Survival of the Fittest
Humans by nature are survival experts. I’m not talking about the Survivor Man or Bear Grylls type of surviving. I’m talking about getting through the day type of survival! We are hardwired for self-preservation. Our minds are always on guard trying to protect us from harm trying with all their might to get us from this moment to the next with all limbs intact! That was very helpful when our biggest threats were bears attacking us or running out of food before winter was over. But times have changed. We no longer need to fear bears (at least not daily!) or lack of food. But our minds have not changed. We are still hardwired for survival.
The simplest example of self-preservation is our fight or flight response. When our minds perceive a threat, we go into either fight or flight mode. Our bodies quickly adapt to the threat. All nonessential processes are turned off. Things like, digestion or sex hormones are not very helpful when a bear is chasing you. Your immune system, while extremely helpful most of the time, does no good when your house is burning down. So your brain shuts off all non-essential activities! Ever heard of someone pooping their pants from fear?? It’s real! And it’s because your body is getting rid of all excess baggage so it can flee faster.
At the same time your body ramps up all of the lifesaving processes! Your heart rate and breathing shoot up sending loads of blood and oxygen to your muscles to run or fight. Your brain becomes hyper focused on the problem at hand. You don’t want to be worrying about what’s for supper while your car is spinning out of control. Your eyes dilate to see better. Adrenaline is pumped out to give you what seems like superpowers! Think of a mom lifting a car to free her trapped child.
The problem is that our threats in life no longer come from bears or avalanches. They come from emails from your boss or unpaid bills. They are the daily stresses of life. But your brain doesn’t know the difference. It senses a threat and takes immediate action. Your babysitter cancels on you! Stress! Your brain, not knowing any better still turns off digestion, reproduction, immune system, all “no essentials” and still ramps up heart rate, breathing, brain activity, adrenaline! It starts to make a lot of sense why chronic stress is so harmful. Instead of living in a state of rest and digest we live in fight or flight all because of our hardwiring.
Our minds are so good at self-preservation that we’ve even developed a search engine for things that are harmful. Your brain constantly scans the world for threats. That’s good when you’re in the woods picking berries and you don’t want to be eaten but not so good in daily life. Your search engine is 3 times better at finding negative bad things than positive good things. We are wired to see all the bad things in life! Ever had a day where lots of great things happened but there was that one small negative comment that some stranger posted on your social media? Despite all of the good, the one tiny bad ruined your day! It’s just your brain looking out for you!
Then there’s your comfort zone. We’ve all dealt with it. It’s uncomfortable stepping outside of the box, trying something new, talking to a stranger. Your mind builds up this barrier. It looks at all of your past experiences and says “these are the things that we’ve done that went well. Let’s keep doing those things. If we try something new it could be harmful. Let’s not risk it.” Your mind holds you back from acting because stepping outside of your zone of comfort is a major potential threat! Your mind resists anything that is potentially uncomfortable. Ever had a hard time getting out of your comfortable bed? Now you know why.
“Great, not only do I have to worry about my to-do list today I also have to fight my brain to get it done!” That’s kind of true! We do have to deal with our hardwiring but just knowing how your mind works can be empowering! Just knowing that when you wake up at 5 AM to work out your brain is going to try and stop you, can be helpful. It’s not that you’re lazy or unmotivated. It’s your brain trying to keep you in its “safe” comfort zone! Or when you get a stressful email, and your heart rate goes up and your stomach churns you can acknowledge what is happening. Or when you feel like you’re having a bad day you can remind yourself that there was probably way more good than you saw that day. Just knowing how you work is very helpful.
But there’s a few more things you can do!
To see more good: start every morning by writing down 3 things you are grateful for. This will help you focus on what is going well in your life, not wrong. Also, when you feel yourself thinking negative thoughts or complaining, quickly say 3 positive things. This will start to retrain you negative search engine!
To feel less stressed: if you can minimize the stress in your life that’s great but often you can’t. You can’t make your boss be nicer to you. But you can change how your body reacts. When you feel stress rising and your body going into fight or flight mode take a step back and breathe. Research says that if you breathe in for an equal amount of time that you breathe out it lets your brain know that you are safe and there is no need for fight or flight. I like “box breathing”. Breathe in for 4 seconds, hold it in for 4, out for 4, hold it out for 4. Repeat till you’re chilled out. Also, every adjustment resets your nervous system. Ever feel flushed, have a rush of energy, or have sweat on your brow right after an adjustment? That’s your nerve system switching from fight or flight to rest and digest mode!
To get out of your comfort zone: your brain will always hold you back from taking action to keep you “safe”. But often we want to act! We want to talk to that stranger or wake up and work out. So, to push through your comfort zone give yourself a countdown. Start at 5. 5-4-3… and by the time you hit zero you better be on the move. This does a few things. By counting you are silencing your inner voice that’s telling you no! It is also giving you a very short deadline to act. Get moving now! Try it next time you’re about roll over and NOT wake up or the next time you want to speak up or say hi to a stranger. Just start the count down and go.
Just knowing how your brain and body works can be very empowering but with that knowledge we can build tools and tricks to get the most out of our lives! And before you blame your brain for all that is wrong in your life, just remember that without that hardwiring that God put inside of you, your ancestors might not have survived to enable the day that you were born!
In Health and Faith,