Our Brains: Fight, Flight, Freeze, Feel

Brains – we all have one. They do a lot for us. We also have a heart, and it too does a lot for us. The two of them even communicate. Did you know that the heart sends more messages to the brain than the brain does to the heart?

We can examine both. We tend to think of the brain as the ruler of our decisions. Sometimes we make a decision such as ‘I am going to get healthy by improving my diet and including more activity in my daily routine’. Then after a couple of days or a week, we might slip. Forming new habits is difficult. Why?

During the cave person period, a part of our brain was developed. Our needs were a little different then than they are now. During that time the focus of the brain was to avoid pain, seek pleasure, take the path of least resistance, and live for today. Pain was predominantly associated with life-threatening events or death; a good thing to avoid. Survival took a lot of energy. Being strong and alert were important and needed alertness, energy, and stamina. Energy comes from food – fats, sugars. Not being alert and aware of the present moment could be disastrous – maybe deadly. These responses are still firmly planted in our brains.

This same part of the brain is responsible for thoughts, emotions, memory, learning, and appetite; this area functions automatically; you can’t turn it on or off (you don’t need to tell your brain to make you breathe, and to make your heartbeat). The healthy habits we need today are the opposite of the cave man’s automatic survival habits. No wonder it is hard to successfully implement healthy diets, calorie-burning, and muscle-building activities. We just weren’t born that way. We experience pain when we exercise, we need to avoid cake and ice cream, take the stairs instead of the elevator, and plan for the future – what we do now can influence our health in years to come. All these things are the opposite of what comes naturally to our remaining caveperson brain. We need to change the way the brain functions. And we have the ability to do that.

The part of our brain known as the frontal lobe is responsible for executive functioning; decision making, planning, starting and stopping behaviours or habits, and delaying gratification. Willpower and self-control! Both of these also come from that same area. Like the physical part of our body, the frontal lobe (part of our brain), does run out of energy. Do you notice that your bad habits often take over later in the day or evening? That is because the energy in that part of the brain is drained, and we revert to our cave person habits of eating lots and taking it easy in an attempt to boost our energy.

We can train our brain. As with any training regular work is needed. To overcome our cave person brain is no different and requires learning and ongoing practice. But it is entirely possible.

I am thrilled to know that there is a reason why it is hard to change the habits of eating and often painful (physically and mentally) activities to be and feel healthy. I am also aware that these changes aren’t going to happen instantaneously, it is going to take time and effort. But knowing that the result (delayed gratification) will be a happy healthy me, I am willing to take the necessary steps. I am also aware that at times I might revert to my cave person brain, and the old habits might take over, but that doesn’t mean failure. It means I just need to get back to making healthy decisions, knowing that I will once again feel and be healthy.

I haven’t written anything on feelings and emotions; after all, I did mention feelings in the title. This is where we need to consider the heart. I’ll address more on feelings and emotions in my next blog.

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