Our Lizard Brain
Let’s talk about the brain, shall we?
The brain, in all its complexities, can help us or harm us, depending on the day, our mood, or the direction of the wind. We know that anxiety is a killer beast, and at the gym, it can really get in the way of progress.
I talk a lot about my experience with this in Geriatric Gymnastics 8: Mental Breakthroughs, and I wanted to look a little more into the science of why that anxiety is so prevalent. I know it seems simple: scary thing that can hurt you = something you’d be hesitant to do. But when it’s something you have done before, something you know your body can do, has done and should be able to do again, it’s even more frustrating when the anxiety screams over rational thought.
Who is Mr. Lizard?
Parts of our limbic system contribute to what is referred to our primitive “lizard brain.” It is called such because it refers to the part of the brain that the lizard has: the brain stem, cerebellum and amygdala. These parts of our brain cover the basic body functions that keep us alive. If we feel threatened, it goes into action. It’s what got activated to save us from impending death when prehistoric humans were face-to-face with a Sabre-toothed tiger (or other sure-fire ways to perish).
When we form habits and learned patterns and procedures, these parts of the limbic system are at work. It’s also the place where feelings of terror and fear initiate. Mr.. Lizard seems to be in charge of processing our experience in terms of raw emotion, personal safety and survival. According to Psychology Today, these areas are the place where the more primitive drives and behaviors are centered, including the “fight or flight” response, hunger and thirst, freezing up and sexuality. These drives seem to circumvent rational thought.
Fearful memories can be formed after only a few repetitions, which can result in avoidance of certain fearful stimuli. Therefore, the amygdala is also linked with the fight-or-flight response, as stimulating activity in the amygdala can influence the body’s automatic fear response.Olivia Guy-Evans, Simplypsychology.org
Surrounding the limbic system is the outer cortex, specifically the pre-frontal cortex, which sets humans apart from the lizard. It is essentially our center for executive function. This part of the brain gives us the power to make complex, wise decisions and regulate our emotional state, so we can be creative, innovative, and take risks.
In the gym, there is a constant battle between the lizard brain and our more advanced pre-frontal cortex. When we practice routines and habits we know well, we are calm and relaxed and Mr. Lizard takes a rest. When we are learning something new, and it seems to “threaten” our physical, emotional or mental stability, that guy jumps into action. Mr. Lizard wants to keep us safe and alive and often puts the kibosh on new, perhaps scary things in the form of anxiety. Mr. Lizard is a fun guy. NOT.
In the gym, there are times when I wish Mr. Lizard would shut the hell up and let me do my work.
The lizard brain reacts immediately to a stimuli. The executive function takes a few more seconds to kick in, making it hard to overcome the fear or freezing that we feel when we are attempting something we are not comfortable doing. It’s a constant battle inside my head between the two.
The neural pathways to the amygdala are faster than those to the cortex so we will feel fear before we can process how likely or rational that fear may be. Thus we have to be able to tolerate that sensation of fear to overcome it.Christine Hudson, Ph.D, Licensed Clinical Psychologist
It’s the acknowledgement and tolerance of that fear that makes progress at the gym such a challenge. Case in point:
Check out my new YouTube podcast called Conversations with the Geriatric Gymnast and the blog that goes along with it. Check it out, subscribe, watch, and enjoy!!
The battle of the back tuck
I have documented my ongoing struggle with back tucks. Lately, I have been grappling with the idea of performing consecutive back tucks on the trampoline. Of late, I have been able to do them in the belt with no problem. My body knows exactly what to do, does it consistently every time and I never actually need assistance from the belt. It’s just there as a mental security blanket. So why would I hesitate to do it without the belt? Why is that transition so hard? What’s the difference?
I think the answer lies in the past. Recalling my back tuck dilemma when I got hurt many years ago, I had to claw my way back from the throes of fear and anxiety to be able to perform the single back tuck with ease and consistency. Now, after many, many, many repetitions over the years, back tucks on the trampoline have become second nature, a basic skill that Mr. Lizard has recorded as safe and habitual. I can even do an extended series of straddle back tucks, an important part of the progression to connect single movements into combinations. But for years, the consecutive back tucks eluded my brain. The thought of throwing the second one right after the first created so much fear that I’d start to breathe heavy, my heart would race and Mr. Lizard put the kibosh on any attempt my executive brain might try to rationalize as safe.
During one recent Tuesday night class, I was jumping on the trampoline. We were each taking turns doing some new things, challenging ourselves to push through the lizard hesitancy. At one point, I asked Tammy what I should do; I had run out of ideas. She blurted out, “back back.” I knew what she meant, and it gave me a familiar moment of pause.
Normally, I’d take that moment, see what my brain was thinking, and immediately decline. Mr. Lizard would wake up and advise against such nonsense. But that day, I guess I had gotten through some challenges that tested my ability to center myself and since I had been successful, I decided to ignore the lizard and give it a try; it was time to trust myself again. My executive brain knew I could. It was time for the lizard to slither aside and let rational thoughts prevail.
I did it. And then, I did it again. I landed both attempts safely and my heart didn’t beat out of my chest. I knew what to do, I trusted my training, and I followed through on what I was trained to do. It was a long time coming, and I had to be patience and graceful with myself, for all of the hesitancy, but I finally broke through. Of course, it doesn’t mean it will be easy-peasy from now on; Mr. Lizard doesn’t forget things easily. But, in this regard, my executive brain just got a promotion.
It’s like taking the training wheels off of a bike. At some point, when you’ve made enough progress for your lizard brain to record a habit, you can go on autopilot. When the rest of your brain catches up, the sky’s the limit. I’m cautiously excited about this breakthrough.
Hopefully Mr. Lizard will keep resting and let this breakthrough stick!
Here are a bunch of resources I used to check into the basics of brain function:
Beyond Our Lizard Brain
Queensland Brain Institute
Limbic System: Definition, Parts, Functions, and Location
Hijack! How Your Brain Blocks Performance
Your Lizard Brain