Do you need wine, workouts or wonder drugs to help calm you down?

Do you need wine, workouts or wonder drugs to help calm you down?

Do you feel wired but tired a lot of the time?
Are your nerves pushed to breaking point on a daily basis?
Do you have a ‘to do list’ that often feels overwhelming?

If you are anything like me, you will feel your nerves start settling shortly after you start engaging with/completing your task list for the day. This is all good and well, except for the harsh reality that our ‘to do lists’ tend to grow at a faster pace than we can complete them.

Almost invariably our lists aren’t done by day’s end and our frayed nerves struggle to settle without the help of a workout, a drink or a tranquiliser. Overdoing our workouts can easily lead to feeling even more wired and tired the next morning. A hangover feels even worse and popping a tranquiliser or 2 is a sure way to dependency.

The obvious answer is to slow down, but the sheer speeds our lives are running at precludes us from slowing down, never mind stopping for a breather. This constant struggle to settle our nerves as we face seemingly endless daily demands has its roots in the ‘disconnect’ between our Primate and Mammalian brains. I discovered the extent of my own disconnect when I was involuntarily knocked off my ‘treadmill of demands’ by a container truck while out cycle training. Down and out career wise for the better part of 4 years I had to find a disabled friendly treadmill to start out again. My previous treadmill was going way too fast for my disabled body to manage. The two biggest obstacles in reclaiming my life were extreme fatigue and debilitating stress. ‘Fight and Flight’ mode became my constant companion, ‘Rest and Digest’ was not in my vocabulary.

I was blessed enough to be given a second chance at a career at the UCT Division of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine under Prof Tim Noakes. Staying with peak performance, but changing my focus from sport and exercise to wellness performance allowed me to re-examine everything I had learned in my PhD through a different set of lenses. I completed 5 years of postdoctoral research to carve out a new niche for myself.

My postdoc fellowship turned out to be more like a second PhD as I had to master a whole new research area, become familiar with the literature and learn new research techniques and analyses. I searched high and low to find an appropriate physiological marker of health and wellbeing. Eventually settling on a relatively simple measure known as heart rate variability (HRV). A simple but very effective way to indirectly measure the output of the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

My interest in the ANS was tweaked after my accident because my sympathetic nervous system (SNS) was constantly in overdrive. My nerves were jangled from the stress of catching up on almost 4 years of lost productivity in that most crucial of window periods – the early 30s age bracket. There were also sound physiological reasons for my jangled nerves. The severe traumatic brain injuries I sustained played havoc with my central autonomic cardiovascular regulation; plus, the prolonged bed rest resulted in the ramping up of the activity in the sympathetic nuclei in my brainstem.

Though perfectly suited to help me kick-start my wasted body my adrenaline levels were nevertheless way out of control. Pacing my efforts got me nowhere; I was forced to keep pushing my body too hard.

 

Even though it knocked me for a 6 I didn’t know what else to do.

 

Prior to my accident the only gear I knew was to go very hard until my body adapted. Self-regulation was just so much simpler (though never easy) when I had a super strong and fit body; and in an emergency situation I usually found an extra gear. I was soon to discover that I needed yet another gear.

Never one to sit back and wait for my body to catch up one day, I simply kept pushing myself beyond my body’s capabilities. Until I felt something go snap in my brain one night after falling into bed completely exhausted – the next morning I could not get out of bed.

This forced me to find a better way to perform at the required level. The key to unlocking this better way was learning to quieten my Primate brain and allowing the motivated behavioural circuits programed into my Mammalian brain to regulate my behaviour. The Mammalian brain analogy I am referring to consists of the spinal cord, the brainstem-hypothalamus, the cerebellum and the Basal Ganglia.

As a scientist I normally insist on covering all the angles, I like to incorporate outliers and I don’t like to generalise. Nevertheless, I am well aware of the power of a simplified neurobiological model that cuts through the vast majority of the apparent outliers, exceptions and subjective human experiences.

What exactly are these ‘motivated behavioural circuits’ programmed into the brainstem of all vertebrates from fish, amphibians, reptiles, lower mammals, primates through to humans?

There are 3 main types of motivated behaviours: defensive, ingestive and reproductive behaviours – in this strict hierarchy. In most mammals all 3 these motivated behaviours are initiated by the sense of smell that completely bypasses the Primate brain, meaning these mammals have no control over their behaviour.

Humans, on the other hand, do have a measure of modulatory control over their 3 motivated behaviours. It is thus in our best interest to ‘work with’ these 3 programmes subsumed in our Mammalian brains that are hyper-effective and can do the job far better without Primate brain interference. Trying to control our motivated behaviours with our Primate brains is a sure way to ill health, misery and addiction. Yes, drugs can regulate our Mammalian brains very effectively, but at huge cost to our overall health
and wellbeing. 

The major price we end up paying is that all forms of external drugs will lead to the rewiring of our brains to become dependent on the external drugs. While OK to use external drugs when we do need them for a while, it is essential to wean ourselves off as quickly as possible, unless we require a drug that our own brains are unable to manufacture for some reason or other.

While it is relatively easy for us to understand ingestive and reproductive behaviours, it is a lot more complicated to put our finger on defensive behaviours. Our defensive behavioural programme kicks in every time we feel ‘unsafe’ in our bodies. Referring to the strict hierarchy of our 3 motivated behaviours, feeling safe in our body is the number one ‘concern’ of our Mammalian brains.

If you feel unsafe for some reason your Primate brain will automatically instruct your Mammalian brain to engage its Fight and Flight setting. It may be a bit of a misnomer to say our Primate brain does something automatically – more correctly it is a ‘conditioned response’.

There is no denying that the Fight and Flight response programmed into our Mammalian brains is a highly effective way to stay alive in a real life or death situation, but how often should we use it in our daily lives? The Fight and Flight setting is very wasteful of bodily resources and even worse, excessive activation will damage all the organs in our bodies, especially the heart, kidneys and blood vessels.

The good news is that apart from co-ordinating the Fight and Flight response, our Mammalian brains are also very good at co-ordinating things like energy balance and repetitive limb movements for locomotor activities like running, cycling, swimming and paddling. This means that locomotor activities should feel as satisfying as eating.

If you would like to find out how to tap into your motivated behaviours and use it to enhance your wellbeing and your performance, then please join us for our next workshop or sign up for a one on one session.