Except sometimes we don’t. Sometimes our survival skills malfunction and go into overdrive. Sometimes our brain tries TOO HARD to keep us safe.
There are specific times when our brain works too hard and malfunctions. This usually happens when we:
- Try something new in life or think about trying something new
- Try something unique or different from everyone around us
- Try something new or different in our life that will cause us grow or stretch
- Try something that comes with a risk of failure
I won’t bore you with the detailed technical explanations, but the human brain has three parts and the oldest part of our brain – the reptilian brain – is EXCELLENT at shutting down any of the above behaviors. Our reptile brain will try any and all internal arguments to convince us to stay the same, stay safe, and avoid the danger of being different or doing anything risky. It’s as if our brain can trigger all these warning lights and alarms and sirens whenever we deviate from the narrow path of safety. “Safety” refers to both physical and psychological safety.
After this weekend, I’ve come to discover that
we I need to get better at ignoring all those warning lights and sirens that originate with our reptile brain. Because the truth is, most of those warning lights and sirens are just FALSE ALARMS.
Five months ago, I signed up to do the San Diego Rock ‘N Roll Half Marathon. I signed up to support a friend recovering from leukemia – and 2 others signed up as well. The 4 of us picked this race as John’s “comeback event” to prove to himself he had beat cancer. I had absolutely no performance goals, this was a race to be done purely for fun and to support a friend. I did minimal training, but in the 2 weeks leading up to the race I definitely made some training errors and suffered from minor injuries. Nothing major, but I was limping.
5 days before the race I injured the ball of my right foot and started limping more severely.
3 days before the race, I woke up with a severe Charley horse that left my calf muscle knotted and tight.
2 days before the race, I developed symptoms of a sinus infection.
I was the walking wounded. Left hip and right foot out of commission, combined with a probable sinus infection and lingering Charley horse. I knew the race would be ugly.
But I really wasn’t going to complain, especially not to my friend who just finished chemotherapy 6 months ago. I would suck it up buttercup and I’d run the damn race. Just me and my container of ibuprofen.
The 4 of us found each other at 6:00 AM at the starting line and kicked things off with a very consistent 10:00 minute/mile pace. That felt comfortably slow for me and I was happy that no body parts were screaming at me. There were some rolling hills during the first 5 miles, but nothing major and I was feeling surprisingly strong. By mile 6, we were past the hilly parts, and I started to relax. I was enjoying the music on my ipod, appreciating the cool cloudy weather and keeping an eye on my friends.
And then. Then around mile 7 all hell broke loose. Let me be more specific, my left knee stopped working. I stopped being able to bend my left knee. It just wouldn’t work. At all. I suddenly felt like I was doing all the running work with my right leg, and I was just dragging my left leg along for the ride. I started to panic. How could I possibly run another six miles with one leg out of commission?! Every time my left foot hit the ground it felt like someone was taking a sledgehammer to my left knee. Every landing was excruciating. And the pain wasn’t fading – it was getting worse. I literally couldn’t straighten my left leg without shooting pain, agonizing pain.
I didn’t want to say anything to my friends, because they didn’t look like they were having a good time either. But I wasn’t going to just stop and walk by myself, that would be totally lame. So I did the only thing I could think of – I broke out the ibuprofen. I put 3 pills in my hand and hoped we would find water soon. Somewhere around mile 8 was another water aid station and I swallowed my ibuprofen and hoped for the best. Meanwhile I was still having the sledgehammer effect going on.
It literally felt like my left knee could be ripped from my body at any moment. I cannot even describe the sharpness of the pain that came with every footstrike. The only reason I was able to keep going was because I had experienced this same feeling before, on this same course, 7 years ago when I did the full marathon. I had the exact same sledgehammer effect going on, on the same leg. Because I had experienced the same pain before, I rationally knew I wasn’t actually going to break my leg. I knew I wouldn’t permanently damage my body. I had suffered through this pain before and I had survived.
However, during this mile, my brain was trying every possible trick to get me to stop running. Fear of permanent body damage kept running through my head, and I envisioned myself spending weeks or months in a wheelchair or on crutches. I actually thought about how I would drive to work if my left leg was in a cast. I observed my brain as it imagined every possible negative scenario in an attempt to get me to stop and walk. Perhaps I might even need surgery to repair the knee damage. All sorts of terrible awful outcomes were possible and my brain envisioned all of them. Repeatedly.
But I didn’t ever stop running. Instead, I just kept reminding myself that I wasn’t going to die.
And then somewhere around mile 9 every single pain in my body slowly disappeared. The knee pain, the foot pain, the sinus pain, everything slowly faded away. A spectator handed me a popsicle and I ate it. And then I started singing out loud because I was happy again. I might have even danced a little bit to one of the bands playing seventies disco.
My knee didn’t hurt and neither did anything else on my body. I was still sweaty and still tired, but I had broken through to the other side of all that fear and resistance. For an entire week my body had been throwing up obstacles to me, and I refused to yield to them. I had insisted on pushing through them all.
And on the other side of those aches and pains was smooth sailing. Once my lizard brain realized I wasn’t going to give up, it gave up fighting me. And then everything got a whole lot easier.
Miles 10 to 13 were a victory lap for me. They were a victory lap because I was having fun, with friends, and I was free. I reflected on all the obstacles I had pushed through over the past 12 months and suddenly realized how truly free I was.
It sounds odd to say I was suddenly full of joy and serenity after 11 miles of running but that’s exactly what I felt. I felt like I had discarded all the body aches and pains behind me – I had left them back on the road around mile 8. It literally felt like I had a new body. It seemed as though my lizard brain had just been throwing up all sorts of illusionary injuries in an attempt to stop me. Because this is how the mind works – it uses whatever tricks possible to keep us safe and secure. But those tricks are just false illusions.
Even when our lizard brain tries to convince us we are dying, we usually aren’t. That’s just our lizard brain attempting to keep us safe and secure. That’s our lizard brain trying to get us to stop running. Our lizard brain is always trying to get us to STOP DOING all the crazy new things in life that just might make us happy.
Our lizard brain wants us to stop running, stop growing, stop pursuing that new career or that new relationship or the new fitness habit. Our lizard brain wants us to stay exactly the way we were last year.
The lizard brain thrives on fear. And it starves on courage.
And once we realize this fact, we can recognize the lizard brain illusions when they appear. In fact, all those lizard brain illusions can be seen for what they really are – confirmation we are on the right path in life. Resistance and fear are really just validation we are pursuing something in life that matters. If it didn’t matter, there wouldn’t be any resistance. Resistance and fear just mean we’re moving in the right direction. And we need to keep moving in the right direction, right past the fear and resistance.
Once the lizard brain realizes we aren’t giving up on our goals and our values, then the lizard brain gives up. Because it’s one and only tool is fear.
The antidote to fear is not ibuprofen. The antidote to fear is us knowing what we care about in life. When we know what has meaning in our life, we can pursue those things with clarity and persistence, despite all lizard brain fear. I was doing this half marathon to support my friend. And I was going to run the race with him regardless of the aches and pains I encountered.
The ibuprofen wasn’t what turned things around for me in the race. Yes, it definitely played a part, but it’s now 20 hours later and I haven’t taken any more ibuprofen and my aches and pains have not returned. The foot pain, hip pain and knee pain have all disappeared for a full 20 hours. I’m walking normally and my body is completely fine. I’ve had no alcohol, no massage, nothing but food and naps. And my body still feels great.
I believe resistance in our life is just a wall we have to push through. And every time we push through the wall, we get closer to those things that matter most in life.
I hope you know what has meaning in your life, so you can pursue that with focus and commitment. Because you are so much smarter than your lizard brain. You are smart enough to know those visions of knee surgery are just an illusion, and the half marathon isn’t really going to kill you.
Illusions aren’t real. Fear isn’t real. And the antidote to fear isn’t ibuprofen, it’s persistence.