An excerpt from All Gain, No Pain
Understanding your caveman brain
There’s a lot that we don’t understand about the brain. It is arguably the most complex entity in existence with more connections than there are stars in the universe.
There’s also some things we do understand.
Our brains are a gift from your primitive ancestors. Our ancestors experienced a variety of environments, and as they adapted to them, their brains changed too. The newest part of our brain, the cortex, makes us human and puts us at the top of Earth’s hierarchy. Instead of discarding older parts, the newest parts are merely stacked on top of what you could affectionately call our caveman brain. The way we think and move is therefore dependent on the exposures, memories, and experiences of your earliest prehistoric relatives.
Our stress response is no exception to that rule. Consider the lifestyle of your average caveman forefather.
He wakes and throws another log in the fire to keep the family warm as he begins his hunt for the day’s food. Hunting is physically and psychologically demanding. Heart rate escalates, muscles go on overdrive, and sweat begins to pour. He may cover several miles on the hunt producing thousands of calories of energy.
Vigilance is Best
While he hunts, our caveman cousin must remain alert. At any time, a larger animal may consider him tonight’s dinner. Pupils expand to enhance vision. Hearing sensitivity intensifies. Two of many safeguards to protect his life. These strategies remain part of your modern-day stress response.
Now, imagine our hunter walking by a large bush, and the bush rattles. He has two possible options. Is it the wind disturbing the branches, or a saber-toothed tiger waiting to pounce? Which option provides the greatest advantage of survival? As the saying goes it’s better to be safe than sorry. Assuming the latter demonstrates a protective negativity bias; one that to this day is present in our own brains.
This negativity bias protects us against threats just like our prehistoric forefathers—even imagined ones.1 Expect the worst. Live another day. We don’t run from sabretooth tigers all that often anymore, but your negativity bias affects every aspect of your behavior.
Our stress gauge determines how well we move
Our nervous system responds like a stress gauge. This gauge represents what is called the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is made up of two complementary systems. One system increases energy output, vigilance, and protective reactions. This is the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) or the “Flight or Fight” side of the gauge. The other system promotes rest, recovery, and healing. This is the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) or the “Rest and Digest” side of the gauge.
It is the perfect design for a prehistoric lifestyle faced with intermittent stressors. Experience an overt stressor, shift the gauge toward the SNS. When the stressor ends, shift the gauge toward the PNS.
After hours or searching, our hunter spots a mammoth in the distance. His gauge shifts towards “flight or fight” to allow great physicality and vigilance. After a great chase, he returns to the safety and comfort of the family cave to enjoy the day’s meal. Shifting back to a calm and rested state.
Stress today is different than caveman stress
Fast-forward to your modern lifestyle. Instead of intermittent stressors, we now experience a perpetual state of medium stress and occasional extreme stress followed by brief periods of lower stress. We have demanding jobs, relationship woes, managing the kids’ activities, traffic jams, mortgages, bills, taxes, and the list goes on and on. Instead of moving our gauge from one stress to the other, you stay chronically shifted toward “flight or fight.”
Chronic stress makes humans more rigid and less adaptable to change.2 In some people, it shows up as high blood pressure. In others, chronic illness. It affects every system in our body and not just your internal systems. It even affects how we move.
Too much time on the sympathetic side of the stress gauge reduces your movement repertoire. Whereas once it was easy to bend forward and touch your toes, it is now an arduous task. Aches and pains arise from increased muscle tension and joint pressure. To avoid pain, you move less; giving up even more movement capability. An endless cycle of stress, protection, and movement rigidity persists. Your once active lifestyle becomes reduced. Chronic aches and pains increase. Your lost physical capabilities prevent effective exercise and dissatisfaction in your appearance follows. Thankfully, this process is reversible with the right strategy.
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