Modern mental resilience and what we can learn from our prehistoric ancestors

Let’s slip back a few hundred thousand years, to the days of cavemen, to being eaten alive, to hunting, to fighting, to survival and facing the terrifying reality of our own mortality on a daily, if not hourly basis. Life was tough, properly tough, and a result, we as humans had to evolve to be tough with it.

Thankfully for our current existence, we did exactly that, we developed our Fight or Flight or Freeze responses to what we shall call “stress”. These engaged several systems, including the autonomous nervous system and the well-known sympathetic nervous system. This sympathetic nervous system engages and accelerates heart rate, it gets our lungs pumping our blood flowing and ready to do what we need to do, to survive.

Do we still live in a world where such stress exists? Are you fighting for your existence on a regular basis? Are you wondering where your next meal is coming from? Are you likely to be wiped out by a flu pandemic before you are 30? Judging by the world’s sudden need for toilet roll in the times of the Coronavirus I would say that we are definitely not used to it, in fact, we are so unused to any genuine threat, that a vast majority of people have not managed the small changes to their environment well, at all. What appears to be a total lack of mental resilience, here is stress, here is adversity and there goes people’s common sense and decency, there goes the ability to think under pressure, to maintain discipline and not be outside, to envisage the end and work toward it.


So, what is the next step as a western society? As a world so unused to “stress” that even the most minor of stressors, sends people wild with fear. I’m not suggesting that Covid-19 is even minor stress, but I am going to say that your stress response is triggered quite a lot throughout the day, and we don’t manage it well at all. You see, one of the bi-products of the engagement of the sympathetic nervous system is fat, visceral fat.

The brain perceives a threat and the body responds, including the activation of energy, the energy that isn’t used, the energy that we should be using to fight woolly mammoth, fighting to survive or running for our lives, isn’t being expelled. Instead, the stress is triggered by things far more trivial, like a rude email, a damning news report or an unfamiliar number calling your mobile, sitting in the comfort of your home having stress responses and yet, sitting there idle and immobile.

All these strange and insignificant things engaging our stress response are not being properly managed physically or emotionally and it is terrible for us as humans. Now, I am not going to suggest that we make pandemics, floods or anything else of biblical proportions a regular occurrence, but what I am going to suggest, is that we have real potential for growth, by recreating those environments.

It is as simple as this: as per the physical muscles in the body, our mind becomes stronger by heavy repetitions, by continued testing and pushing we can create the same effect of development within our neural patterns as we do the development of fibres within the muscles. In fact, studies have shown that with as little as 8 weeks training, activity within the brain’s emotional centre (the amygdala) can be reduced, and within the brain’s logic centre (prefrontal cortex), increased. Reduce the irrational fear, the melodramatic and the caveman panic and instead, become calm, controlled and resilient.

Want to be a part of the UK's personal training community?

Visit our memberships page to find out how to access the latest PT insights, discounts and become a part of the UK's personal training community


Stress needs to be perceived differently, a quick discussion with most ex-soldiers will tell you that the best days of their lives were in the army, some will retell you tales of their operational adventures smiling with fondness of their time in a godforsaken land (I hate sand), others will regale you with stories of their basic training and others will enthral you with a well-spun ditty about some adventurous training in the mountains, soaked to the bone and lost.

Yet why are, what should be perceived as the most stressful times, actually perceived as the most enjoyable? Because of the measurable success that they have achieved? Because of the high levels of intrinsic motivation they had to produce to get it done? Because of their ability to stay in the present moment and not be overwhelmed by their seemingly impending doom? Their ability to stay focused and positive and visualise their success? Well, studies have shown, it is all of the above. All of the above questions are simply the building blocks for resiliency development, measurable success, intrinsic motivation, mindfulness and positive visualisation.


The ability to generate your own mental resilience, starts with you, the ability to manage your own inner caveman starts with you, the ability to turn to survive a disaster into thriving in a disaster, starts with you. So, in the most basic of human conditioning experiments, remove the comfort inducing stimuli every now and then, and climb your mountains, run your races, test yourself, grow, learn and develop.

By getting off of the sofa and utilising a genuine response to stress, often found in the mountains, clambering to great heights with a close team of friends around you, you can begin to utilise and develop your mind. We are all born with the desire to survive, you can harness that power, through time, through effort, through the strength of character and conditioning and you too can learn the same degree of resiliency to survive that our very distant ancestors had and use it in the modern world to push for higher and further than your far more fearful peers.

Stronger, together.

About the author: James Elliott, Mental Resilience Coach

James Elliott is a Military Mental Resilience Coach who, having been a tactical parachuting instructor and airborne soldier in the elite British Airborne Forces, took his brand of peer-to-peer support, individual accountability and neuroscience of change to develop his own civilian brand of mental resilience training.

He now coaches everyone from high-end athletes to special forces and medical practitioners working in high-pressure environments. He is also a double Guinness World Record Holder for feats of endurance in the sport of rugby, a veteran of the Global War on Terror and soon to be a published author.