighten your "interoceptive" awareness—that is, your skill at sensing and understanding what's happening inside your body.

In Jonny's experience, this has been an invaluable tool, particularly when he is feeling drained or overwhelmed. One reason it works so well is that it doesn't ask much of you in terms of effort—making it easier to commit to than other practices.

If you were to examine your brain waves while doing NSDR, you'd notice a quick transition from active "beta" waves to more relaxed "alpha" waves, eventually teetering on the brink between the two. It's like walking on a tightrope where your body is essentially at rest, but your mind remains alert.

A study spanning three months involved 60 college professors, both male and female, aged 30 to 55. The results indicated that NSDR was particularly effective at alleviating both mental and physical signs of anxiety.

Moreover, NSDR has been proven to help clear stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine (also known as adrenaline) from your system. This is beneficial not only for calming you down but also for boosting your interoceptive sensitivity.

There is an art and science to Interoception, which is self-awareness through inward-facing senses

Imagine being able to fine-tune your life experience like you're shifting from watching an old black-and-white TV to a 4K IMAX movie. That's the essence of interoception, an almost secret key to self-awareness most people haven't even heard of.

So, what is 'interoception'? Well, it's not one of Aristotle's classic five senses—touch, taste, sight, smell, sound. Modern neuroscience has expanded that list, with interoception being perhaps the most practical yet under-recognized. It's the skill of sensing what's going on inside you, from your thoughts and feelings to your biological cues.

Your brain's insula plays a central role in this. Think of it as an ancient map with unexplored areas marked as "here be dragons." Interoception is your tool for charting those unknown territories, making you more responsive to your inner signals and ultimately enhancing your well-being.

Three reasons why you should care about interoception:

  1. Make Smarter Choices: With better internal awareness, you can heed your body's cues—like feeling the need to rest—rather than overwork yourself into exhaustion.
  2. Dodge Burnout: Jonny's own research shows that leaders who ignore their inner state are more prone to stress and eventually burnout.
  3. Boost Productivity and Emotional Stability: Being in tune with your inner state helps regulate emotions, which directly impacts how effective you are in your day-to-day tasks.

So, how to get started? Jonny has a practice he calls A.P.E. for Awareness, Posture, and Emotion. Just a few minutes each day can set you on the path to sharpening your internal senses.

  • Awareness: While reading this, have you been aware of your surroundings? Are you alert or sleepy? Focused or scatterbrained?
  • Posture: How are you sitting right now? Check for any tension in your upper body, from your jaw down to your breath.
  • Emotion: Think of yourself as a body-weatherman. What's the emotional forecast right now? Happy, sad, anxious?

Mastering interoception through practices like A.P.E. can have lasting positive impacts on your life. The neuroplastic changes it brings about will make you more receptive to your body's signals—like upgrading your internal hardware for better performance.

Emotional literacy is essential to quality decision-making

In Jonny's experience as an executive coach, he often hears startup founders say, "My emotions mess with my decision-making skills." There's this widespread belief, especially in the tech world, that being rational and logical is better than being emotionally driven.

Wouldn't life be simpler if that were true? Emotions can be complicated and sometimes even blur our thinking. Even the brightest minds in neuroscience are scratching their heads trying to fully understand emotions.

However, modern research suggests that these so-called "irrational" emotions are essential for making even the most basic decisions in our daily lives. When you're running a startup, you're in the decision-making business, and emotions are a crucial part of that.

So, where do these emotions physically originate? Recent neuroscience research suggests that emotions are born out of bodily sensations and the context in which they occur. A study in Finland got people to draw 'body maps,' showing where they felt different emotions. Researchers discovered that certain emotions consistently activated the same bodily areas, whether the subjects were from Western Europe or Taiwan.

These findings point out that emotions are a dynamic interaction between body and mind, with some shared experience across cultures.

Jonny poses the question: Do these 'body maps' resonate with what you've felt?

Now, here's the kicker. Studies have revealed that emotions are a two-way street between your brain and your body. In Jonny's work with somatic and breathwork methods, he's noticed that psychological or physiological barriers can disrupt this emotional flow, keeping it confined to the mind.

This is crucial because if emotions are stuck in your head, they'll be judged based on your past experiences rather than the reality of your bodily response. In coaching, this is called "emotional looping," a state where you get hung up on the narrative of what happened and ignore bodily sensations like chest tightness or a sinking feeling in your stomach.

Founders who break free from these emotional loops find decision-making much smoother. They don't just think; they feel.

In addition to that, resisting emotions leads to avoidance behaviors. For instance, if a founder avoids the discomfort of anger or frustration, they'll dodge situations that require confrontation—such as giving constructive criticism. By ignoring difficult emotions like sadness or guilt, they might hold onto underperforming employees, which can be detrimental to the company in the long run.

One of Jonny's mentors, Joe Hudson, adds an extra layer with his "Golden Algorithm." It posits that every problem you face is tied to an emotion you're avoiding. Dodging that emotion tends to magnify the problem.

Emotional debt builds up and we can learn to release it

Emotional debt is a concept as real and sticky as technical debt in the startup world. You know, when code is hastily put together and comes back to haunt you later? Something similar happens with our emotions and our nervous systems.

We often stuff down our feelings during high-stress situations, planning to deal with them "later." But if later never comes, we end up with emotional debt that can lead to burnout or even harm our bodies.

What does emotional debt feel like? Imagine getting fired or your startup tanking. You're numb at first, adrenaline kicking in. You only really "feel" when you're safe at home. This is an ancient survival mechanism; even an impala shakes off stress after escaping a predator. It's about completing a "mobilization response," a fancy term to say we're wired to release stored emotional energy.

But modern life has messed this up. We're so out of touch with this natural cycle that we're stuck in states of high anxiety or emotional numbness. This is scientifically called "allostatic overload," and it's like flooring the gas pedal while the emergency brake is on—lots of wasted energy, showing up as anxiety or other health issues.

So, how to deal with emotional debt? In Jonny's coaching experience, the key is letting go of control and allowing emotions to flow. It's like emotional surfing. You find a safe space, tune into your body, get curious about what you're feeling, and let it evolve. This might result in a sigh, tears, or even laughter—just let it happen.

If you're really stuck, consider a somatic practitioner, someone trained to help you tune into and release these emotional blockages. Look for methods like "somatic experiencing," "Hakomi," or "conscious connected breathwork" and you'll discover professionals that specialize in these methods.

How might I apply his ideas to myself?

Here's how to use Jonny's insights to navigate through the fog of exhaustion and emotional toll.

Emotional Debt: Your Nervous System's "IOU"

First, understand the concept of emotional debt. It's like technical debt in coding; shortcuts today lead to problems tomorrow. You might be pushing stress and emotions aside to meet deadlines and hit goals. While this 'buffering' works in the short term, it piles up. And just like how a financial debt accrues interest, this emotional debt starts to tax your well-being.

Your Action Plan: Start being aware of the moments you're pushing emotions aside. Don't chastise yourself for it, just note it. Allocate "emotional repayment" time in your schedule—be it through therapy, meditation, breathwork or simply quiet contemplation.

Allostatic Overload: Your Body's Stress Budget

Science labels this emotional debt as "allostatic overload." Your system floods with adrenaline, your energy expenditure shoots up, but the stress isn't necessarily being 'used up' in any meaningful way. It’s like your body’s gas pedal is stuck, but you're not going anywhere.

Your Action Plan: Consider biofeedback tools or wearable tech that can monitor stress indicators like heart rate variability. Recognize your triggers and signs of overload, and when you spot them, engage in relaxation techniques or various forms of exercise to "pay down" this physiological debt.

Release Techniques: Emotional Mastery 101

Letting out this pent-up stress isn't as straightforward as venting to a friend over drinks (although that can help, too). You'll want to go deeper, tapping into practices like "somatic surfing". This technique involves tuning into your body's sensations related to your emotional state, observing them without judgment, and allowing them to naturally flow until they resolve.

Your Action Plan: Choose a quiet and safe space. Walk yourself through the somatic surfing steps, giving yourself the time and space to process your emotions fully. Feeling your feelings is a critical part of the 'emotional repayment' process.

Professional Guidance: The Road to Resilience

If emotional debt has accumulated to a point where you feel overwhelmed, consider seeking professional help. There are therapists who specialize in somatic experiencing, Hakomi, and conscious connected breathwork—modalities aimed at helping you release stored emotional debt.

Your Action Plan: Take the time to find a skilled practitioner. Look for someone with at least three to five years of experience and whose approach resonates with you. Remember, this is an investment in your well-being, and the ROI can be immense.

You're used to performance metrics and deadlines. Think of these steps as your "emotional KPIs," metrics to ensure you're on the path to emotional and psychological well-being. Integrating these practices might not show immediate results on a balance sheet, but you'll feel the difference in your stress levels, clarity, and overall zest for life.

Writing, Interviews, Research, and Lectures

Jonny has produced a litany of useful guides, interviews and lectures. Below are some worth checking out:

  • The Emotional Resilience wiki, which is a crowd-sourced collection of tools and resource on developing emotional resilience
  • Jonny can also be found on Twitter and LinkedIn to follow along as he creates more useful tools and information. You can also subscribe to his podcast and newsletter.

Jonny also gave an excellent talk ‍at TEDx Ubud on The Gifts of Grief.

Other figures you may be interested in

  • Stephen Porges: A pioneering researcher in the field of psychophysiology, Stephen Porges is known for his Polyvagal Theory, which describes how the vagus nerve contributes to our emotional and social behavior. His work provides a foundational understanding of how the nervous system is key to emotional regulation and well-being.
  • Bessel van der Kolk: A psychiatrist primarily known for his work on trauma and PTSD, Bessel van der Kolk has extensively researched how trauma affects the nervous system. He advocates for holistic approaches to healing that include the body as well as the mind, such as yoga and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing).
  • Peter Levine: Known for developing Somatic Experiencing, a body-oriented approach to healing trauma, Peter Levine's work focuses on how the nervous system holds onto traumatic experiences and how one can release this tension for overall well-being.
  • Dan Siegel: A clinical professor of psychiatry, Dan Siegel is known for his work on the developing mind and interpersonal neurobiology. He explores how mindfulness practices can regulate the autonomic nervous system, helping with emotional balance and relational well-being.
  • Richard Davidson: A neuroscientist and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds, Richard Davidson researches brain circuits involved in emotion and attention. His work shows how mindfulness and meditation can help manage the nervous system, improving emotional well-being.
  • Wim Hof: Known as "The Iceman," Wim Hof has gained international fame for his breathing techniques, combined with cold exposure, to control the autonomic nervous system. His methods claim to improve well-being, reduce stress, and enhance physical performance.
  • Patrick McKeown: An expert in the Buteyko Breathing Method, Patrick McKeown focuses on how nasal breathing and controlled breaths can improve overall health. His work is especially relevant for people with respiratory issues, anxiety, and stress.
  • Max Strom: A teacher primarily known for his integration of breathwork in yoga, Max Strom has developed breathing exercises aimed at reducing stress and anxiety, improving sleep, and enhancing emotional well-being.
  • Dr. Andrew Weil: A well-known integrative medicine pioneer, Dr. Weil advocates for the "4-7-8" breathing technique, among others. His work emphasizes how controlled breathing can manage stress, improve digestion, and promote relaxation.
  • Dan Brulé: A leading expert and teacher in the art and science of breathwork, Dan Brulé has trained people worldwide in the use of conscious breathing for personal growth, stress release, and improved well-being.