Prehistoric Wellbeing Tips
Prehistoric wellbeing tip 1: 'Ug' (trans: 'positive action')
OK, things are pretty challenging right now, and I'm not going to insult your intelligence by telling you to look on the bright side or put some drops of lavender on your pillow. BUT ... there's a considerable chunk of your brain that hasn't changed since prehistoric times, and if you make it happy it'll fire up your cerebral reward centres to secrete 'feelgood' neurotransmitters that will both help your mood and encourage more positive behaviours. A lack of these chemicals can lead to anxiety, anger and depression - and all the problems that they can bring.
So - positive action. Life for our cave-dwelling ancestors was physically demanding, so it made sense for there to be a reward for physical activity. You may have heard of endorphins - 'feelgood' hormones which are secreted when we exercise, but have you heard of BDNF - Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor? This is sometimes referred to as 'Miracle-Gro' for the brain, and helps us grow new, positive neural pathways for better coping strategies - and it's also released when we're active. In addition, repetitive large muscle movements are known to be calming if you're anxious.
You don't have to be a gym bunny to feel the mood-enhancing effects of physical activity. It's important to do what you enjoy - be that walking the dog, dancing round the kitchen or getting the garden ready for Spring. If you're mobility impaired there are resources on YouTube to get you started. It's important that you keep going rather than seize up, so start where you are rather than where you'd like to be.
So act like a cave-dweller ... and feel the chemical benefits!
Prehistoric wellbeing tip 2: 'Ug sngg' (trans: 'positive interaction')
Many of us are isolated from our families and social networks at the moment, and some will be feeling downright lonely. For cave-dwellers, interaction was essential to survival. Early humans were much safer in groups than on their own, so being parted from their tribe could be life-threatening – the lone cave-dweller would feel vulnerable and anxious. Sound familiar?
To encourage social interaction, those cerebral reward centres would fire again, and release the ‘happy hormones’ oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin when cave-dwellers came together. These gave a boost of positive emotion and stimulated desire for more interaction – keeping our ancestors connected, protected, and safe.
Feeling connected to our ‘tribe’ is no less important today. If friends or family haven’t been in touch you may feel rejected, but who knows? They may be in a difficult place, and feeling too challenged to reach out right now. Your message or call may help both of you, as helping others releases the same ‘feelgood’ hormones into our system. Researchers have also discovered that when we’re interacting with another person, mirror neurons start to fire in both our brains, with the output of one becoming the input of the other. This forms a positive loop, reflecting back the actions we see in each other. We form an actual intra-cranial bond of ‘empathetic resonance’. Clever, eh?
If you’re missing social interaction, take control. You’re on the internet, because you’re reading this, so have a look round and join groups with common interests. Reddit and Discord (and, I’m sure, many more) are helpful if you have a social disability or anxiety as they are topic-focused and you can interact at your own pace and in your own way; no scrolling through endless loaves of bread or other peoples’ workout regimes! Many adults in Bristol who identify as autistic find the diverse group a fantastic resource where they can meet other adults who share their interests in a relaxed environment.
So interact like a cave-dweller, fire up those mirror neurons and enjoy that flood of happy hormones!
Prehistoric wellbeing tip 3: 'Ug sngg wahey' (trans: 'positive thinking')
I’ve saved the trickiest ‘till last – positive thinking. Don’t worry, I won’t be exhorting you to turn frowns upside down or live your best life – ugh. However, Holocaust survivor Josef Frankl observed that those most likely to survive the death camps were people who could maintain hope and find meaning, even in such horror: ‘the human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive.’
So we've seen how cave-dwellers coped with life – what encouraged them to make positive life choices, and what stepped in to help them when things got challenging – namely, depression, anger, and anxiety.
Too cold to hunt? Go back to bed and conserve your energy. (Depression.) Threatened by a warrior from a different tribe? Punch them in the face. (Anger.) Beasties lurking in the woods? Stay alert. (Anxiety.) These responses ensured our survival, but they were only ever meant as quick fixes for specific situations. Our ancestors would soon have to live, hunt, and connect again – our survival as a species depended on it. Today we’re having the same reactions to the stresses of the modern world, but can stay in these states for too long. This can impact our mental and physical health.
In times of stress, these prehistoric reactions will always seek to protect us. Knowing this can help us keep things in perspective. Tiny steps can make big results if you just keep taking them, one after the other, day by day. Making healthy life choices (staying active, staying connected) will help produce that soup of positive hormones: you’ll feel better, and that will motivate you to keep those beneficial changes going. Take a break from the news and learn something new, message a long-lost buddy, volunteer, cook a healthy meal, get some quality sleep. Focus your eyes beyond your current challenges to one small thing to look forward to when things have eased. Little things make big differences and keep our prehistoric survival system in its place.
So think like a cave-dweller, and avoid stress reactions by adopting behaviours that encourage positive hormones to flow!
Waking up suddenly in the small hours with a head full of stuff is a sure sign that you're overstressed.
Dreaming is the primary way our brain processes the challenges of the day, but it can only deal with so much at once! If your heart sinks when you look at the clock, you're not alone ... many, many people experience this, and especially at the moment. Of course inactivity, isolation and the resultant late night screen binge, fridge raid and tipple or four don't help matters - they're not helping you 'switch off' even if it seems they are.
Boring I know, but getting into good habits to destress in the evening will help to a degree. Stretching, talking things through or writing them down, going to bed before you nod off on the sofa (to sleep, not to scroll on your phone obv) will help, but if you're still waking up at 3am with the world on your shoulders, it may be time to think about how you manage other areas of your life causing you difficulty. Problems seem so insurmountable in the middle of the night, and of course some issues just can't be solved right now, but small changes you can make in your thinking and behaviour around the things causing you anxiety can really lead to big differences in how you feel over time.
Take a small positive step, then another, and another, and you might be surprised how easy it is to leave that sinking 3am feeling behind you.