Rewiring our Nervous System to Evolve with Dr. Steve Hotz


What is the distinct ability you need to harness in order to expand, grow and evolve as a leader?

Not only for yourself, but for your team as well.

The answer? It’s having the ability to understand the connections and patterns within our mind to past (and current) stories that keep us at a standstill. It becomes a choice to take those stories and transform them into powerful lessons of growth and possibility.

In this episode, Dr. Steve Hotz joins me for an empowering conversation about understanding our nervous system, its role in our personal and professional growth, and how we can leverage tactics to rewire our mind to become even more empowered versions of ourselves.

Dr. Steve Hotz

Dr. Steve Hotz is a clinical and health psychologist with deep roots in community medicine and population health. In addition to his academic career and clinical practice, he has worked and consulted in continuing professional development for health care providers from many disciplines on such topics as motivation, health behaviour change, and treatment adherence. His clinical work incorporates interpersonal neurobiology, neuroplasticity, attachment, and approaches to change and growth that utilize the potential of knowledge in these areas.


We talk about:

  • [4:10] Our history working together

  • [8:25] The impact of our life circumstances based on endured trauma

  • [11:20] Our nervous system and its impact on our safety and emotional state

  • [18:35] The research behind ‘vulnerability’

  • [21:40] The acceptance of trauma and vulnerability

  • [22:40] Cognitive exercises of creating safety

  • [25:10] Co-regulating as leaders

  • [30:25] Being open to our own vulnerability and experiences

  • [38:45] Going into sympathetic overdrive

  • [43:00] Rewiring our desire for balance

  • [45:30] Getting in touch with your inner experience

  • [52:30] A moment that was very uncomfortable, yet full of tremendous insight about himself

  • [55:45] A practice or ritual that keeps him in a calm or regulated state

  • [58:20] A song or genre of music that makes him feel connected to others or part of something bigger than himself

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Dr. Steve Hotz: I call a certain kind of vulnerability, openness because how do we grow? How do we deal with things? How do we resolve things? We’re open to our experience, and then we kind of update our experience. What happens with trauma is that the idea of us walking around being open to life experience and trusting that it’s safe to do so, gets hammered.

By the trauma, and so then vulnerability then becomes equated deep in our nervous system, literally with something that’s terrifying. 

Carolyn Swora: Dr. Steve Hotz is a clinical and health psychologist with deep roots in community medicine and population health. In addition to his academic career in clinical practice, he has worked and consulted in continuing professional development for healthcare providers from many disciplines on such topics as motivation, health, behavior change, and treatment adherence.

His clinical work incorporates interpersonal neurobiology, neuroplasticity attachment, and approaches to change and growth that utilize the potential of knowledge in these areas.

23 years ago, Dr. Steve Hots and I worked on some behavior change programs for family physicians. Little did I know. That that work with him would lay such an important foundation for me. And little did I know that 23 years later, he would be reading a book of mine about trauma-informed leadership. I’m really excited for you to hear this conversation that I have with Dr.

Steve Hotz. He is a psychologist that will bring further insight into our body, our body’s nervous system. We’ll explore some general definitions of trauma and why our nervous system is such an important leadership tool. I hope you all enjoy this conversation. 

Dr. Steve Hotz: Welcome to Evolve a new era of leadership, a podcast for real leaders to join real conversations with business experts, practitioners thought leaders, and change makers who integrate head, heart, and body in all they do, who commit to compassion and curiosity, who commit to radical self-leadership in their quest to understand others better too.

Because the only way to deliver real results is to understand what it takes to lead real human beings. This is a new era of leadership.

Carolyn Swora: I am Carolyn. And this is Evolve a new era of leadership. Welcome, evolve listeners to another episode. I’m Carolyn Swearer, your host. And today’s guest. I’m really excited to have Dr. Steve Hotz in the house. Hey Steve. Welcome. Hey 

Dr. Steve Hotz: Carolyn. How you doing? I didn’t 

Carolyn Swora: call you doctor. Is that okay? Is that okay if I went straight to Steve?

I think you did call me Doctor. I did, but I called you Steve when I said Hey, Steve. Yeah, that’s perfect. Alright, good. All right. I do, you know, you’ve got all this incredible experience. I didn’t wanna like rush over it and I’m so excited to have you on our podcast today for a few reasons. It’s great to reconnect.

’cause you know, 20, how many years ago was it? 23 years ago. 23 years ago was our initial connection in life and it’s been about 20 years since we’ve really. Talked a lot, but you came back into my world through a good friend of mine and I asked you to read a copy of my book before it was released. So evolve the path to trauma informed leadership.

I was very honored that you agreed to read it and then that led to me inviting you on the podcast. Podcast. And so here we are. Mm-hmm. 

Dr. Steve Hotz: Mm-hmm. And I’m so glad you sent me that copy to read. ’cause you know, when we did work together in the past, there was something so different about you ’cause you were so dialed in.

To people’s experience and the process of how we engage with another, especially in professional roles and in roles as healthcare providers and clients. Or patients, right. And then to, to read the book, to understand your journey and to see how you kind of just grew from what you were thinking when we worked together to today.

That was just astonishing and so nice to be able 

Carolyn Swora: to read. It was a very unexpected reconnection for you and I. Mm-hmm. I have to say, and thank you for saying that. ’cause I didn’t know 23 years ago here I was working in a large pharma company and I really felt like a fish out of water. But when I look back upon my 17 years there, it was such an amazing, I’ll say playground to learn and see people and high performing, intelligent, smart, well-intentioned people and.

I ended up getting my master’s after I left pharma, and one of the main thesis questions that I worked with for my master’s paper was, why aren’t we able to be our authentic self? I’ll just use that word authentic, but I had some different terminology when I was writing my paper. Why can’t we be who we really are when we’re amongst other people?

So I find it fascinating that you saw that way back when, ’cause it’s taken me a long time to figure out that that’s actually the space that I love and I wanna play even more in, 

Dr. Steve Hotz: well, you actually embodied that and that major project that we worked on together was really about exactly this. It’s about how do we take a group of really intelligent, thoughtful, skilled healthcare providers and kind of help them understand how they approach their patients.

Right. What is their basic stance? What are the basic assumptions they bring to those healing interactions? Right? ’cause they’re supposed to be healing helpful. Right. Interactions. We were working with physicians, not Yep. People in an antagonistic kind of situation or a conflictual situation. And one of the struggles was to actually help people appreciate these basic assumptions that they brought to their interactions.

And it was fascinating because at the very beginning, the work that we helped them do, they were getting in touch with all kinds of biases and all kinds of beliefs and unwritten rules that they used. Yeah. To decide what they were gonna do. And then we got feedback from our constituency saying that this was so amazing.

They wish they would’ve had this before. ’cause they’d never had an opportunity before to think about and identify what they brought into their interactions. 

Carolyn Swora: Right, right. And, and we didn’t use the word trauma informed. Not all way back then. So Steve, when did the notion of trauma informed healthcare or trauma informed care come into the field of medicine in a pretty regular sort of accepted way?

When would that have happened? 

Dr. Steve Hotz: I worked in public health and community medicine a lot, and that’s where I was at the time that you and I worked together. And I think that in the psychotherapeutic world, awareness of the importance of being trauma informed goes way back. Right? Mm-hmm. In terms of how we think about or how therapists think about.

Their own stuff and how that might affect the decisions that they make. Their ability to provide objective care to the people that they work with. Okay. Right. Yeah. And you know, to be able to sort out when there might be disruptions in therapeutic rapport, what accounts for that? And in the public health area, probably way back when people started looking at social inequities and health.

Hmm. There was this real understanding that people’s life circumstances literally imposed a burden of illness. Wow. If, right. And if people’s life circumstances were privileged and they didn’t endure big trauma or a lot of small traumas, you write about then their ability to, to to, to be regulated and make decisions that supported their health.

Seemed better, but people whose, you know, development or life thereafter included kinds of trauma that impacted them in ways that kind of made it so hard for them. They literally didn’t have the internal neurobiological resources. Right. To be able to make decisions that might support their wellbeing.

And that’s outside of however resourced they were in instrumental ways. Right, right, right. In terms of education, economic status, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And so I think in the mental health world and in the population health world, there really has been a long appreciation, but it’s been so hard ’cause of a whole bunch of cultural reasons for that to, I think break out of healthcare right into literally day-to-day life.


Carolyn Swora: That was my big aha. Through Covid, as I knew I wanted to write the second book, I wanted it to be more personal. At the beginning it was gonna be a love letter to my boys. It was gonna be all memoir. Mm-hmm. And it turned into a trauma-informed invitation for people. If you’re willing to explore some new ideas, come on in and have a look.

Right. And I do think there’s a real need for this because it’s been a really hard few years. I mean, 2020. Mm-hmm. Yes, there was the pandemic with C O V I D, but you know, racial injustice really became front and center. Wish it had come been front and center many, many decades before then. But that pause in life really.

Sha a spotlight. So, you know, a lot’s happened in the past few years and with that a lot of research and trauma has, has changed and evolved as well. So I think it’s time to be talking about how do we create care informed spaces in our workplaces or trauma informed 

Dr. Steve Hotz: workplaces. ’cause all those things that you just talked about, right.

The the big events outside of us, you know, be they global conflict, economic Yep. Problems, you know, pandemics, those things are like way out there, but they still come into our nervous systems. Exactly. Exactly right. And if we can appreciate that, that we are always being affected even when we sleep, and I’ll give you an example about that in a second.

We are, our nervous systems are always monitoring to detect signals. Of safety. Yep. Relative safety or relative threat. Right. Yeah. Always, always, always. So it doesn’t mean if we’re reading something, you know, in the news or if something’s happening down the street in our neighborhood, or if something’s happening in our backyard, or if something’s happening in my body.

Our nervous systems, yep. Are always scanning and monitoring and then something happens with that information. And depending on our ability to work with that, to work with what’s happening, our nervous system, that’s what really influences our level of adjustment and our outcomes. Absolutely. 

Carolyn Swora: So. Right. And you know, that’s another big message of of my book.

I mean, if I were to reword it or retitle it, it would be, Hey, your nervous system is a leadership tool. Like, let’s use this. You know what’s really interesting, Steve? I’m just piecing together the timeline. When we first started working together 23 years ago, it was, I was still pregnant. Right. I was pregnant with my first, correct.

Yeah. You were a lot of those years of difficulty, which I now can use the word trauma, those traumatic years mm-hmm. After my first son was born and losing his father and, and everything that happened in between you and I hadn’t worked together. And so I wonder what would’ve happened if we continued to work together, if you would’ve been a beacon of nervous system awareness for me, because I didn’t realize that my nervous system just went into hyper reactivity mode, and it was like sympathetic.

Overdrive. That sympathetic part of my nervous system just couldn’t shut down. 

Dr. Steve Hotz: Right. You, you just said you didn’t realize that. And I can tell you now that boy did I ever realize it. ’cause you were hard to keep up with. Really? Yeah. Yeah. You were really hard to keep up with. Right, right. And so I had to come up to your level and you know, there was that old, uh, commercial for some kind of cassette tape.

I think it was Maxile Tape or something like that. Oh that, yeah. And it was a guy in a wind. The guy in the wind tunnel. Yes. Yeah, there you go. So I was that guy. 

Carolyn Swora: Wow. Well, and you know, gosh, so not that we’re going to get into a therapy session here, but I have subsequently learned. My trauma just didn’t start when Paul got sick.

I definitely had more of it, but I wasn’t using that word trauma. And I guess that was another reason for this book is when you know more, there’s more research, you have more agency to understand. And so that’s my other hope with this book is that’s the thing to dispel and share a little bit of research.

Again, I’m not a trauma therapist. I’m somebody who’s interested in it, and I think that our leaders in our workplaces deserve to know some of this information at a very, you know, lay person’s level. Not medical detail, but enough to know like, Hey, there’s a part of my body that I actually can’t cognitively control.

I e your nervous system. There are things going on there that are going to impact how we relate to each other. I. 

Dr. Steve Hotz: They absolutely do. And you know, your contribution then when we started working together and now with Evolve, is that you know how to translate knowledge. You really know how to translate knowledge.

Right. And it’s such a passion for you and you appreciate that we are designed to evolve, like that’s one of our most fundamental and vital human resources. We are designed to evolve not just over the course of several thousand millennia, right. But we are designed to evolve day to day, week to week, month to month, year to year in our lives.

Yeah. But we need accurate insight and knowledge to be able to harness the power that we all possess in our nervous systems. Yes. Yeah. Like our nervous systems are designed to be responsive. They can respond by mobilizing us when there’s something complicated or difficult going on and they mobilize us to, to act and deal with that and help us survive.

But they’re also embedded in our nervous system is the restoration healing function as well. And so if you are out for a run and you’re running your 10 K or whatever it might be, and your, you know, heart rate, blood pressure, blood gases are not in a homeostasis anymore, right? Yeah. ’cause there’s all this effort you’re putting out and then you stop running and you don’t take a pill to come back into physical regulation, right?

Right. Your nervous system has been monitoring all that stuff and effects of your nervous system kick in and bring you back into a state of regulation. The same thing happens with regard to our emotional state. Yeah. If something happens to dysregulate us emotionally, our nervous system has branches and functions that kick in If we can access them and get some other things out of the way that kick in to allow us to come back into a state of regulation.

And the problem with trauma, bigger, small, acute, or recurrent, doesn’t matter. The problem with trauma is that it kind of makes it harder for us to go to and access that healing. Right? Right. And so when people grow and change and learn how to deal with past trauma, learn enough about themselves to know how their trauma, their own life experience is affecting how they are in the workplace, how they are with people that they’re engaged with, that then helps them shift.

That helps them change. Yep. And evolve in that way. So 

Carolyn Swora: last year, Dr. Gabor Mate released, I don’t know, he’s written a whole bunch of books, but his latest book called The Myth of Normal. Are you gonna hold it up? Look at that. That’s my 

Dr. Steve Hotz: autographed copy. 

Carolyn Swora: Get out. Really? Oh, I’m envious. I’ll have to talk about that with you after.

There you go. Yeah. I missed when he was here. I was hoping to, to visit. So do you agree with his work and his sort of stance that to be human is to have trauma? Oh, do you agree with that perspective? 

Dr. Steve Hotz: Absolutely. And isn’t it a state of profound social denial that we get caught up in so that we don’t appreciate that and it takes, you know, somebody who has spent most of his life Yeah.

Trying to get this message out there to kind of put it out there in a way that we can start to appreciate it. Yeah. 

Carolyn Swora: Yeah. Mm-hmm. Now, in the book, when you read it the first round, and I can’t remember if I told this to you when we first reconnected, but I had a real moment when I realized. There’s a block to vulnerability.

And so, you know, all of Brene Brown’s great research around vulnerability being such a superpower and such an important element of courageous leadership. This quote was something I experienced in a workshop with her and she said, one of the greatest casualties of trauma is the inability to be vulnerable.

Oh yeah. And that was a real moment where I think just clarity of, oh, this is it. Like this is me. This is the message that I would like to talk about more. And I know when we spoke, you had a different way to describe vulnerability, and I wondered if we could go there for a little bit. ’cause I loved how you described it.

It made it feel just a little less risky. But can you share with everyone, like what do you call vulnerability in your practice? 

Dr. Steve Hotz: I call a certain kind of vulnerability. Openness. Yeah. Can you say more about that? Yeah. Because how, how do we grow? How do we deal with things? How do we resolve things? We’re open to our experience and then we kind of update our experience.

What happens with trauma is that the idea of us walking around being open to life experience and trusting that it’s safe to do so, gets hammered by the trauma. Yeah. Right? And so then vulnerability then get, becomes equated deep in our nervous system, literally with something that’s terrifying, right? So of course there’s a block.

Of course there’s a block. But we evolve unless we’re open and can use our experience to get through things, deal with things, see our capability, become confident in our capability, right? We can’t. And so somehow we have to solve the problem of. Sense of vulnerability or openness being equated with terror.

You know, a friend in colleague of mine, a psychologist in Britain named Mark gte, came up with this really nice little phrase in a workshop that we did several months ago. He said, once we accept our vulnerability, it loses its power over us. Oh, once we accc, isn’t that awesome? That is, once we accept our vulnerability, it loses its power over us.

And if we just kind of riff on that for a little bit, it’s kind of like, well, it makes so much sense and it resonates with us right away, but what the heck is involved in accepting our vulnerability? It’s so existential and huge, isn’t it? It really is. Yeah. And I think it’s about when trauma is stored in our nervous system, it’s stored in a part of our memory that.

Has no time clock in calendar associated with it. Right. It’s subcortical emotional memory. Yep. And it’s sitting there kind of like waiting for any stimulus that’s related to it, to kind of open the gate. And we feel the emotion, we see things through the lens that, that trauma shaped for us. And of course we’re gonna keep on feeling vulnerable, but So what, what does the acceptance mean?

It actually means processing, it means kind of updating those old emotional memories, making the distinction between then and now and, and this is the key thing, finding ways to help our nervous system learn that even though that happened, we’re safe. We’re okay. 

Carolyn Swora: The, the, oh, there’s so many. I’m already excited to like, look at the transcription of this and, and use my highlighter.

I love highlighters. Finding ways to help make us safe. So I know in the corporate world, this notion of psychological health and safety has really Yeah. Become accepted. Thank you Amy Edmondson for that work. Thank you to all of those out there who you know, and especially our Canadian standard that we have.

Here’s what I’m noticing, Steve, is it’s a checkbox. It becomes a cognitive exercise. Mm-hmm. How do I create safety? What do I need to have in the room? What do I need to do? What are the check boxes? And again, what I hope to do with this book is to say, the best way to create safety for other people is to have awareness of your own.

Mm-hmm. Nervous system. Mm-hmm. Regulation. Mm-hmm. Uh, and that was, you know, when I was doing my research and looking at the work, it was Deb Dana’s work, actually, actually I have it just over here. It was like a deck of cards and like a visual thing. And this whole notion that every interaction we have with someone, our nervous system is E either saying safe or, Hmm, not too sure, or you know, that in some extreme cases might be like not comfortable.

That’s powerful stuff to help us as leaders recognize that we can have the greatest, and I’ll use myself as an example. I can have the greatest intentions, which I did when we worked together. I had no idea I was causing you or others around me to be in that wind tunnel at all. 

Dr. Steve Hotz: Oh, well, to your point, my nervous system in that wind tunnel didn’t experience it as a threat.

It experienced it as a challenge. Okay. And so, When something happens that’s sort of big and really stimulating and our nervous system gets aroused, our nervous system on the basis of what it’s learned is going to say, uhoh danger retreat. Go home. Yep. Or it’s gonna go, whoa, this is exciting. This is gonna take some energy.

But man, when I can see, right. That’s challenge. Right? That’s challenge. Which way it goes for us really depends on how our nervous system is tuned. Have I experienced things in my life that have made me kind of paint everything with a similar brush that things that kind of get caught up in the tailwind of something?

That’s something scary, it’s a threat. Or is there a prospect of something really good and interesting and exciting and positive for me here? Mm-hmm. And getting back to what you were talking about in terms of what a leader in the workplace can do other than be on autopilot and check off the boxes. Well, I think leaders can really start to understand something that we call co-regulation.

Carolyn Swora: Right. Do you wanna talk a little bit more about that? I mean, I know I talk about it in my book, but I’d like to hear your perspective. 

Dr. Steve Hotz: You certainly do. You certainly do. Yeah. And so to be healthy and just in adapt in a positive way in the world, our nervous system needs to be regulated. That means that we, it needs to be able to use all of its resources to support.

Us being in a good state of balance, no matter what’s going on, whether we are at the lake on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, being able just to chill and not worry about anything, or whether at the office and there’s a deadline coming up or resources that were promised to us aren’t there, or the key client all of a sudden does a turnabout and years of work hanging the ba, whatever.

Mm-hmm. Right. The situation is our nervous system needs to be able to keep us in a state of balance so that we have access to all our higher level resources and abilities and skills, our expertise. Right. Right. That ability for our nervous system to be regulated, develops from the time we’re really small through our childhoods.

If we’ve been lucky enough or fortunate enough to have had the experience of what we call co-regulation with someone who is there to support us, hold us. Not freak out, not get angry if something goes sideways or difficult because our nervous systems have this very important capacity that Deb Dana talks a lot about called Neuroception.

Yeah. So when we’re interacting with, with another, it’s not the words, it’s everything else that our subcortical senses are picking up that indicate to us whether this is safe and I’m safe. Yeah. And so essentially we learn to be regulated when we are in the presence and have lots of experience being in the presence of people who are with us, with their regulated nervous system.

Right. And this does not stop when childhood’s over. We need co-regulation throughout our whole lives. Anybody who. We can connect with when we’re struggling, when we’re not feeling well regulated, when we’re activated or being triggered or worried or anxious or down or whatever it might be. Right? Yep.

Being in the presence of somebody who has that calm, dialed in presence, literally our neuroception picks that up and our nervous system goes, ah, yeah. Right, right. Yeah. And so this, this is something that I think takes us from sort of the concept of a psychologically safe workplace into the practices that leaders can bring to their workplace to recognize that everybody that we work with is picking up a below awareness level through the oldest parts of their brain and nervous system.

If this is an okay situation, if it’s kind of like we’re unsure if it’s okay, or if it’s definitely not an okay situation, and then their behavior is gonna fall in line with what the deeper brain structures are telling them is going on. Right. Right. And then the signals that come in through those senses of ours then go upstairs and our neocortex makes up a little story for us to help us explain what’s going on.

Yep. And that story is gonna be, uh oh, here it goes again. Right. Yep. Or, this is gonna be Okay, we’re gonna work this out together. Yep. 

Carolyn Swora: Right. It’s almost like we have our own wifi signals going out all the time, constantly. Constantly. Constantly. And so, you know, we’ve talked about safety I wanna bring in here too is consistency.

Mm-hmm. Because we can’t just show up once and be like, okay, it’s all safe, everybody, and then just ignore it and come back. Like that consistency is going to help inform the story or the narrative that you just referred to. 

Dr. Steve Hotz: Right. It builds trust. Right. Right. The consistency builds trust, and when it’s random, the environment becomes even less psychologically safe.

Right. Because literally we feel comfortable, our brain is just a big prediction machine, right. It takes a whole bunch of data points and stores them and then says, okay, this situation with these features, it’s likely gonna go like this and therefore we should respond like that. Right, right, right. And when our brain gets confused, because the way that.

We are responded to, isn’t predictable enough, isn’t consistent enough, then we are on very thin ice and we’re very, and that’s when people’s sympathetic nervous systems in the workplace are always on. That was me, right. 

Carolyn Swora: There you go. So, oh, I could ask so many questions. Let me come back to this. So this openness to our own experience.

Mm-hmm. I’d like to circle back. Can you think that back to then the safety and what is going on in this old part of our brain? Tell me more about what you mean by that. You called vulnerability. Having openness to our own experience. So I guess mm-hmm. There are reasons why we might not be as open to our own experience as we might 

Dr. Steve Hotz: think.

Right? Yep. Because being open is, even in good circumstances, just a little bit scary and destabilizing because now unfamiliar territory, When there’s been trauma, being open to experience can make our brain feel like we’re wide open and and under high threat. Right. And so we’re gonna do whatever we can to make ourselves feel comfortable.

And that might mean we get defensive and push back. We get perfectionistic, we get controlling, we numb our emotions, we project blame onto other people. We get angry. 

Carolyn Swora: Right? All the things that go on in a day for us, 

Dr. Steve Hotz: you know, pretty much, which take energy. And the key thing I think for the workplace is gets in the way of trusting relationships.

Yeah. Where we feel that, you know, other people have our backs. You know, it’s not only in our intimate relationships where the embodiment that my partner has my back. Create safe connection, right? Yeah. Safe connection is like everywhere. It’s with your next door neighbor, it’s with your colleagues, it’s with your manager, it’s with like the leadership at the top of the executive ranks in your company.

It’s like it’s everywhere. Yeah, absolutely everywhere. And so to be able to appreciate that this is the stream flowing through everybody’s connections with one another in the workplace, who’s taking care of how turbulent that stream is. Hmm. 

Carolyn Swora: Yeah. Who do you think should be responsible for caring for that stream?

Dr. Steve Hotz: I think there needs to be a facet of senior leadership that actually appreciates values, the importance of it, and creates opportunities for everybody in the organization no matter where they are to learn this stuff. Hmm. Right. No one ever teaches us stuff. Right, right, right, right. We get in touch with it.

When we’ve been hammered and tried to heal ourselves, then we learn the stuff that you And I know. Yeah. You know, and I’ve had a chance to learn it because it’s been my career in addition to, you know, living my own life and having to deal with all the stuff that’s come up in my own life and then having these phenomenal moments with friends or colleagues where something really hits home.

Yeah. I’ll give you an example of that. A few years ago I have a neighbor and he and I both bike to work and on occasion we’d see each other on the way. I don’t know what happened. One particular morning, he was a bit ahead of me, but I really wanted to talk to him and so I sprinted on my bike, caught up with him, and we’re talking about it.

And we had some kids around the same age and our kids were in the process of leaving home and you know, starting out on their own. And we were talking about this and I said, you know, I. Mixed feelings about them leaving home, it’s gonna feel really different to not need to take care of them. Mm. And my very quiet spoken friend said to me, you know, Steve, I don’t know about that.

We all need some taking care of every step of the way. Oh, that’s lovely. Right. Yeah. If it didn’t have good balance, it would’ve fallen off my bike into the canal in Ottawa in that moment. 

Carolyn Swora: Right. And the canals in, in Ottawa, the beautiful, lovely drive. I remember that. I remember that drive flying into Ottawa and going back and forth.

Yeah. To your office. This notion of social connection I think, really talks about that. I guess another way to say social connection is we need to be cared for. Is that fair to say? 

Dr. Steve Hotz: Oh yeah. And we actually internalize it and it gets encoded into our nervous system. There’s topical and neurophysiological research that demonstrates really clearly where there has been good caring and nurturance.

When a mammal is young, then their brain structure and function is different than when there isn’t that. Right? Right. And this is a structural thing. It’s kind of like how are brains working put together? And we know that where there hasn’t been that kind of nurturance, healing is certainly possible as well.

Yeah. We can engage in processes, we can do work, we can practice things that literally rewire our brains and change how our brains are functioning. When we know that that’s what we need to be doing, we know that that’s gonna be helpful. Because if we don’t have that co-regulation, we don’t have that safe connection.

And nurturance, essentially our sympathetic nervous system, which is our stress response, works over time. Yeah. And we may look like we’re doing okay and that we’re capable, but man, is the engine ever revving high inside? 

Carolyn Swora: Woo. That’s me. You just described me. Mm-hmm. I didn’t know that the engine didn’t have to rev as high and to come back to energy, I think of how many people, myself included, have those days where you just finish your day of work and it’s like you’re just so much exhaustion.

Yep. And realizing that it doesn’t always have to be that way. I never really understood. The impact of emotions on that heaviness. I never really understood that. 

Dr. Steve Hotz: That’s the primary level of experience that we need to pay attention to in order to get past that locked in state, right? That trauma has, has put us in, right?

And we get stuck with trauma ’cause it’s stored in, as I said before, our emotional memory system and all kinds of work be that therapy or self-help work are ways of finding our way into our nervous system where whatever is holding up, our growth is held. Whatever it’s keeping us in this reactive sympathetic loop is hell.

And if we’ve had experiences that leave our nervous system more irritable and vulnerable to reactivity, then we’re gonna be activated with a lower level of stress. Right, right, right. If we have had the experience of co-regulation, our nervous system isn’t that irritable. It’s able to, it has more bandwidth, and so we’ll be able to stay regulated.

That means our nervous system and our brain retain access to all the good stuff that we need that help us thrive, right? Even when we’re facing a higher level of stress or adversity. And so that’s why having insight into the this idea that, of course I’m gonna feel disturbing arousal when something changes that something happens, I wasn’t expected.

I’m blocked in the pursuit of something that’s important to me. Something’s happening in my environment that leaves me feeling insecure or threatened. Of course, I’m gonna feel that. But what’s my interpretation of that? How has my nervous system learned to interpret that as a threat? So then I. I go into sympathetic overdrive, right?

Or it’s something I need to figure out. Take my time, let my nervous system have the opportunity to bring me back into a well-resourced homeostatic state of BA so that I can then approach whatever is in front of me and 

Carolyn Swora: Steve when that challenge hits. So some people can go into sympathetic overdrive, others can shut down as well, right?

Where the parasympathetic, 

Dr. Steve Hotz: that’s right. It’s below parasympathetic. It’s, if you think about it in terms of sort of levels of adaptation. So even being in sympathetic overdrive is an effort and adaptation. When we’re in sympathetic overdrive, we can either feel challenged to succeed ’cause we need immobilization energy or threatened and then defensive safety seeking, et cetera.

But if the threat is too intense, then another branch of our nervous system that’s mediated by our vagus nerve. One particular branch of it called the dorsal vagal system kicks in and essentially that causes system shut down, right? And so we no longer have the energy to fight or flight. This 

Carolyn Swora: is gonna be a very generalized statement, but are a lot of people experiencing this sort of shutdown mode?

Because the intensity of stress is unrelenting. 

Dr. Steve Hotz: It’s been unrelenting, and it’s worn them down. And you know, when you think about burnout and people lose their ability to approach, they roll demands Yeah. Of day-to-day life, right? That sort of loss suppression of energy is a feature of the system shutdown that occurs when we’ve just accumulated too much, right?

And we move between these different states of being right. There are times when we’re really overwhelmed. And we do shut down for a little bit, but a flexible nervous system handles that and can help us move out of shutdown into more engagement. Right, right. A well-resourced nervous system. And a flexible nervous system.

If we’re in that sympathetic nervous system state where we’re very mobilized, can recognize, well, maybe this is a bit too much and help us get out of it into safe, secure, connected, don’t need to strive, don’t need to accomplish. I can just be, it’s safe to just be right. So it’s our ability to move between states, right.

Not get trapped within states. You know, the British psychologist, Paul Gilbert, in his excellent book, the Compassionate Mind gives a model of this that I find really useful and he talks about being sort of three different emotional regulation systems in our brain. One is an energizing. Positively activated set of feelings and emotions.

Mm-hmm. That allows us to strive to accomplish things. Another one is our threat system. Mm-hmm. That turns us defensive, becomes safety seeking. Right. Et cetera. And another one is this range of content, emotions that we’re capable of feeling. I’m secure, I don’t have to strive right now, I can just be, my nervous system can replenish.

And these systems are very, very important because we need to be in a state of balance when it comes to how much is going on in what part of our emotional regulation system. If you’re going for a walk in your neighborhood, With your partner, you need to be sufficiently vigilant and aware of your surroundings.

Yeah. To listen for traffic when you cross the road. Right. Well, that’s our threat system. Right. You’re not paralyzed at the curb. Right. But you’re hearing you need enough of the performance activation system to be able to have your brisk walk. Right. Right. And then you need enough of the sort of secure content connected system going on to enjoy the time with your partner.


Carolyn Swora: it fair to say, Steve, we could talk for another hour? Um, easily, or 10? I have to ask this question though. That last component, that secure attached one. Yep. Is that one a little harder for many people to access because we’re. And I’ll speak for myself here. I found it really hard to just be content with what is in the moment instead of driving to what’s 

Dr. Steve Hotz: next.

Well, that’s what our culture does. Right. 

Carolyn Swora: So is it fair to say though that that sort of third element that Oh yeah. That, so we need to kind of give that one more juice, essentially. Oh. 

Dr. Steve Hotz: Find that balance. We need to, that’s right. We need to actually learn how to work with it. We need to learn how to access it.

We need to learn how to kind of fertilize or strengthen the wiring for that system just because it doesn’t get practiced a lot. Yeah. The opportunity to practice it gets squeezed out. I talk with some clients about how to couple time and how to find couple to spend time as a couple, for example. Yep. Or how to spend time as a family when it’s not taking kids to sports or.

Music lessons, lessons three kids in different directions at the same time. Yeah. And then schoolwork and then, right. So like what actually happens to this connected time where there’s not a task associated with it. It’s really, really, really hard. And alongside that, I think is something that’s super important and that is that our culture, and you’re right about this.

Yep. Our culture promotes self-regulation and self-sufficiency. Yeah. Right? Yeah. And otherwise we get admonished for being too sensitive or too needy. So how do you negotiate that, right? Yeah. Yeah. That’s, that’s super, super complicated. But the reality is, and my good friend and colleague, Sue Johnson, who developed emotion-focused couple therapy and individual therapy, she talks about this a lot because her whole model of helping couples get out of negative cycles, create more secure connection, better intimacy is all about these.

Strengthening their ability to send one another signals and be with one another in a way that activates that secure connection Right. System that we’re all born with, right? Yeah. We come into the world seeking it. We come into the world needing this co-regulation. Yeah. That’s what helps us fundamentally feel safe.

If we don’t have that, we’re a disadvantage, and then we have to add that to our list of things we need to work on as lifelong learners. Yeah, 

Carolyn Swora: yeah, yeah. So Steve, what would be some suggestions that you would give to leaders listening now to help them take a step forward? 

Dr. Steve Hotz: Everything we’ve been talking about is really about being in touch with our inner experience.

It’s typically not a. In the forefront of our awareness enough at the time, and that’s our bodily experience. So things that we do that actually help us get in touch with what we’re noticing in our body. Hmm. And being able to spend time with that level of inner experience helps us tune in a little bit.

And then we often get surprised about what we find. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a massage. 

Carolyn Swora: Oh yes. I’m having one on Wednesday too. I’ve one in a few months. Are 

Dr. Steve Hotz: you lucky first? Yep. There you go. Sometimes if you have a massage, the massage therapist is working on a certain part and all of a sudden an emotion pops up.

Right? Yep. Isn’t that like, you go, where the heck does this come from? You weren’t aware that there was anything being held there. Right. So that’s just a bit of a metaphor for what we’re talking about here. Yeah. That there are different ways of getting in touch with what we’re holding in our bodies. Yep.

That’s our core level of experience. In addition to having senses that bring the outside world into us, we also have internal kinesthetic senses and our brain is monitoring and aware of what’s happening in our bodies all the time. Yep. The more aware of our emotional experience and our bodily experience, yoga, meditation, however long or short, however structured, narrated or unstructured it might be, these are all literally ways of retraining our brains.

Yep. To be able to be aware of this whole part of our right hemisphere experience that has become so devalued in our culture. 

Carolyn Swora: Yeah. I was out for a walk this morning and I like to practice, so one of my therapists taught me this, you don’t have to sit still to meditate, and so she really challenged me to use one of my senses.

To hone in on that. And so when I walk now, I don’t wear a headset or earphones, right? I don’t listen to anything. Right. And I’ll hone in on a sense. So this morning it was a sense of hearing. I hear birds, I hear noises, I hear bus. I heard so many things. And I really try and treat every walk that I have now with that type of awe.

Like what am I gonna hear now? And at first when she told me about it, I thought whatever. And it really is quite profound. It helps me enjoy the walk versus doing the walk because I know I have to move. 

Dr. Steve Hotz: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. 

Carolyn Swora: And you know, even if we can find a moment like that, if we’re walking from office to office or we’re walking to our car, or if we’re walking to get lunch, if you happen to be in a downtown core, just allowing ourself to find some of these moments I know has brought me into a much greater sense of awareness.

And I know there’s still a lot more opportunity for me to continue to build that as 

Dr. Steve Hotz: well. Well that’s about regulation. That’s you being in control of your regulation. Yeah. And your nervous system and super simple things. If you like lavender, for example, example, ’cause you’re tuned in, you recognize that you’re activated inside.

Hmm. And you want to be a good person for co-regulation with your colleagues. Yep. And you go, well I’m in no state to see anybody right now, but you’re gonna need to be seeing somebody. We need to do something to activate this other part of our nervous system. To allow us to be a healthy presence, literally for others to be around.

And so whether it’s taking a moment to do what you just described, whether it’s taking the cap off, uh, lavender essential oil, and breathing a little bit of it in and just lingering on that, 

Carolyn Swora: is lavender like a scent for everybody that can help bring that, oh, I don’t know. I like lavender. It’s like a favorite scent type thing.

Dr. Steve Hotz: That’s it. Okay. Right. If I’m splitting firewood and I’m making kindling, and I have some cedar, like, oh my goodness. Meat, the smell of the cedar as I’m splitting it again, see, it’s this fundamental sensory awareness. What are we seeing? What are we looking at? Right? Are you just letting yourself look at the ripples of water on the stream?

Right? Yeah. Are you letting cool water run over your hands and wrists in the sink? Are you smelling the lavender or the eucalyptus or the orange blossoms or whatever? Are you taking a moment to follow the flight of the bees on the flowering plants in your garden? 

Carolyn Swora: Right. Touch, smell, hearing. It’s so senses that we have.

Exactly. ‘

Dr. Steve Hotz: cause everything, we know the world through our senses. We don’t know the world through our neocortex till much later, even if it’s Right. Right. Okay. We know the world through our senses, and so to be aware of what’s actually happening and right now at this step one level, this ground level, that we then build on that and then we can go out into the world is this healthy presence.

Otherwise, we are driven to perform despite what we’re holding. Right. And if something we’re holding isn’t good, everybody senses out. Everybody talked about neuroception. Right. You don’t even have to say a word to me. My brain already knows or predicts, thinks it knows how it’s gonna go. Right? So then we end up having two people in this dance coming from perhaps not such a well-regulated place, right?

I’d rather go to the casino. I think the odds of winning are better at the casino than going, 

Carolyn Swora: uh, on that note, Steve, let’s transition to the final three questions. Does that feel good or is there anything else you wanted to say to round out what I. 

Dr. Steve Hotz: We’ve just talked about it. No, of course. It’s of course it’s disappointing because, you know, I don’t, I don’t have anything to do for the next hour and a half, but yes, let’s do the next three questions and I’ll, who knows, i’s, could cope with my disappointed with, 

Carolyn Swora: we could do, do a part two, part three, part four, you know.

There you go. We won’t, we won’t say, this is the last of Dr. Steve Hots on this podcast. So these three questions, as you might remember, are from my evolve model. So first question is about self-awareness. Mm-hmm. Can you share with us a moment that was very uncomfortable, yet full of tremendous insight about yourself?

Dr. Steve Hotz: Oh, yes, I sure can, but it’s hard to choose one. I’ll choose one because it’s connected to co-regulation. Okay. Okay. So I used to ski Alpine downhill a lot and taught for a bit and coach ski coaches. So I was out west at Whistler and it was like really big terrain, right? And I’m used to the terrain here locally, which is very small terrain.

Yeah. And so there I am on top of this mountain and it’s steep to the point where I can’t see towards the bottom of the hill. It like it goes off into nothing. Right? And so my muscles are like absolutely, and totally tight and so uncomfortable. I was like, what the heck am I doing here? I was not a happy guy at all.

And I was with a phenomenal ski coach who was so dialed in and he said to me, Steve, I know this is a step up, but I’d just like you to try and trust yourself and know that you bring everything you need to this. Wow. You already have everything you need. And then he looked at me and he smiled and he said, let’s have the best day ever.

And there was such warmth and genuineness and positive regard in him. Yep. Not just his words, but in him. Right. That I literally felt that tension evaporating in my body. Wow. And instead of thinking about what was gonna happen next, I was absolutely in the moment just responding to the sensations I was feeling in my body when I was skiing.

Wow. And it was like my skis were barely touching the snow. Must have been a good run. It was awesome. It was awesome. The most awesome part of it was, The transition in my feeling and then the reflection that came after it in terms of, oh my goodness, look at all these anticipations that came from my mind.

This is an unfamiliar situation for me. Inevitably, I went to the disaster scenario. I totally missed out on connecting with all those things that I actually know that are true about me and my capability. Right. And of course, my threat system got activated. Of course, I get tight and stiff. Of course I lose access not only to my mental skills, but also my fine motor control.

Right? ’cause that’s what happens when, right. Our threat system gets activated. Yeah. So there you go. That would be one example. There’s all kinds of other important ones like big hugs. Yeah. When I’ve been in distress that I’ve received. Right. That also, yeah. But. 

Carolyn Swora: So much connection, uh, self-awareness to your nervous system.

I love that 

Dr. Steve Hotz: occupational hazard. Yeah, I 

Carolyn Swora: was gonna say, so second question. What is a practice or ritual that keeps you in a calm or regulated state? 

Dr. Steve Hotz: I use a brain spotting technique called resourcing. Okay. And it involves finding a calm place, grounded place, place that feels good or okay in my body. And just lingering on that for a minute, getting a sense of where it is and how it feels.

And then I scan what’s in front of me. Right now it’s just the wall of my office until my eyes land on a spot that gives me more awareness of that calm place in my body, that grounded place where I feel centered. And then I just let my gaze. Stay there very gently. Not forcing anything. Not expecting anything to happen.

And I just do that. Wow. Yeah. And I might listen to some bilateral music. What is that music? It’s music that all alternates between our left and right ear. The soundtrack is made to alternate between our left and right ear, and that is very calming for the nervous system and it kind of helps us bring in the good stuff that’s happening with the resourcing.

Carolyn Swora: How do we find bilateral music on a streaming platform? Do we just do a search bilateral? 

Dr. Steve Hotz: Yeah, you could do that. I know there’s some tracks on, uh, Spotify. So you know, Dr. David Grand, who developed Brain Spotting has a few CDs. The Brainspotting organization in the United Kingdom, brainspotting I think I might not be right about that.

They have some free tracks to download, and then an audio engineer who’s also a brain spotting therapist in Colorado has a company called Bodhi Tree, B O D H I T R E You can listen and download from there. Some people listen to it while they’re working on something. If they feel a bit activated, they find it calming just to have the headphones on and we listen to it at a volume that’s just loud enough to hear, but not to interfere with what we’re doing.


Carolyn Swora: Yeah. Insightful. Mm-hmm. Last question. Yes. What is a song or genre of music that makes you feel connected to others or part of something bigger than yourself? 

Dr. Steve Hotz: Oh, it’s so easy. It’s, uh, jazz and it’s Oscar Peterson. Mm. Typically playing solo, but can be with his trio. And my playlist of Oscar Peterson is huge.

Mm. Town in Ottawa where the National Art Center is. There is a Oscar Peterson sculptor, him sitting at the piano and they actually play music from his loudspeaker somewhere near there. 

Carolyn Swora: Oh really? And he is Canadian if I’m, if I’m not mistaken. 

Dr. Steve Hotz: Is he ever? Yeah. That’s nice. Is he ever? Yep. Here it is.

Downtown Toronto, ELGAN Street. Really busy, a block and a half from the Parliament buildings. Lots of traffic. I walked by there. Right? Yeah. Just being downtown Ottawa. Downtown ot. You said? You said Toronto. Oh, did I? Okay. Sorry. Thanks. Whew. 

Carolyn Swora: Don’t wanna get those two places 

Dr. Steve Hotz: confused. No, that’s it. Maybe they should put.

His music in downtown Toronto. They should, who knows what could happen And, and despite all the noise, you walk back, you hear a few notes and like it transports me. It’s amazing. I 

Carolyn Swora: did not know that. Next time I’m in Ottawa, I’m gonna find that place and next time I’m in Ottawa, Steve, I’m gonna give you a shout and we can like do that something i r l in real life.

Why not? Alright, well I cannot thank you enough for so many things for inspiring me unknowingly 23 years ago when we first started working together. I don’t think I realized until our conversation how influential that time was on me and really giving me some foundational aspects to build upon. And thank you for reading the book and providing such an amazing testimonial and for coming on the show.

And I don’t think this will be the last time the listeners are gonna hear from Dr. Steve Hotz. Fantastic. Alright, well have a good day and thanks again Steve. Thank you to all the listeners for tuning in to another episode, and we’ll see you all soon. Wow, 20 years since Steve and I last worked together, and yet the conversation flows like it was just yesterday.

I hope you enjoyed hearing from a psychologist insights about our nervous system. Insights about what trauma means and some ways that we can use our body to bring ourselves back into a state of being present. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please like and subscribe. It would mean a lot. And if you’re interested in learning more about what Steve and I talked about today about trauma-informed leadership, check out my book, evolve the Path to Trauma-Informed Leadership.

You can purchase it through major online book sellers and also in some independent bookstores. Take care and thanks again for listening.

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