Les Mills Head of Research, Bryce Hastings, has been exploring our genetic design flaws and how evolution was unable to prime us for a COVID lockdown. Here he shares three steps to survive the unexpected challenges of modern life.

Modern society loves success stories. As a result, I often encounter interviews of successful people on television, which appear to have the simple objective of making the rest of us feel like underachievers. A common question asked is “What would you tell your teenage self?" The overachievers usually answer with something like, “Never doubt yourself” or “Follow your dreams” or something else that applies to no one apart from the fortunate and gifted.

In this current COVID environment, with large parts of the world repeatedly lurching from lockdown to reopening, I believe a more pertinent question for the rest of us could be “What would you tell your paleolithic self – you know – the one responsible for your genes?” The answer must be: “Dude! We’re going to have a pandemic – give me some lockdown genes!”

This approach feels vastly preferable because I like to take a long-term, evolution-based view to understand how we should care for ourselves.

“Dude! We're going to have a pandemic – give me some lockdown genes!”

We have only been experimenting with this current version of us for a really short time. Our behavior in modern times was shaped by our ancestral environment going back millions of years. Over time, adaptations, both physical and psychological, that worked for us and that made us more likely to transfer our genes into the next generation were passed on. Those that were less helpful were consigned to the genetic scrap heap.

So how has lockdown affected our psyche from an evolutionary standpoint?

Let’s start with stress. Imagine 15,000 years ago your evolutionary self is walking through the forest when suddenly you hear a bush rustling right next to you. A genetically-engineered stress response kicks in – flight, fight or freeze. This response is generated by a cascade of neurochemicals designed to help us survive in our ancestral environment. Without that instinctive response we would have potentially been eaten and our genes wouldn’t have made it.

Coping with the stresses of modern life is very different to running away from a lion.

Fast forward to now and that stress response still exists. It’s not a bush that’s rustling, however, it’s pressure from your boss, or your screaming child in the next room. Flight, fight or freeze responses aren’t super helpful right now. Coping with the stresses of modern life is very different to running away from a lion. But good luck switching them off by trying to undo hundreds of thousands of years of evolution.

It’s the same with anger. You’re walking through the savannah with your troop and Kevin (your hunting buddy) makes a move on your wife. You fly into a rage, bare your canines and tell Kevin in no uncertain terms to back off. This would be a constructive response during our hunter-gatherer past. It sent a signal to others in the troop that you and your nearest and dearest weren’t to be messed with.

These days our ancestral anger response is also alive and kicking. You’re driving in your car on an emergency mission to find toilet paper and someone swerves into YOUR lane without indicating, forcing you to brake. You wildly gesticulate, yell and scream… but, this time, unfortunately, 1) No one hears you and 2) You’re probably never going to see any of the people that witness your outburst again, so it really doesn’t have the same effect.

Issues concerning self-esteem and social anxiety were also shaped in our ancestral environment. Maybe you were an expert tracker, maybe you had amazing olfactory senses that meant you could smell game in the distance. Maybe you were an amazing dancer or the group’s best potato finder. These attributes, secured your status and position in the group, meaning, you had improved chances of finding a mate and producing offspring. We are wired to sense how we are being perceived and accepted by the group.

In modern life you might be great with numbers, you could be the funniest person in the office, or just really reliable when it comes to delivering what’s required. All these things contribute to our group status and relationships. They help make us feel good, because it’s always been in our interest to be sensitive to how we are being perceived.

But we’ve switched to a work from home environment and face the demands of social isolation. Suddenly there’s no group interaction to provide perspective on how we’re tracking or provide real-time acknowledgment when we’re nailing it.

There was never a caveman – it was always a group, a cave corporation with the equivalent of a CEO, finance team and human resources.

This is when we realize the notion of a caveman is a myth! There was never a caveman – it was always a group, a cave corporation with the equivalent of a CEO, finance team and human resources. We are wired to function in groups for both a feeling of security and our self-esteem. Video conferencing is great, but most of us won’t feel the same sense of satisfaction from screen-only interaction.

So what do we do? If only there was a Captain America option where we could be frozen in time and woken up when this is all over. Until then, here are some things to think about.

  1. Go easy on yourself – if you’re not coping or being your best self right now, it’s not your fault. Blame your ancestors who clearly didn’t see this coming!
  2. Keep in touch with your group. Family, close friends, mentors. Try and have a MEANINGFUL and honest conversation each day.
  3. You knew this suggestion was coming… exercise! (preferably with others – safely). Getting your heart rate up is the best way to deal with the biochemicals we accumulate from those stress and anxiety responses. AND it helps improve your self-esteem.

Multiple large corporations around the world have announced they don’t see workers returning to their offices until the summer of 2021. Others are saying they may never return. For many, this situation isn’t going away any time soon. Hopefully recognizing our paleolithic design flaws will help us make it through in one piece.