The Coherent Coach

by Jennifer Day

We don’t need research to show that when we are internally coherent, we feel physically and emotionally balanced, safe and in harmony; our brain works fast and accurately; ideas emerge naturally and effortlessly; we find the right words to say what we want to say; we can adapt easily to unforeseen events and we experience being what some would call "in the flow."

As coaches, we are familiar with this state in both ourselves and our clients. For those who would like some empirical evidence, I can tell you it is abundant! The lesser known side of that research shows that when we are internally incoherent or emotionally and physically out of balance, the brain does not function well at all! The insidious thing is that we are often not even aware that this is happening, because most of the time it is un-dramatic and caused by a phenomenon physicians call low-grade stress.

Low-grade stress is the result of a perpetual dose of small irritations, doubts or judgments that disturb the balance of the autonomic nervous system. Because the autonomic nervous system cannot distinguish between the various types of stimulation we are subjected to, our body’s response is the same whether we are faced with an unexpectedly irate client or a tiger on the loose.

When we perceive such a threat, a level of incoherence or disharmony is created in the heart, which sends messages back up to the brain to commence the stress-response, a natural process designed to defend against any perceived threat.

The "emotional brain" is activated in a "switching" of activity from the frontal lobes and neo-cortex (the intellectual, insightful, "thinking brain"), to the more reflexive responses of the limbic system or "emotional brain," as the body’s defense mechanisms (the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system) are initiated.

These responses include a release of various "stress" hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which cause a slowing or shutting down of the digestive system, shallowness of breath or "‘over-breathing," and increased heart rate and blood pressure. As well, by diverting the blood away from the stomach and skin to the muscles we gain more strength and energy, appropriate for a fight-or-flight situation, e.g., facing that tiger on the loose.

However, when a client for the fifth time tells us he has not implemented what he agreed to, or the computer freezes as we go to send a follow-up email we’ve worked on for the past half-hour, we may not enter into a state of full-blown fight-or-flight reaction. Typically however, we experience a reactive response—sometimes unconsciously—which will initiate a "stress alert" state, which is when the brain prepares the body for the fight-or flight response. This leads to un-discharged stress chemicals and muscle tension to build up. (Any anticipatory emotions such as anxiety, worry and frustration cause this "stress alert" response; all produce the same chemical reactions as being faced with a tiger!)

The stress response will eventually diminish if we use up the energy generated (physically fighting or fleeing!) or if we consciously relax and activate the autonomic nervous system's parasympathetic nervous system, designed to cool us down while allowing heart rate, blood pressure and oxygen levels to all return to normal.

Unfortunately, in most cases we neither physically defend ourselves nor do we consciously initiate a relaxation process, resulting in an on-off, on-off, on-off cycle that is similar to driving a car with one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake. (Imagine what would happen to a car if we drove it in such a way!)

Aside from the obvious damaging effects this can have on our health, it also makes our brains ineffective for any resourcefully complex pursuit such as coaching – being that our "thinking brain" has been partially switched off! Insidiously, if we are not even conscious of the presence of low-grade stress in our lives, we are of course equally un-aware of the negative effects of this oft-unnoticed, frequently sustained and usually unmanaged offensive to our emotional balance!

So, what to do about this? How do we ensure we are coherent coaches at all times? The first step is increasing your self-awareness, and the next step is self-management.

1. NOTICE your stress-response:

  • Where in your body do you take your stress?
  • Where in your body do you feel your emotions?
  • Where in your body do you hold tension?

Keep a small journal next to you and note down when you’re feeling uncomfortable. Next to your entry, write where in your body you’re feeling it.

A daily entry into your journal will likely increase your self-awareness within 2–3 weeks, and soon you’ll start to notice the tension in your body before you’re even aware you are having a reaction! Your body will begin to "speak" to you—or more accurately, you will start to hear it.

2. MANAGE your stress-response:

  • When you notice tension anywhere, consciously "let go" of the tension. For example, to release tension in your hands and arms, clench your fists tightly for a count of ten and then let go, allowing your fingers, hands and arms to go limp for ten seconds. Shake them lightly, imagining letting go of any excess tension remaining.
  • Take three slow, deep breaths, extending the exhale.
  • Open your chest and smile for the count of ten (even if you don’t feel like it!). Physically smiling will release endorphins that will eventually make you feel better.

To solidify your practice and integrate your learning, take time to notice how your brain works better when you’re feeling good and in a coherent state – how much smarter you are. Write down some examples of your thought patterns when you're feeling good.

When you get upset, jot down what you're thinking, and compare that with your earlier records. You'll have concrete proof of your brain's improved efficacy when you are relaxed and coherent.

Last but not least, habituate whatever works!


Jennifer Day, best-selling author and coach (since 1991), specializes in emotional intelligence and "in-the-moment" stress management. Founder/director of Applied Emotional Mastery Inc., her most recent book BEING WHAT YOU WANT TO SEE – Bringing Emotional Mastery Into Everyday Life is available from bookstores, and through

1 thought on “The Coherent Coach”

  1. WoW! What a coherent, informative teaching that also provides easy to do and effective practices. Thank you for the careful thought I sense you put into writing and sharing this wisdom, Jennifer – through the clarity in your writing, I have learned with ease. In fact, I just put some of your practices into effect with a client, minutes after reading this 🙂
    with my appreciation, Catherine Miller

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