Ancient Bodies, Modern Lives

Before COVID-19, I attended an antique car show in Shelburne, Vermont. There were cars there that dated back to the 1910’s. The owners of these old cars were eager to describe the work they did to update their vehicles and also to share all kinds of interesting information. For example, I learned that early cars drove about 8 miles per hour. Imagine taking one of those out to navigate our modern highways! I think my favorite part of the exhibit was seeing how those early models gradually evolved into the cars of today.

Automobiles, like all machines, are constantly being updated to meet the changing demands of our lives. The only machine that never gets a major remodel is the body. Our basic design has remained the same for tens of thousands of years, although life has obviously changed a whole lot! We have to take our old-style bodies out to navigate life in the modern world, and sometimes that can cause challenges. Today I’d like to describe three challenges our ancient bodies pose for us, and offer some suggestions for overcoming these challenges.

1. The Stress Response

We’re each standardly equipped with a brilliant stress response system that’s managed by the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of our autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system regulates all of the body’s involuntary processes, including heart rate, digestion, reproductive function, and breathing.

In keeping with my car analogy, the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system can be likened to the gas pedal, and the parasympathetic is like the brake. When we encounter a stressful experience, the sympathetic nervous system is triggered and increases heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. Stress hormones are produced, and functions that aren’t needed for immediate survival, like immune function and digestion take the back seat.

This stress response is also known as the fight or flight response. When the stressor has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, slowing the heart and breath and allowing other important but less urgent systems to kick into gear. The stress response is designed to balance fight or flight with ample opportunity to rest and digest.

Why the Stress Response is an Ancient Body Problem

Our ancient bodies pose a problem here because even though our stress response has remained the same, our stressors have changed a lot. In the past, our stressors were life-threatening and required that we run for our lives or fight for our lives, and the sympathetic nervous system is designed to meet those needs.

Contemporary stress is quite different. We experience stressors that are typically not life-threatening, like deadlines, traffic, and worries about our jobs or our finances. And our stressors occur pretty much all the time.

But our bodies haven’t adapted to the changing nature and frequency of our stressors. Whether a tiger is chasing us or we’re stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle on the way to work, our sympathetic nervous systems kick in. We don’t have the opportunity to make adequate use of all the biochemical changes caused by the sympathetic nervous system, and we don’t get to balance some fight or flight with lots of rest and digest, per our design.

Many of us are chronically revved-up and our relaxation systems are sorely under-used.

The Modern Body Solution to the Stress Response Problem

breathe11Conscious breathing is a time-honored stress management technique. The reason it’s so helpful is because conscious, full breathing is a great way to overcome the challenge of our ancient stress response.

As I mentioned earlier, part of the automatic stress response is rapid breathing. We have no control over whether we breathe, it’s an automatic function, but we do have some control over HOW we breathe, and by consciously slowing our breathing, we can trigger our parasympathetic rest and digest response. When we do that, we can manage the impact of modern stress on our ancient bodies!

Here's a guided natural breathing practice you can try right now.

2. The Negativity Bias

Leading experts on emotion have defined 7 emotions that we all experience: anger, contempt, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, and surprise. Isn’t it interesting that only one of these emotions is a positive one?

Human beings appear to be wired for negativity. The psychologist Rick Hanson described this negativity bias, noting that the brain is like Teflon for the positive and Velcro for the negative. Our standard equipment includes finely tuned negativity sensors, and from the perspective of our predecessors, a negativity bias makes sense.

Why the Negativity Bias in an Ancient Body Problem

As I mentioned earlier, our ancient ancestors lived in a far more dangerous world. Danger was often life-threatening, and it’s likely that our upbeat ancestors who weren’t tuned into danger, didn’t survive.

Once again, we live in a different world today, and positive emotions are important in modern life. They’re helpful for our relationships, they help us be more creative, persistent, and journalresilient, and studies suggest that positive emotions may be beneficial for our health.

Dr. Barbara Frederickson was one of the earlier researchers to study the value of positive emotions, and she suggests that in order for us to experience the benefits of positivity, we should strive for a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative emotions. But with our deeply ingrained bias toward negativity, we are once again handicapped by our ancient bodies.

The Modern Body Solution to the Negativity Bias

Applied positive psychologists have been working hard at developing interventions to increase our capacity to experience positive emotions. For example, gratitude journaling can help us increase our positive to negative ratio.

The way I think of it, negative emotions can save our lives, but positive emotions can improve our lives, and by taking time to consciously practice being grateful, we can give ourselves a positivity upgrade that will help us perform better in the modern world!

3. The Safety-Seeking Brain

Fascinating research by Dr. Stephen Porges, over the last decades, has led to a new understanding of the importance of social and emotional safety. Dr. Porges suggests that the human brain and nervous system are designed to function in a socially interdependent society.

We’re hard-wired to tune into signs of “safety” from others. Hugs, warm facial expressions, and vocal intonations trigger our parasympathetic nervous system and allow us to feel safe in social settings so we can flourish. And the absence of such signs of safety can activate the stress response.

Why the Safety-Seeking Brain is an Ancient Body Problem

Even before COVID put so many of us into isolation, in our modern society, we were too often disconnected. Many of us already interacted largely via social media, and phone contact has been largely replaced by email and texting for many of us. Our social media “friends” and “connections” only offer a superficial connection, and don’t trigger our parasympathetic nervous systems to comfort us.

Early experiences also can impact our capacity to feel safe. If we didn’t experience warmth and connection with our early caregivers, we can grow up without the capacity to tune into cues of social safety, and this can handicap our relationships and our ability to thrive. In this example of our ancient bodies providing us with a challenge, a delightful solution may lie in the practice of kindness and self-compassion.

The Modern Body Solution for the Safety-Seeking Brain

Research suggests that by choosing to be kind and compassionate, we can capitalize on our innate need for connection. We can offer people the gift of warmth and connection by offering acts of kindness, and we can provide ourselves with a sense of safety even when the outer world doesn’t, by offering ourselves warmth and compassion.


A Conscious Upgrade

Toward the end of the day at the car show, the exhibitors proudly drove their antique cars out of the exhibition grounds and right onto the busy roads of Northern Vermont. All of their cars retained their original design, but they also all needed attention and upgrades in order to be able to negotiate contemporary roads.

Just like these auto-enthusiasts, we can consciously upgrade our old model bodies so we can flourish and thrive despite the challenges posed by our ancient design.
By working with our breath, taking time for gratitude, and practicing kindness and self-compassion (all very pleasant activities, by the way), we can balance our over-stressed old nervous systems, compensate for our hard-wired bias toward negativity, and soothe our safety-seeking brains.
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