Brains just want to survive

Brains just want to survive

December 5, 2021 0 By Rick

I was listening to a very interesting podcast called “Pushing The Limits” by Lisa Tamiti, an ultra-athlete from New Zealand. She was hosting Dr. Don Wood, Inspired Performance Institute, a trauma expert and neuroscientist who specializes in dealing with trauma, anxiety and stress to help you get your mind back on track. If you’ve grown up in a traumatic household with lots of fear from an angry parent, this can impact you later in life in ways you might not realize. You might find yourself always fearing that something would go wrong despite living in a harmonious environment. You might find yourself struggling to enjoy life when things are going well. That’s because as a child when things were going well, you knew that things could end abruptly and take a turn for the worse. So, how does that affect you now? It causes you to protect yourself by not getting too excited when things are going well because of your past experience. You remain hyper-vigilant and super sensitive, unable to enjoy the good due to your childhood trauma. So why is this, and how does your brain react and cope? Put simply, it’s programmed to survive.

Can’t tell the difference
Our brains evolved to deal with physical threats to our survival that required a quick response. As a result, our body still responds with biological changes that prepare us to fight, flight, freeze or submit even though there is no physical threat present. Note that I’ve added “submit” to this familiar expression. That’s because sometimes in order to survive, you have to submit and hope for the best (think of animals that play dead when attacked). During times of crisis, chaos and traumatic experiences we shift into “survival mode.” You might have heard this phrase before; but what does it mean? When we experience stressful events, our brains begin to function differently. It’s important to remember that these experiences can either be real-life threats or perceived threats to our safety. Our brain doesn’t know the difference between real threats – like a person pointing a loaded weapon at us – and perceived threats, which can trigger negative thoughts and anxiety. It just reacts. It just wants to survive.

Survival brain
A “survival” brain operates and lives in the present. And believe it or not, that can cause problems. Since we store all details of problems or glitches that happened in the past, when we encounter something in the present that reminds us of older situation, our brains look at old data and create a physiological response to it. The survival brain is now responding to something that happened in the past, which sets off a cascade of chemical reactions in your body because your mind thinks an action is required. You receive a call for action to fix a problem that happened in the past and that can’t be fixed in the now. But your brain can’t see it as something that happened in the past, so it keeps prompting you for action. Obviously, this isn’t going to work, but your survival brain sees it as real and thinks it will work. Your subconscious mind can’t tell the difference between real or imagined. It’s calling for you to fix something that can’t be fixed. And that results in anxiety. It takes a physical toll on your body because cortisol and adrenaline levels go up. Your brain stops worrying about performing the necessary maintenance on itself during sleep, as it’s constantly worried about fixing the threat. That becomes its #1 priority. If we spend too long in this state, we come ill.

In the moment
Your survival brain doesn’t see things as good or bad, right or wrong. It’s literal. It’s in the moment. It has no ability to see the past or the present – only the “right now.” I have wondered why people chose to jump out of the buildings on 9/11. Obviously, the choice was between two horrible deaths – burning to death or jumping to your death. But that’s not how the survival brain works. These unfortunate souls weren’t jumping to die. On the contrary. They were jumping to live. They were jumping to stop the impending death. Jumping from the burning buildings and plunging to your death makes no sense logically. But to the survival brain, it makes perfect sense. Why? Because it was going to stop the ongoing pain from the fire right that second. It didn’t matter that they would die several seconds later. The survival brain doesn’t comprehend that. It only comprehends the present. It only wants to stop the pain. The same is true for addiction.

Dr. Wood has an interesting view of addiction. He believes that memory builds codes strengthened through repetition and provided the following example. I had a lady come in who had been on heroin who told me she had self-destructive behavior.” I said, “Really? Why would you think you’re self-destructive?” She said, “Well I’m sticking a needle in my arm with heroin, don’t you think that’s self-destructive?” I said, “No, I think you’re trying to feel better. I bet you when you stuck the needle in your arm you felt better.” He told her the substance she was using was destructive, but she wasn’t. But because she repeated it – and remember her subconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between good or bad or right or wrong – her mind said, “This must be important for my survival.”

Survival code
This built a survival code linked to the substance, which is why it’s so hard to stop. Dr. Wood believes addiction starts with physical or emotional pain and people want to stop the pain and feel better. So, if we can take a drug and it can stop our mind from feeling the pain that makes perfect sense. I say to people, “The reason people use drugs and alcohol is because they work. They weren’t intentionally trying to go out to be an addict, but their mind built the code linked to the substance, according to Dr. Wood. This certainly puts addiction in a different light. Addicts aren’t broken, they’re just following the survival code in their brain that wants to stop the pain.