ST. LIC. MFT 18338 | Call (310) 391-3853

Evolution – Brain and Stress

Evolution, the Brain and Stress

Our brain and body were not meant to handle stress as a lifestyle. The “flight or fight”
part of our nervous system was meant to be a tool for handling crises  and not a
permanent state of mind. Feeling the effects of acute stress is supposed to make us
aware that we need to slow down, calm down and think about what’s going on. In this
way stress can promote positive changes or make us consider changing our attitude
in some way. An ideal level of stress may prompt positive change. However, currently
stress has risen to extreme levels.  In addition to the mental health issues this creates,
it is believed that for some people it may accelerate the aging and disease process.

Humans have become susceptible to stress of a more abstract kind than our ancestors
were, due to evolutionary changes in our brains that developed between the appearance
of homo erectus 1.9 million years ago and homo sapiens 500,000 years ago. The brain
doubled in size during that time, and another 15 percent since then. This development
of our frontal lobes provided some advantages, such as making us better able to plan
for the future, keep our impulses in check,  and set goals. But these same lobes are also
a major source of neurotic thoughts and behaviors. They enable us to worry,  increase
our capacity to acknowledge our own mortality, and be self-conscious.

Other parts of the brain grew larger in capacity as well.  The hippocampus assists in
forming memories and the amygdalae assign emotions to various situations and
determine the level of emotional intensity. The good news about these enhanced
functions is that they enable us to learn from the past. However, the past can be hard
to forget which enables us to feel scarred by our past. Consequently we no longer live
automatically in the moment.

Neuroscience and Eastern contemplative practices both advocate the message that
we feel better (and less stressed) if we narrow our focus to the present moment, which
our brains can more easily handle. The current popularity of meditation is that it helps us
relearn  how to do this.  As Mel Brooks said, “now thyself.”

Perceiving Fear

And speaking of the brain, here is a link to research on how the brain perceives fearful

Movie Recommendation

Last week an award-winning independent film was shown in West Hollywood for just one
week-end.  The movie is Canvas, a touchingly beautiful story of a family coping with mental
illness, based on a true story. One in four families copes with a family member (or more)
with a severe mental illness. If it comes back to theatres or when it is out in DVD I hope you
have the opportunity to see it.

Parting Words

From Aldous Huxley: “We live our lives looking forward and we understand it
looking backwards.”