Raiders of Health

Do you remember this scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark:  After Indiana Jones takes an improbable pounding chasing the bad guys, we find him a little worse for wear in the berth of a ship with the enamoured Karen Allen.  Her glow is met by his fatigue, her kiss by his snore, but just before he sleeps she scolds him, “You’re not the man I knew ten years ago”, to which he replied, “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage”.

True that.  What might we learn if we were each fitted with a sort of life odometer that displayed our ‘mileage’, the amount of wear and tear we accrue as the months and years bounce by?

One thing we would see is that chronic stress gets that odometer ticking.  And a remarkable body of research is showing that stress gets under our skin, so to speak, during sensitive periods of our development and changes our long-range vulnerability to depression and anxiety, addiction, social isolation, disease, injury, dementia and death.   Ughh!

The biological processes of a developing child’s body and mind are shaped and changed by the conditions that the child encounters.    Early life adversity, as it’s called, such as physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, harsh discipline, parental unresponsiveness and neglect, poverty and witnessing violence subjects a child to an environment full of threat, shock and danger.  

Danger is biologically important information.  Evolution has it that we naturally adjust in whatever ways those adjustments can be made so that we can most optimally meet future conditions.  Because nature doesn’t have a crystal ball, the adjustments that get made are based in the conditions that are commonplace in the child’s life.  Development tunes the body and mind, reflecting the way it is.  Human and animal research has clearly established that if danger is present with some frequency, then the developing stress and immune systems learn and morph to mirror the requirement to deal with danger, and these changes can persist apparently for the duration of the individual’s life.

Adults who had suffered early life adversity react with more and longer lasting fear and have stronger and longer stress reactions.  The diseases and problems of adulthood that are clearly associated with stress, such as heart disease, are more prevalent in those who suffered childhood adversity.  A Johns Hopkins Medical School study followed medical students/physicians for 40 years and found, in that affluent and educated population, that those who had suffered childhood adversity had 2.4 times the rate of coronary heart disease by age 50.

Childhood maltreatment is borne through a person’s life at the levels of cells and systems; it becomes a part of how we are.   Chronic childhood stressors program changes in certain types of immune cells that result in over-responding to injuries and infections.   These changes get embedded in the way DNA cranks out the battle materials when threats from viruses and wounds occur.  These and other changes produce more inflammation and less responsiveness to the signals that would down-regulate the stress response.

Behavioural changes also get baked in to the cake and further undermine long-term health.  Effected adults more often participate in unhealthy, high mileage lifestyles including poor diet, smoking, alcohol abuse and less exercise.  They tend to be more socially isolated due to the learned tendency for vigilance to threat and mistrust of others.

No child is responsible for the conditions in which they grow up and so it’s most important that health policy catch up with what science is telling us about stress, emotional health and physical health.  I’m sorry to say that the Conference Board of Canada, self-described as,”The foremost independent, not-for-profit, applied research organization in Canada” mentioned “stress” only once, as an afterthought, in their Canadian Heart Health Strategy document from January 2010.  Their slogan, “Insights You Can Count On”, suggests instead that we cannot yet count on seeing policies that embrace the reality that emotional health is a major and very costly public health issue.


“Go with your gut reaction!”  The more savoury interpretation of that often heard advice is to trust your intuition.  I’ve said this to people and often I’ve drawn on the idea myself.  And doesn’t it indeed feel like an act of trust, trusting something in yourself that you just can’t quite put your finger on?  Ah, but is our intuition faultless and truly trustworthy?

We may like to believe that our intuition taps in to some deep, sage-reservoir of wisdom and truth, guiding us in our decisions.  And although intuition may prove to be wise at times, research is showing that intuition is largely a sense of things that flows from the feel of familiarity, from the automatic creation of ideas assembled from the most readily available associations and from biases born in evolution.  Leaving to intuition big decisions about careers or relationships or purchases may be the stuff of human folly.

Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel winner, recently summarized the research on thinking and intuition in his new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

How we see things is often primed by context and by what has gone before.  Seeing EAT leads you temporarily to complete SO_P as soup and not soap and the opposite would happen if you had first seen WASH.  Somewhat weightier, voters endorsed increased school funding when the polling station was located in a school vs. another location, and this effect was greater than the voting difference between parents vs. others.

When people do a word association test in one office that includes words such as Florida, forgetful, bald, gray, wrinkle, they take more time to walk down a hallway to get to another office.  The priming of the idea of old age slows behaviour.  Even mood can be primed by what has gone before. 

Evolution has equipped us with biases in how we size up other people in terms of dominance (for example, a strong chin) and likability or friendliness, using face shape and expression.  But in our modern world, the body of research shows that our rapid judgements about people based in appearance are often not checked and looked at more closely.  For example, physical appearance has been shown to have a significant influence on voting in elections, even though there is no relation between facial features and competence in government office.

Our intuition is shaped by familiarity.  Safety is a big deal in survival and evolution, and so our minds today seek and soften to the scent of familiarity.  Repeated exposure to things (hello advertising) fosters a feeling of safety and ease.  Preferences shift in favour of the familiar, and we become less inquiring and critical.

Our minds store vast troves of experience that are highly associatively linked, forming ideas, concepts, narratives and clusters of impressions.  Overall, our mind continuously updates (but rarely revises) grand ideas about how the world is and who we are, keeping it all straight if not correct.   From this, with effortless ease our mind invents causes and intentions, neglects ambiguity and suppresses doubt.

If something passes by us we have intuitive feelings and opinions about it with no questions asked.  We leap to conclusions, we have answers to questions we don’t even understand and we draw on evidence that we can only vaguely explain.  Our intuitions set us up to be overly optimistic about things we like and to overestimate benefits and underestimate costs.

Making decisions that support your best interests may require some time, research and serious thought.  The evidence shows, however, that our minds are quite naturally lazy; we’re more inclined to intuit from the hammock than get sweaty.  Heed Einstein:  “Sometimes one pays most for the things one gets for nothing”.


“If you keep going in the direction you’re headed, that’s where you’ll end up.”  That nugget from a Buddhist monk kind of ‘rhymes’ with one of Yogi Berra’s quips, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up somewhere else.”  Yogi’s gem hints that we all harbour some, perhaps unstated, destination that we’d like to reach, and I’d guess that for most of us we’d like to be headed toward health, happiness and togetherness.

But what if, on honest appraisal, you can see that there are distinct signs that you’re headed in some unwholesome if not dangerous directions?

Some change of course may be important.  Our most common efforts seem to entail medications as well as materialism; that we’ll “become” the person we want to be if we just buy THIS.  Therapy for many of us might seem too tough or too costly or too vague an undertaking.  Are there other ways?

Recent research shows that your lifestyle itself can be significantly beneficial for (or destructive of) your mental health.  Lifestyle choices in exercise and diet, and your involvement with your community, nature and technology can all have considerable effects on your mental and physical well-being.

Your mind is so intimately interconnected with both your body and your world that where one stops and another starts is unknowable.  Not surprisingly, then, recent research is showing us that beneficial changes in physical health seep in to our emotional well-being, that connecting with each other and with the world in particular ways will enrich your mind and your heart.

Exercise is therapeutic for many physical disorders and can reduce vulnerability to depression and neurodegenerative diseases, including age-related cognitive losses.  Exercise increases brain volume and cerebrovascular health.

Something else to chew on:  A diet that includes (1) multicoloured fruits and vegetables – a rainbow diet, (2) fish and/or supplements of omega-3 fish oils and which (3) reduces your caloric intake helps mind and body significantly.  The accumulating evidence pointing to adult neuroprotective benefits of omega-3s and possible decreases in attention-deficits, aggression and vulnerability to psychosis in adolescents recommends that everyone look into this supplement and check the few risks that have been reported. The “globesity” epidemic is associated with medical and cognitive problems, and over-eating weighs complexly on the minds of many. 

Time in nature and obtaining exposure to full spectrum light may be increasingly important as we spend more time with our eyes locked on to one electronic device or another.  ‘Mental health screen’ sounds like a new app, not a gut check.  Technopathologies, techno-stress, on-line compulsive disorders, screen sucking, data smog and hyperreality – “a simulated life-world that seems more real than reality” – creep our lives and give little that soothes.  In contrast, nature nourishes like nothing else and offers a stillness and silence that whispers wholesome truths, if you listen patiently and carefully.

Warm-hearted gratitude, kindness, reciprocity, acceptance, belonging, love and compassion are all resonant to our deep nature as social mammals.  Richer relationships reduce health problems, from common colds to neuropathologies, as well as psychological problems.  Our recreational activities, play and playfulness, may blend time in nature, good time with people and meaningful pursuits, all of which decrease stress.

And finally, the new embrace of the ancient practices of yoga (wisely-taught), tai chi and meditation may be one of the timeliest trends witnessed in participatory health care – the taking of responsibility for one’s own health. After all, no one else can richly regulate the course of your life for you.  Living as if your life really matters by exercising an attentiveness to one’s lifestyle can, day by day, help any of us chart healthier choices and live the benefits that follow.