Every creature on our planet evolved for survival and that includes us humans. Our brains developed ways of increasing our chances of surviving potential threats to our lives. But the world that our ancestors lived in is very different to the one we live in now. From an evolutionary perspective, we needed to survive threats so we could live long enough to produce more humans.
Let’s look at what your brain does for your survival.
Something out there thinks you are dinner
The fight, flight, or freeze response developed to help us respond to an immediate threat such as being attacked. Once this threat is resolved our body resets itself and we can return to the rest and digest response. So, if a tiger thinks you look tasty, and it jumps out from behind the bushes your brain would engage the fight, flight, or freeze response. This occurs beneath your conscious thought process. If you took the time to think “maybe it’s just the breeze rustling those leaves, or it could be just a rabbit, but I suppose it could be something that may want to kill me”, too late, your tiger food. It begins with a startle response that you have no conscious control of, as you need to be ready to respond quickly. This is just like when you jump as you nearly bump into someone you didn’t see coming around the corner. If it is a rabbit, you will settle quickly, if it is a tiger this response will move you into full fight, flight, or freeze.
We also practice avoidant behaviour. Our brain learns quickly to avoid places and situations where there may be a tiger waiting for us. If you escape and avoid being tiger food, you have learned not to walk too closely to where you were attacked. Great for avoiding tigers, not so helpful if you experienced anxiety and panic at the supermarket, at work, or while driving.
How your fight, flight, or freeze response may look today
Unfortunately, many of the threats our brain perceives in the modern world do not resolve quickly or at all. This results in being stuck in our survival response. We become hyper vigilant as our brain searches for the threat, it’s constantly looking for danger. This can be experienced as elevated stress, anxiety, panic, and phobias. If there is a tiger, you will run away or, put up a fight and punch it in the face, or you may freeze (play possum) and hope the tiger thinks you are already dead or not notice you. But if your survival response has been activated by someone cutting you off on the freeway, worry over job security, or a past trauma, there is nothing to escape, punch, or hide from. So, this response stays within you. Then another trigger happens, and another, and before you know it you are in a constant state of anxiety and/or panic. Then you go to bed and try to sleep, but you toss and turn and your brain won’t shut up. This is because you have adrenalin and cortisol trapped in your body, the exact opposite of what you need to be able to rest. Then you get up and do it all over again.
The fight response:
With no tiger to fight, this may look like frustration, anger, no patience, a short fuse.
The flight response:
With nothing to run away and escape, this may look like perpetual distraction, avoiding quiet moments. You may overwork yourself or be unable to be still.
The freeze response:
Wanting to hide and wait out the danger may look like closing yourself off from the outside world. You may avoid going out, turn down invitations, perhaps the entire weekend spent under the blanket.
Maybe a combination of all 3?
Your brain has a negative bias
We also have a negative bias brain. This evolved so we would question the safety of decisions we were making. If we were presented with a choice of where a safe place would be to sleep, our brains would look at all the potential negatives of our possible choices. So, if you were considering setting up camp next to a river, close to the fresh water, you would also consider possible negatives such as the river flooding. Now, this negative bias shows up when you are doing everyday things. For some it presents itself as an inner bully instead of a wise inner counsel. When this happens, low self-esteem and reduced confidence may follow. When your mind is bombarding you with worst case scenarios of the future, highlighting all the things that could go wrong, anxiety will increase. Constant negative thought loops can drastically lower mood and for some this results in experiencing depression. Feeling paralysed by the inability to make decisions is also common.
Your brain evolved to prevent starvation
Your attempt to manage your weight can also be at the mercy of your survival brain. Humans used to rely on hunting and gathering, and sometimes this didn’t go so well for us. Then we began growing our food and farming animals. So less running around chasing dinner and we didn’t need to find the edible plants. This may have given us greater food security than chasing and searching for our food, but we were still at the mercy of things like the weather.
Our brain will respond to a potential lack of food and release signals to our body to store fat. Skip a meal or several and your body will respond by slowing your metabolism to conserve the precious fat stores to increase your chances of surviving a time without food. This can leave you lethargic, looking for quick energy releasing foods (fats, sugars, high carbohydrates). Even if you eat a healthy balanced diet, you may find that the scales won’t budge.
Harvest celebrations would traditionally include a feast. Whilst food was plentiful, we would eat way past being satisfied, as our brains wanted us to store that food on our body as it anticipated that winter may not deliver everything we needed.
And, on top of all this, when our body is experiencing the fight or flight response, digestion shuts down to divert energy to survival. So, the lovely lunch you ate before there was a stressor at work won’t be digested properly, then your brain thinks “Oh no, there’s no food”, and it will send signals out to store food on your body. Then you are tired, from both being unable to digest all the good stuff you ate at lunch, your metabolism being slowed, and fatigue that occurs after stress and/or anxiety. So, you may be more attracted to the quick energy boost to get through the rest of your day (chocolate, I’m looking at you).
You have important human stuff to do, so let’s make things happen without having to think about it
Over time we developed a greater ability to think about things and attempt to understand the world around us. While we are thinking about stuff, our brain could also do other stuff on autopilot, it built pathways around the everyday things that we did repeatedly. Things like brushing your teeth, walking, and riding a bike. Which is fantastic because if we had to consciously think about these things, it would be exhausting! This happens because of brains ability to build neural pathways. But the blob of grey matter known as your brain doesn’t decide which are helpful pathways, and which are not. If you do something over and over again, your brain is designed to respond by going “ah okay, I will build a pathway for that”. So, it also builds pathways for habits and behaviours that may become problematic. For example, smoking, eating lollies at 8pm, how you respond to situations, and even those negative thought loops I talked about above. Our brain really likes patterns. Humans like routine, we are creatures of habit, and we are drawn to the familiar.
Uh Oh. When it all happens at once
When you combine the survival response, negative brain bias, modern life triggers, as well as our own personal neural pathways, we can feel out of control of our responses, habits, and behaviours. Our efforts to do something differently becomes even more challenging. We can consciously see and feel what we want to be different, but we can’t seem to make the change.
So, what can we do?
Neuroplasticity! You can change the way your brain operates by reducing or removing unhelpful pathways, and you can build and strengthen the helpful ones. Proof of your neuroplasticity is in your ability to learn something new. The first time you brushed your teeth, tried to ride a bike, or started your new job, you didn’t have any existing pathways for them. You built them. Likewise, when it has been a long time since you did something and those pathways haven’t been used in a while, it may take a little effort and practice over time to build those pathways back again.
Hypnotherapy can assist by accessing your ability to adapt and change by using neuroplasticity. Hypnotherapy is pleasant, natural, and self-empowering. Hypnotherapy can assist with stress, anxiety, panic, trauma, depression, weight management, self-esteem, and much more.
Would you like to know more about how I can help you? Contact me to book a free 30 minute consultation to talk about what you want to achieve, you can ask questions, we can discuss what is the best approach for you and you can decide if my service is right for you. There is no sales spiel during the call and no obligation to book sessions. Available over zoom or by phone.
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