Gratitude: Upgrade Your Life - The Only Question, Always: Growth or Protection?

Author // Marcy Axness, Ph.D.

Article Index
Gratitude: Upgrade Your Life
Revising Our Programming
The Only Question, Always: Growth or Protection?
Growth / Protection Regeneration Gap
All Pages

The Only Question, Always: Growth or Protection?

If you only remember one paragraph of this, this is the one, since its message pervades and informs every moment of your life: At every level of and at every stage of life, an organism is either in growth mode or in protection mode. Expanding or contracting. Reaching out or withdrawing. Unfolding or reinforcing. The entity may be a single cell, a community of cells (such as a person), or a community of people (such as an organization, country or race).

The organ most vulnerable to growth impairment due to stress is the brain, particularly the healthy development of the prefrontal lobes. Neuroscientist Paul MacLean called the prefontals our “angel lobes,” and they are truly our ticket off this ride of repetitive cycles of human-on-human aggression, war and misery. But for lo these 40,000 years with this wondrous, potentially uplifting addition to our neural architecture, we as a human race have thwarted its development—and thus our own glorious evolution—through our threatening actions, both subtle and extreme.

Installing the Upgrade

One of the upgrade functions of the prefrontal lobes is to unite the instinctive, automatic responsiveness of the lower brain centers—the doing and feeling areas—with the more thoughtful, reasoned qualities of the neocortex, resulting in a being whose reflex is to act wisely and with humanity. The ability to retain access to higher brain centers during high-stress situations can actually be trained, as we see with firefighters, paramedics and others whose professions require a cool head during what would normally be perceived as threatening situations.

You can begin to develop this capacity in this very moment. As you continually give birth to your future self through cell regeneration, you have a direct influence on the healthy quality of that growth. Recognizing that your thoughts, attitudes and emotions have a direct impact on the functioning of every cell, tissue and organ—and particularly the brain—you have the power to harmonize them all into coherent, integrated and purposeful function.

Try a little experiment with me: Imagine there is a lemon wedge on a plate in front of you. Pick it up, smell the tart aroma, and then, without a hesitation, put it in your mouth and bite down hard. If you felt saliva pour forth, you have just experienced the power of thoughts in your mind to make things happen in your body. This is a most auspicious time to understand and harness that power. You are at the helm of your ship and the master of your destiny, to a far greater degree than scientists ever before realized (but many philosophers knew). But it is a choice, and not always an easy choice. Our culture doesn’t warmly welcome the cheerful person (calling them “Pollyanna” or branding them on sitcoms as the silly or naïve one), and instead fosters pessimism, cynicism, criticism and other forms of collective negativity. Our very way of life ultimately organizes around consumerism—the Gross National Product is a fundamental measure of our “national well-being” is it not?—and it is far easier to sell things to people who are feeling down! Indeed, from birth onward, we are enculturated to the idea of security having to do with things, which leads to a materialist drive: Getting more and more things, more and more money, bigger cars, etc., somehow shores up our sense of self and security. But the late George Leonard was acute in his observation about the trap of materialism: “You can never get enough of what you really don’t want.”

A Glitch or a Glimmer in the Works

In some cases the communication between the environment and the cell is straightforward: When we’re exposed to the sun, certain ligands park in certain receptors, signaling for melanin to be produced to adapt our skin to sunny conditions. When we see, hear, feel or smell an immediate threat (an armed intruder, a hissing snake, an earthquake, a fire) torrents of ligands flow, dock in receptors, and trigger an arsenal of fight-flight-freeze hormones so that we can effectively respond to the threat.

But in most cases, especially in our modern world, the communication between the environment and the cell passes through an intermediary: your mind. It is through your mind that you perceive your environment—that is, tell yourself a story about it. In this way we can amplify, diminish or even fundamentally redirect the ligand responses to many of our experiences. Our human ability to think creatively, to imagine, to invent, is a double-edged sword; the more painful edge is our ability to create, imagine and invent negative perceptions to environmental circumstances, which we have a natural, survival-based tendency to do. The driver didn’t simply pull in front of you without signaling, he deliberately dissed you and put your life in danger. The electricity didn’t simply disappear due to an outage, it confirmed that “everything’s conspiring against me today!” You get the idea.

This is where Nature’s brilliant design runs into some snags in the 21st century. The way our bodies and brains operate has remained virtually unchanged since we stood upright on the savannah, and yet our world and our worldview have changed dramatically. For most of us, the grave physical threats faced by our distant ancestors have been replaced by more mental and psychological insults (usually made far more insulting by virtue of the story we wrap them in), and this results in a derailment of what used to be an adaptive survival response. In less cerebral times, the very act of running, fighting or even screaming used up all those hormones (adrenaline, corticosteroids, epinephrine) designed to give you quick energy, to make you think fast, to make you run, fight or scream with the most power and effectiveness possible, or even to successfully feign death. This brilliant system even primed the immune system to be ready to attend to injuries you’d probably suffer during the episode. But today we typically don’t express those actions for which we’re biologically primed in stressful circumstances. This is one way that stress puts wear and tear on our bodily systems.

Making it ever worse, we were originally designed to respond effectively to major but only occasional threats. Today’s turbo-paced, traffic-jammed, techno-powered, instant-access, cell-phone-fax-web, information-overloaded e-world is peppered with one mini-threat after another, with little time in between for all those activating hormones to abate and give our machinery a rest. Chronic stress can shrink brain cells, harden arteries, raise cholesterol and impair immune function, among many other negative effects, so it isn’t surprising that stress has emerged as a strong contributing factor to most chronic or degenerative diseases, as well as common acute illnesses like colds and flu.

But research consistently turns up glimmers of empowerment, suggesting that rather than wringing our hands over the unavoidable pressures of modern life, we have the ability to choose which story we tell ourselves about whatever is going on—i.e., to perceive with consciousness—and thereby shape our own being. This is where the power of gratitude and appreciation does its stuff.