Here’s a revolutionary thought: if our mind can affect our bodies, why can’t our bodies affect our minds?
According to Rockefeller University neuroscientist Bruce McEwen, writing in his book, The End of Stress as We Know It, “the mind is so powerful that we can set off the stress response just by imagining ourselves in a threatening situation.” We all know that feeling. Heart racing, shallow breathing. Worried about your job? Your relationship? Your kids?
But the reverse—the idea that we can change our thoughts simply by moving—is not making it through mainstream media filters any time soon. John J. Ratey’s book, Spark, written entirely about this subject, was published in 2008, and I bet you’ve never heard of it.
But we need to consider it. Why? The fight/flight response makes physical activity a natural way to prevent the negative physical results of stress—the logical way to discharge the chemical signals our brains have sent out. If we exercise–and I mean simply move in some way–in response to stress, we’re doing what human beings are built to do.
The wild animal that used to threaten us has become, in the 21st century, “the economy” or “downsizing” or just plain worry. But our brains’ response to these threats is exactly the same: we activiate fight/flight mode.
Several of our bodies’ most powerful hormones and neurochemicals ramp up. The amygdala sets off a chain reaction assigning intensity to incoming information–any intense emotional state–could be a gun pointed at you, or you pointed at coworkers from a podium, or your thoughts pointed at your bank account balance–and within ten milliseconds, the amygdala fires off the messages to the adrenal gland to release the various hormones. Epinephrine (adrenaline) hits the bloodstream, raising heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate. Messages to the pituitary gland activate more of the adrenal gland, releasing cortisol. Nonessential systems shut down or at least get flipped to “low,” like digestion and reproduction (hence the cottonmouth feeling). And on and on until you are completely agitated and ready to bolt or fight. But what do we do in the 21st century–nothing. Essentially, we freeze. Freezing ourselves in the midst of this hormonal brew is what does the damage. It produces a cascade of inflammation which produces illness.
A million years ago, we needed to ramp up and run–and here’s the amazing thing–our flight is what grew our brains! We had to rapidly process all data as we ran by, or even as we walked by gathering food: did I cross this stream yesterday? were those roots safe to eat? exactly where was that lion? Our movement produced the complex pathways of our brain. Our movement produced our understanding of the world around us. And scientists now know that our brains never stop growing. Unless we stop using them.
Or stop moving.
For me, that makes movement a core issue.
The more complex the movement, the more complex the brain growth. And the better the use of all those stress hormones. Think tennis instead of a stroll. But if you haven’t got the time or inclination to play tennis or basketball, then just take that walk. Or learn to tango. Hit the bowling alley. Just move. Do something every day. Especially if you feel stressed. Having a bad day? Pick up a jump rope and turn 20.
And remember: it will go to your head.