The Resilience of Mice (and Men) and Women))

If I ever, in the future life of this website, type the phrase “studies show…” then I want you to drive to my house, walk up the steps, forget knocking, just walk into the house, find me wherever it is I’m sitting, and slap me across the face. I am no one to tell you what “studies show.” I am no one to interpret scientific research for you.

Having said all that, sometimes science journalism lines up with my experience in a way that I find almost laughable. For instance:

Here’s the synopsis (although you should read it for yourself): Exercise produces a substance called galanin. Galanin correlates to increased ability to cope with stress. Ergo, exercise helps us react more positively in stressful situations.

Did we need hundreds of lab mice running on a hundred little exercise wheels to prove this to ourselves? What’s next? We gather a wide array of shiny objects to conclude, conclusively, that all that glimmers isn’t gold?

When my dad died, when my brother got cancer, when my mom got cancer, when my brother died, all right in a row in the same 9 months while a global pandemic swirled and turned life upside down, I called on all my powers of endurance to keep going. That’s it. Keep going. Things get hard. Keep going.

When science gets involved, of course, you get to trace back from the experience to the neurochemicals that make it so. Dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin, not to mention blood flow, heart rate, and all the other signals of relative contentment. Galanin.

But this strikes me as a classic chicken/egg paradox, or even a free will/determinism problem. We exercise, which is a manufactured stress situation. We produce a neurochemical. In future stress events does the chemical produce automatically, i.e. does an uptick in adrenaline or some other hallmark of internal conflict, stimulate the galanin response? Or, recognizing the situation rationally, do we alter our mindset, willfully, to produce the galanin?

Be careful with your answer, because one option makes you a pile of rudderless chemical reactions, and the other makes you the master of your own destiny, which might just be too much responsibility. The third possibility, the more difficult one to tease apart, is that our autonomic and rational responses interact in ways that mice aren’t going to detail for us any time soon, a tango of thought and chemistry that produces something more like the reality I experience, kind of a mess, but one that leaves me enough room to believe that I can shape some part of my life myself.