Imagine our brain as a room with one giant filing cabinet in the centre of it. The filing cabinet is made up of many drawers (representing memory networks), which are filled with many files (representing brain cells). At birth, most of these files are strewn about the room haphazardly, with relatively few being stored in the filing cabinet. During the course of our life, the files in the room are gradually organized into drawers of the filing cabinet.
Implicit memory governs much of our behaviour. Such memories are like unconscious mental software packages - they quickly compare present events to past experiences, make assessments and predictions about the current situation, and initiate the appropriate reaction. And while for the most part, this is very adaptive, it comes at a cost.
What makes something traumatic for one person and mildly disturbing for another? Why does the idea of public speaking leave one person exhilarated and another paralyzed with panic? Our nervous system has an ideal climate; a Goldilocks zone in which it operates best. This zone is called the Window of Tolerance, and where we are in relation to it has tremendous impacts on our mood, emotional state, and mental capacity.
In the realm of mental health, the word “trauma” can invoke a lot of different ideas and associations. There tends to be a general consensus around what is sometime referred to as “Big T” trauma, while there is somewhat less agreement in the realm of “small t” trauma. The difficulty with categorization provides a clue as to how the premise of the question might be flawed.
As far back as ancient Greece, there has been an understanding that there is some qualitative difference between the mind and the body. The body is something we can touch and feel and see, while the mind seems more elusive. While the body is made of the physical, the mind is made of the electrical, the energetic, perhaps the spiritual. But where does the brain fit in? And disorders such as depression and anxiety – to which domain do they belong?
In the context of our health accounts, the fight-or-flight system is energetically expensive and burns through our savings faster than high-interest credit cards. So how do we manage our health finances? What is the equivalent of an RRSP in health terms? When do we focus on accruing savings vs. minimizing spending? And what does it mean in practical terms to invest in our health?
In bank account terms, our fight-or-flight system (which is our prevailing operating system when we’re under stress) is a rampant spender, while our rest-and-digest system (which governs our bodies when we’re relaxed) is the fiscally responsible saver. The bottom line, as it were, is that if we’re hoping to make it into retirement with a healthy savings, we need to manage our spending and make regular contributions to our savings account.
Our body has two basic operating systems; the “fight or flight” system and the “rest and digest” system. Both of these systems are vital and we need them both, but we need them in the right balance. And unfortunately, as a society, we are drastically out of balance. Our bodies were never meant to be exposed to a sustained stress response, which is why chronic stress is implicated in obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disease and countless others.