Every WaterTriber knows that the physical part of completing a challenge is far easier than the mental part. However, in reading through the various blogs, past and present, mention of physical preparations always precedes a discussion of what we do to ward off the mental demons. Indeed, I realize that I was about to follow the same trend when, in my first post, I essentially dismissed the mental preparation when I noted it would take place concomitantly with the physical training. That’s after acknowledging how important the mind is! I’m not sure why so many of us pay lip service to the importance of attitude, motivation, and other domains of the mind, yet proceed to document time practicing on the water, working out in the gym, etc. without even a mention of the critical significance of the brain. That’s why I’m going to depart from my original intent and pick up the physical training later.
The amygdala is a tiny, almond-shaped structure tucked away in the inner recesses of your brain. Think of it as your personal Office of Homeland Security. Even when you are not consciously aware of a lurking threat, this part of your brain is monitoring the environment and connecting the dots. When it happens subconsciously, we call it intuition. Activation of this structure will make you depressed, sap your motivation to continue, and interfere with your ability to make good decisions. You don’t want any of that to happen late at night, deep in the Everglades, or when you must guide a crippled boat through rough surf ahead of a looming storm. That’s when you need all of your wits about you, which, in turn, requires an amygdala that’s operating in the safe zone.
There are two things that will cause this tiny brain structure to go haywire and give rise to the things that will have you heading back to civilization instead of to the finish line. One is stress. It makes sense. If you are faced with adversity, then safety becomes a high priority, and your brain will urge you to take steps to withdraw and to seek refuge in familiar territory. It’s pretty clear from reading the waiver that all WaterTribe events are likely to present any number of dangerous scenarios – exactly the type that will have you torn between heading back to the parking lot at Fort Desoto or continuing into the dark and stormy night. But anyone who has read this waiver knows that. Chief makes it very clear that no permanent decision should be made until after a good meal and a decent night’s sleep. Let the stress wear off and the amygdala calm down before making a decision. Indeed, when I managed the 2011 EC, I always told people who called at night to report their dropping out that I would wait until hearing from them the next morning before making it official. Stress interferes with judgment and motivation. We know that, and we prepare ourselves, in part, by simply having that awareness. However, there’s something else that will have your amygdala firing in the red zone, thereby pressuring you into a decision that you ultimately may regret. Like the mind, we all pay lip service to it, but then we ignore or even abuse it. It’s called the immune system.
White cells are doing far more than battling bacteria and viruses. In recent years, scientists have learned that the immune system communicates with the brain. In recent months, we now know that just about any form of inflammation is capable of activating your amygdala and, thereby, triggering depression, sapping your motivation to continue, and interfering with your ability to make good decisions. That, too, makes sense. When you are fighting an infection, you don’t want to be motivated to kick up your heels and expend lots of energy when your immune system needs to restore your health. However, commonplace things that well might happen between the start and finish of a WaterTribe challenge also can set this process in motion. Anything capable of triggering inflammation is going to turn on the immune system, which, likewise, is going to turn on the part of your amygdala that will make it difficult to make wise decisions. And it doesn’t have to be the type of inflammation that will find you devouring amounts of ibuprofen capable of subduing a horse. It could be that mild gum infection that you might have been ignoring, that swelling on your big toe from when you cut yourself on an oyster bar heading out of Chokoloskee that you might have been dismissing. How about a mild reaction to some bad water or that poorly cooked burger you ate at the marina restaurant? Or those badly swollen feet and hands? You stoically may press on, thinking that the physical part of the injury is the most serious obstacle that you need to overcome. However, there’s a mental part as well. The chemicals produced by an activated immune system act in the brain to make you lethargic, to sap your motivation, and to make bad decisions, etc. This may not be a problem under normal circumstances. However, when you find yourself in a rapidly failing environment, trying to determine how best to get to the finish, your amygdala will be urging you to wait and try again next year. Later, I’ll describe ongoing research that reveals things you can do using behavior and nutrition that will make your immune system and brain work for, and not against, you.