Have you ever had an experience like this? You finally join a gym where you can learn how to work out, take some group classes and hopefully get healthier - but when the time comes to actually get started, or keep going, you start freaking out a little bit, the excuses for why you can’t get to class, or shouldn’t be exercising keep popping up in your head, and you end up not going or even all-out quitting? That’s your Critter Brain at work. It’s “protecting” you from this new change in your life, and this could be a fundamental reason why you might be struggling with getting and staying healthier.
We’ll get to why your Critter Brain is so crucial to your health journey in a moment, but first let’s look at the multiple parts of your brain. Your brain has three key parts that are all responsible for different functions in your body. Each of these has a different set of instructions and descriptions about what keeps us well and safe:
Your Cortex, or “human brain”, deals with the logical, human, conscious mind. It likes reasons and rationalization for doing things. This is the part of us that justifies our choices and behaviors and makes meaning out of our feelings and experiences. It’s also the one that constantly looks for ways to improve, create and discover new things. Example: I know that if I go to the gym and exercise, I’ll feel better and get healthier, and finally lose those stubborn extra pounds!”
Your Limbic System is in charge of generating emotions. It uses emotion to promote a sense of safety and well-being, and these emotions drive us toward or away from experiences that affect love, safety and belonging. Example: “Maybe if I lost weight and could fit into my clothes again, people might like me better.”
And lastly, your Brain Stem, or “Critter Brain” is in charge of the physical things: heart rate, breathing, blood sugar, and anything to do with keeping you alive (similar to how critters operate to stay alive). Example: “What the heck is happening to me here?? Exercise is so hard, and my heart is beating so fast, and I’m sure I can’t breathe – this cannot be good for me!! I need to stop this stuff right now.”
The Critter Brain is constantly taking a recording of your entire neural system and categorizing it in terms of risk vs safety. It’s looking for where your survival may be threatened. And it doesn’t like change or unpredictability at all because you might just wind up dead, and that would be a bad thing. It gets really set with what it knows it can survive and looks to have those same experiences over and over again. Anything new gets coded as unfamiliar (Unfamiliar = Risky = Unsafe). So, if you survived an experience once, that experience is worth repeating because you didn’t die the first time, even if that’s not an experience you actually want. And then you’ve established a pattern.
Our human brain, our Cortex, is always imagining things being different and better, while our Critter Brain is simultaneously trying to make sure that everything stays the same (safe!), and the Limbic System is just trying to keep the peace. Does sound like some inner conflict you’ve experienced before?
So, how could this really be affecting your health? Well, what if that “survival experience” for you was losing weight and gaining it back again – over and over. We keep doing it over and over and it didn’t kill us – so to the Critter Brain, it’s working! We imagine that we can lose the weight, feel and look better, and keep it off. But what really happens is we go on a “diet” for a while, we eat differently, lose some weight, others might start to notice, and then the Critter Brain kicks in with “Oh, no! Things are changing and it’s hard, and different and people are noticing me! I can’t have the foods and drinks that make me happy and I’m out of my comfort zone!” So, we eventually give up, go straight back to that lifestyle we’re used to, and then we’re happy and safe and comfy again - but no healthier than when we started. And this can happen over and over again…..Sound familiar?
While there is no magic formula or simple routine for silencing your critter brain, the first step you can take is just to understand the “why” behind your thoughts and actions and fears, and how your critter brain is likely a key reason you’re stuck in the same old health rut. A fear of changing things. When you realize what is actually holding you back, and it’s not just a lack of motivation, you can logically convince yourself that a new health routine is probably not going to negatively impact your survival (like winding up dead), which then frees you up to move forward with change and hopefully a healthier, new you!