How your mind works – Part 1

You are okay.

You are normal. Whatever you are feeling right now is okay. You are allowed to feel it.

For most people this is quite a shock. Certainly was for me! All those crazy thoughts or nagging worries, whatever they are, they are normal. It is a side effect of the natural working of the mind.

How so? You ask. Let me explain…first we have to go…back in time to just after the dinosaurs to evolution of the first mammals.

Early mammals evolved from amphibious fish ( . Next time you open a tin of Tuna, remember that fish was your cousin 10 billion times removed (well not really, but you get the idea).

When humans then evolved from great apes, we inherited traits from that early evolution to help us survive, we also developed some other features too, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

We’ll call this early brain – the lizard brain – and it’s the part that controls breathing, arm movement and all sorts of cool things. It also controls the fight or flight response.

Fight or Flight?

When you have stress, anxiety, full blown panic attack, it’s your natural response that is getting triggered. Your lizard brain is putting you into that state from information it is receiving from you (thoughts, memories) and the environment. The lizard brain is trying to keep you safe and it does so automatically. Well done brain. Without you none of our ancestors would have survived and you wouldn’t be reading this now.

So lets hop forward in our time machine again to the time of our earliest mammalian ancestors…

Ook our great Ape ancestor, was a essentially a wild animal struggling to survive on the African planes, plenty of predators around that like juicy bipedal ape meat. Ook is foraging for food with his pal Ukk, Ook spots a Sabre Toothed tiger stalking them out of the corner of his eye.

Ooks lizard brain has learnt “Big Cat, Big Teeth, Bad, Danger”, so engages the sympathetic nervous system. Adrenaline gets pumped into the body supercharging senses, activating muscles, Ooks heart starts pumping, he evacuates his bowels to make himself lighter. He assesses if he can take the tiger in a fight or should run. All this happens in a split second before the rest of Ooks brain is even aware there is danger. Ook spots a nearby tree and runs for it….

What a system. Programmed to go off before you do (thank you Spaceballs). If you are wondering what happens to Ukk, we’ll find out in Part 2.

Back to the present for the moment. So we can thank our ancestors for the ability to experience fear and that fear kept them alive. However in the modern day we don’t have the same dangers, or at least most of us don’t, but we can still have the same reaction, and we can have it to anything. You may have noticed that in the Ook story I highlighted that Ooks brain had learnt to identify danger. Just like Ook we can also add to the experiences that trigger this response in ourselves. However thorough the power of science, psychology and experience we now know we can unlearn fear. To do this we need to engage the sympathetic nervous systems calmer twin. The parasympathetic nervous system….onward to Part 2