What role does the evolution of the brain play in worry and anxiety, and
what does the role of modern society and culture play in our propensity to worry?
In this video I explain the evolution of modern society, the brain functions, how it affects our processing of worry and anxiety, and the active steps you can take to circumvent these issues and reduce worrying in your life.
Imagine you are a house cat.
You wake up and feel a rumbly hunger in your tummy. You scan the immediate environment for the pesky vacuum cleaner. You have a sneaky suspicion if you are not careful, that vacuum cleaner will sneak up on you and eat you.
The coast is clear. You don’t see it anywhere.
So you saunter off to meow at your human slave to feed you.
Notice that for in each situation, it’s direct and straightforward. Hungry equals look for threats. Hungry means, look for the food provider. This is called the Immediate Return Environment.
An Immediate Return Environment is where what you want has an immediate solution – if you are hungry, you look for food. if you are tired, you take a nap.
If you feel cold, you wear a sweater.
Now let’s take a look at what’s happening with the cat’s human.
Unlike the cat, modern humans do not live in an Immediate Return Environment. Instead, we live in a Delayed Return Environment – which is where what you want and the decisions that you make – you won’t see the benefits of it immediately. For example, things like our pay check – we don’t get paid immediately, but at the end of each month. Or we are handling a work project, and have to figure out and complete multiple complex tasks, in order to finish that project.
In a Delayed Return Environment, there is always an element of uncertainty while you wait for what you want to happen. Your company might lay you off and all of a sudden you lose your income. Or there might be screw ups in the project – one of your co-workers got sick and someone else needs to cover his work, the client doesn’t like what is being done and wants to make massive changes, threatening to derail the entire project.
Now you are thinking “what am I going to do? I am tired of handling this bs client and working here. Maybe I should look for a new job. But where do I start? Or should I start my own business? Am I capable enough to start a business on my own? Do I have time to start a business while working full time? What if my boss finds out – would I be in trouble?”
Living in a Delayed Returned Environment is a cause for chronic stress and worry.
Because our brain simply wasn’t designed to cope with this new environment and it’s stressors.
The Brain’s Evolution
Our brains developed during a much simpler, prehistoric time where it was an Immediate Return Environment – if we are hungry, we hunt. if we are cold, we wear layers. If it rains, we find a cave to hide in.
Based on the earliest human remains, the brain is approximately 200,000 years old. The neocortex part of the brain, which is responsible for reasoning, thought and language – is still the same size today as it was 200,000 years ago, meaning our brains essentially is still using the same hardware.
However, our modern environment has changed substantially. It’s only been the last 500 years or so that human society has evolved to become a Delayed Return Environment. And since the Industrial Revolution, in the last 100 years or so, humans have witnessed the greatest explosion in technological advancement. Airplanes. Cars. The telephone. The atomic bomb. Going into space. The internet. Smart phones.
All of these things happened so rapidly and at a pace much faster than our brains have evolved.
In an Immediate Return Environment, when there’s a threat, you act on it – and the issue is resolved immediately. A cat sees a large dog, he’s threatened, feels stressed, and runs off. Once he is safe, the cat’s stress and anxiety disappears.
However, in a delayed return environment, The problems we face CANNOT be solved RIGHT NOW. The problems we face are in the future, there’s a lot of uncertainty involved and it’s out of our control. Can I make enough money to pay my rent this month? When will I find a new job? Will I ever find a life partner who loves me?
Since our brain is built to handle an Immediate Return Environment, where our stress and anxiety is relieved once the problem is resolved, WORRYING is the brain’s way of trying to cope with chronic uncertainty, to try to create closure and resolution, but of course it doesn’t work, and instead goes in a constant anxiety loop. It’s like trying to run a Windows 10 software (the modern day problem) on the very first computer (insert computer image) in 1949. (your brain)
In order to stop worrying, one approach to take is to reduce the uncertainty so that it resembles an immediate return environment. We can do this by breaking down what we want to achieve into smaller goals, and measuring if we have achieved each of the smaller goals.
So, say you are trying to figure out if you can make rent for next month, OK.
You break down your income as well as your expenses, and figure out how much you should cut on your expenses, and how much to save in order to be able to pay rent.
Doing this reduces the uncertainty that you face and reduces the worrying.
When my mind spirals into worry mode, a method that I have found helpful is to
THINK ABOUT THE CONSEQUENCES
where I ask myself what is the end goal of worrying – and if it’s actually helpful or hurtful.
Typically this disrupts me thought because I realize that hey, there IS not end goal to my worrying – it came up because my mind was in a state of fear over not knowing what’s going to happen.
There’s no resolution in worrying – and in fact, it causes my anxiety to spike – and my mind keeps going over the worry like a broken record. The spiral of worry and negative thoughts gets bigger, and then I start to worry even more!
Start practicing becoming aware of when you are spiraling into worry, and apply this method.
Then shift your FOCUS to what you can do in the PRESENT moment
Instead of worrying about the future and the potential outcomes, focus on what can you do, right now, to help you get the outcome that you want. That way, your energy is not stuck in worry, but is spent focused on creating possibilities to get the outcome you desire.
I have used this method in various ways in my life, for example:
When I was trying to find a new job after getting laid off, I set a series of daily tasks and goals that I could do to help me get a job.
Each day I would work on something I had set for the day, for example, networking, or building my CV. At the end of each week, I would review what I have accomplished so far, and track my progress.
That way, my energy was focused on getting me going, rather than feeling anxious, worried and depressed.