Escaping Predators, Catching Prey
Biologically, the High Stakes response was designed to help us do two things:
- to escape predators so that we don’t become food
- to become effective predators so that we have food to eat
For the bulk of human history, our survival challenges have been physical (wild animals, quicksand, fires, floods, rival tribes, hunting…), rather than mental (taking tests, interviewing for jobs, confronting indifferent bureaucrats, filing tax or insurance forms, etc.). The High-Stakes system therefore developed to assist us in meeting physical rather than mental challenges. '
Here is how:
What Our Bodies Do When the Stakes Are High
1. Rapid deployment of energy and resources.
The High Stakes system rapidly deploys our energy and resources to bodily systems capable of responding to High-Stakes threats or opportunities.
- Blood and energy gets shifted from the brain to the muscles, heart and lungs.
- The heart pounds as it shunts blood (oxygen, energy) to the muscles and lungs
- The lungs gulp air as they get oxygen to the bloodstream and heart.
- Muscles tense up and prime for action
2. Shutting down non-essentials
It takes a lot of energy, skill and precision for the body to digest food and repair tissue. We’re basically performing chemical analysis and mico-surgery on ourselves every day. Accordingly, when the stakes are high, these processes shut down to conserve energy. Shutting down our digestives system can make for a lot of physical discomfort. Our mouths get dry. There’s a lump in the throat to stop us from swallowing. We feel nauseous and may even throw up the contents of our stomach to avoid processing it. Out bowels and bladders void to lighten our load, making for cramping and, at times, smelly messes.
How this Explains So-Called ‘Mental Illness’
1. Under-resourced brains
In High-Stakes situations, our brains don’t have much to work with. Our bodily resources are being directed away from the brain to the physical response systems. In these circumstances, our brains do the best they can with what they have:
- They keep our focus on the threat or opportunity. (There is no energy to see the entire forest, so they rivet our attention to a few suspect trees.)
- They don’t bother with ambiguity: You’re either for me or against me.
- They err on the side of self-protection: Shoot first, ask questions later.
This explains why so many of us go mentally blank, miss things, get obsessive, can’t take in new information, and have trouble with remembering what happened. Our brains just don't have the resources they need to keep track of things.
The lack of mental resources also explains so-called poor judgment and impulsivity. Our focus is narrowed due to the threat, so it’s hard to see the big picture.
Also, our brains don’t have what they need for higher order thinking. This contributes to an overall feeling of urgency. Our brains literally want to get this over with as fast as possible so they can go back to being well supplied. It also explains why we revert to old 'tried and true' behaviors in High Stakes, and have trouble learning or practicing new things.
The general dearth of mental resources may also explain why many of us experience altered perceptions. Again our brains don’t have that much to work with – so it’s hard to accurately read the information that comes in from outside.
2. Activated bodies
The High Stakes system explains why we feel so jittery and activated. Under the influence of High-Stakes, our muscles, heart and lungs are getting boatloads of input. As a result, we breath fast (hyperventilate, get short of breath) and our hearts pound. We feel sped up and tense inside. Even if, objectively, we are doing very little, these parts of our body are literally being pumped up and primed for action.
Seen in this context, it is hardly surprising that some of us find it difficult to hold ourselves back, to manage our 'triggers' or to keep from ourselves from reacting in really big ways (“over-reacting”) under the influence of the High-Stakes system.
3. Systems maintenance is out of service
The purpose of the high-stakes system is to maintain high alert until the situation resolves. This ensures that we won’t let in a dangerous threat or miss an important opportunity. To accomplish this, the High-Stakes system intentionally limits the resources allowed for restorative processes like sleep and digestion. A lot of times this means we barely eat or sleep at all under the influence of High-Stakes. The situation just feels, well…, too high-stakes.
On the other hand, sometimes we can’t seem to get enough food or sleep when the stakes are high. We eat tons of food and never feel nourished. Or, we sleep all the time and never feel rested.
What is going on here?
Well, remember what happens in High Stakes...? All the energy and resources that normally would be going to the brain are getting redirected to physical response systems. As a result, our brains are not getting the benefit of the rest or nourishment that we do take in. So, from our brain’s perspective, the food or sleep we are getting is never enough.
A lot of modern mental health professionals take appetite and sleep as core indicators of 'mental illness.' In all probability, many of us are just experiencing 'High-Stakes.' As noted about, the effects of the High-Stakes system explain why we might not eat or sleep much. They also explain why we might not feel very nourished or rested even if we eat a lot or sleep a lot.
In the next Chapter, we will take our understanding a step further and learn how Survival Reactivity can explain many of the individual peculiarities that are commonly interpreted as 'mental illness.'