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The Body Budget: How does your brain budget to run your body effectively?

Updated: Jun 13, 2023

The WHO predicts that depression will outstrip heart disease as the leading cause of death worldwide over the next ten years. Understanding how your body works to a budget, to maintain health in body and mind, is useful in regulating your own mood and that of others.

As we live in a time when people are experiencing so much stress and anxiety, it is important to look at our central functioning, and how to run our bodies effectively to reduce stress and the risk of poor physical and mental health.

What role does the brain play?

The most important job your brain has is not to think, or to feel, or to see or to hear. It is to control the systems of your body, of which there are hundreds. The brain regulates to prepare the body for needs before they arise by budgeting resources. This is known as allostasis.

Imagine it as the brain running a budget for your body, but instead of budgeting money, it's budgeting resources, such as water, glucose, salt, oxygen, nutrients etc. over a number of complex systems and trillions of cells. Your brain is like the financial centre of a major corporation, it has a lot of budgeting to do in order to keep things running, i.e. you alive and well. You make deposits to your body's needs such as eating, sleeping, hydrating, being with people you love and trust.

Body budget
Brain energy

When we spend from our budget, the two most expensive things your brain can do is 1. move your body (not just through exercise but also by going about our daily lives), and 2. learn something new. It is metabolically expensive to do something that is novel or unexpected and to have to learn about that new thing.

Your brain makes decisions or predictions about what and when to spend on based on what returns it is going to receive. Sometimes we spend immediately with the assumption we are going to get a return on our investment, doing exercise, talking to people we don't agree with. Sometimes we spend a lot, metabolically speaking, on things we don't expect to get a return on for a long time, such as going to school or learning the piano.

How does the brain predict what is needed?

Your brain estimates the needs of your body and attempts to meet those needs before they arise; it does this all the time.

You are mostly unaware of it but inside your body there is a huge amount going on. Each little prompt we have for our attention has a metabolic cost - a pinging phone, clutter, a fleeting thought, even if we are resisting it.

Our mood indicates where our body balance is at.

Evolution has fashioned humans with a general sense of feeling such as pleasant, unpleasant, comfortable, uncomfortable, etc. We call this mood, and scientists know it as 'affect'. It's the general feeling that gives you a sense of how your body budget is doing. When your budget is solvent, you feel ok. When your body budget is in deficit you feel pretty bad (low mood), and when your body budget is bankrupt you feel depressed - you have a hard time moving your body, or getting outside of your head.

These simple feelings are not emotions, they are properties of consciousness, they don't tell you what is going on, instead they tell you if you're balanced, or not doing so well. The brain makes sense of these signals and converts them into more specific feelings such as anger, anxiety or sadness or the opposite, gratitude, compassion etc.

How we effect each other's body budget

Humans are a social species, we make deposits and withdrawals, metaphorically speaking, into each other's body budget. Your body budget is managed, positively and negatively, by the people around you. Think of how a positive and negative interaction affects you. Through physical cues, we track each other's breath and heart rates and if we like and trust each other, they will synchronise. We can affect each other's body budgets quite easily then, and we don't have to be in each other's physical presence. You will know that even receiving a positive or negative text affects your body budget. The best thing for a human body budget is another human, and the worst thing for another human body budget is another human.

Negative interaction
A frightened girl

Modern life is complicated!

If we had to design a social environment that would easily bankrupt a body budget it would be the time we're living in. We don't sleep enough, we don't eat healthfully, we don't exercise enough, there is an increased amount of carbon dioxide in the air, plus the pressures of social media, and uncertainty in international relations. Put all these things together, and it is not a surprise that we have record numbers of people developing depression. The WHO projects depression will be the leading cause of death outstripping heart disease over the next decade. The reason people anaesthetise themselves from life with drink or drugs is that they are really good at helping to turn down the dial on the distress mood or affect that you feel. When you have a body budget deficit, you continue to function with that deficit by turning down the dial on that distress that is telling you have a deficit and that you should be doing something about it.

When you feel distressed or weary it's not because you're weak, it's because you're human; this is how human brains and bodies work. It might be greater or smaller for some but everybody feels it.

How can you help your body budget?

Many of the issues we face are related to 'affect' or mood (low self esteem, stress, anxiety etc.). Mood is the sum of our body budget. this means that low mood and negative emotional reactions could be due, in part, to physical causes. You have some control over your body budget, so there is always something you can do to help it. Each of us has a responsibility to regulate our body budget, but don't blame yourself if you haven't been taking care. Now is the time to take a step forward.

How do you get started? The best things you can do is to eat a healthy diet, exercise and get adequate sleep. Physical well-being is critical for emotional well-being. Now that you understand that we are the caretakers of each other's body budgets, how will that change how you shift your interactions with others or speak to them? Will you prioritise sleeping a little more?

Be compassionate to others and to yourself, and acknowledge what you do and don't have control over.

If you'd like to track your body budget over a week, download the body budget tracker and see if you feel a difference by the end of the week.

Body Budget Tracker
Download PDF • 186KB

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