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“Humans are not built for the kind of stresses that occur every day. We’re just not organised.  We’re organised around the campfire, the lions and that sort of thing, which all didn’t occur at warp speed.  This pressure on human development, this craziness and constant anxiety, leads to more neuroses and more paranoia, not less.”

– Eric Schmidt

In many ways modern Homo sapiens has an easy life.

The average chance of being killed by an animal attack in 2023 is about 1 in 60 thousand – and probably about 10 times less for those of us who don’t live in Africa or Australia!  This is 100–1,000 times less than what it was in the countless millennia of our species’ evolution, and 10–100 times less than our chance of dying in a traffic accident.

Yet we are one of the most fearful of all species.  We’re terrified by tiny non-venomous insects, and worse still we get jittery because of words that other people say, or by the ones we say to ourselves in our own heads!  We can’t cope with minuscule amounts of pain at the dentist, we’re weak-headed when there’s too much attention (“hey Laura, give us a speech!”), or depressed when there’s too little (an unanswered text), and even a simple school reunion can be a profoundly traumatic event for a lot of people…

The problem is that when we encounter these modern day stressors, or worse versions like divorce or unemployment, we react to them in the same way we did when, 20 thousand years ago, we rounded a boulder and came face-to-face with a sabre tooth tiger.

There’s a discord here, a fallacy in the way our nervous systems process and react to perceived threats in the 21st century.  While furiously arguing on the phone with customer service, our bodies are simultaneously preparing us to somehow fight the agent in their distant call centre, or run away from the phone we’re holding in our hand.  Such is the primacy of the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) in times of stress.

And this system is nearly always redundant – even strongly counterproductive.  If your hackles go up every time you’re contradicted in a business meeting, or if the mere words ‘we need to talk’ from a spouse shut down your prefrontal cortex, then in the long run you’re going to end up jobless or alone.

We need a new operating system.

Luckily we have one, right there and ready to be deployed.  It’s the parasympathetic nervous system, and it changes both our physical state (more relaxed and efficient), as well as our mental state (more in control of emotions, and calmer in decision-making).

We’re not just talking about ‘good vibes’ or ‘positive thoughts’: the parasympathetic nervous system enlists potent hormones that have a cascade of effects in almost every organ of the body. Heart rate slows, digestion improves, immunity and libido are boosted, to name a few.  Over time, even the relative sizes of different parts of the brain can be changed.

Accessing this mode of nervous system should be second nature to us.  Your name is called for the job interview?  Parasympathetic please!  It’s been a long day at work and now back at home your daughter is having a tantrum?  I don’t think fighting her or running away from home is the answer – let’s activate zen mode.

Calm in the storm

Everyone has this mode, and some of us may even know how to access it if we concentrate, but the difficulty is that in the heat of the moment we revert back to the old habits of the prehistoric ape; the chaotic frenzy of fight and flight.

So we have to reprogram ourselves for those moments.  We must substitute the chaos with a System that maintains our composure, and it must be so deeply engrained that no matter how stressful or anxiety-inducing the situation is, we respond with calmness and equanimity.

When a foreign bacteria enters our bloodstream it is disarmed and neutralised by the white blood cells of our immune system.  You don’t have to remind them or even be aware that it’s happening.  Such is the standard of the physical immune system, and so it must be also for the Mental Immune System.

It was never my goal to develop such a system.  In my sport of freediving, fight or flight is the nemesis.  If you lose your cool or panic at 100 meters down then you could blackout or even die.  Therefore to set world records on a single breath I was required to redirect this response in a way that was infallible.  I programmed mental and physical techniques into my subconscious mind, overwriting the older instinctive reactions to stress or anxiety.

calmness equanimity in freediving

Only then did I start to notice that this System had extraordinary application not just to the pressures of depth, but also to the more mundane but just as problematic pressures of everyday life.  I showed the System to others, who were quick to learn it and reported the same benefits.  Could this be a real solution to the mental health crisis that 90% of adults say the US is experiencing right now?  I believe it is definitely a very important tool, and one that doesn’t require a grocery list of warnings like most prescription drugs.

The perils of life in the 2020’s don’t have sabre teeth.  They cannot be fought off by fists or escaped by fast feet.  So let us set aside those relics of the savanna, and adopt the unshakeable calmness of a deep ocean.

It’s there in you right now, ready to be deployed.

– William Trubridge