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The Evolution of Anxiety

Understanding where it comes from, why we worry and 2 simple things to combat it

Let’s pretend for a moment that you are a giraffe living in Africa. You have a neck that is 2m long. Every now and then, you spot a group of humans driving around on a safari taking pictures of you. But it’s not just your neck and their cameras that separates you from the humans. Perhaps the biggest difference between you and your giraffe friends and the humans taking your picture is that nearly every decision you make provides an immediate benefit to your life.


· When you are hungry, you walk over and munch on a tree

· When a storm rolls across the plains, you take shelter under the brush

· When you spot a lion stalking you and your friends, you run away


On any given day, most of your choices as a giraffe-like what to eat or where to sleep or when to avoid a predator-make an immediate impact on your life. You live in what researchers call an Immediate Return Environment because your actions deliver immediate benefits. Your life is strongly oriented toward the present moment.



The Delayed Return Environment


Now, let’s flip the script and pretend you are one of the humans vacationing on safari. Unlike the giraffe, humans live in what researchers call a Delayed Return Environment. 


Most of the choices you make today will not benefit you immediately. If you do a good job at work today, you'll get a pay check in a few weeks. If you save money now, you'll have enough for retirement later.


Many aspects of modern society are designed to delay rewards until some point in the future.


This is true of our problems as well. While a giraffe is worried about immediate problems like avoiding lions and seeking shelter from a storm, many of the problems humans worry about are problems of the future.


For example, whilst enjoying your safari, you might think, “This safari has been a lot of fun. It would be cool to work as a park ranger and see giraffes every day. Speaking of work, is it time for a career change? Am I really doing the work I was meant to do? Should I change jobs?”


Unfortunately, living in a Delayed Return Environment tends to lead to chronic stress and anxiety for humans. Why? Because your brain wasn't designed to solve the problems of a Delayed Return Environment.


The Evolution of the Human Brain


The human brain developed into its current form while humans still lived in an Immediate Return Environment.


Compared to the age of the brain, modern society is incredibly new. It is only recently, during the last 500 years or so, that our society has shifted to a predominantly Delayed Return Environment.In the last 100 years we have seen the rise of the car, the airplane, the television, the personal computer and the Internet. Nearly everything that makes up your daily life has been created in a very small window of time.


A lot can happen in 100 years. From the perspective of evolution, however, 100 years is nothing. The modern human brain spent hundreds of thousands of years evolving for one type of environment (immediate returns) and in the blink of an eye the entire environment changed (delayed returns). Your brain was designed to value immediate returns


The Evolution of Anxiety


The mismatch between our old brain and our new environment has a significant impact on the amount of chronic stress and anxiety we experience today. Thousands of years ago, when humans lived in an Immediate Return Environment, stress and anxiety were useful emotions because they helped us take action in the face of immediate problems.


For example:


A lion appears across the plain > you feel stressed > you run away > your stress is relieved.

A storm rumbles in the distance > you worry about finding shelter > you find shelter > your anxiety is relieved.


You haven't drunk any water today > you feel stressed and dehydrated > you find water > your stress is relieved.


This is how your brain evolved to use worry, anxiety, and stress. Anxiety was an emotion that helped protect humans in an Immediate Return Environment. It was built for solving short-term, acute problems. There was no such thing as chronic stress because there aren't really chronic problems in an Immediate Return Environment.


When you live in an Immediate Return Environment, you only have to worry about acute stressors. Once the threat is gone, the anxiety subsides. 


Today we face different problems. Will I have enough money to pay the bills next month? Will I get the promotion at work or remain stuck in my current job? Will I repair my broken relationship? Problems in a Delayed Return Environment can rarely be solved right now in the present moment. 


2 simple ways to combat anxiety


One of the greatest sources of anxiety in a Delayed Return Environment is the constant uncertainty. There is no guarantee that working hard in school will get you a job. There is no promise that investments will go up in the future. There is no assurance that going on a date will land you a soulmate. Living in a Delayed Return Environment means you are surrounded by uncertainty.


So, what can you do? How can you thrive in a Delayed Return Environment that creates so much stress and anxiety?


1. Measure something


You can't know for certain how much money you will have in retirement, but you can remove some uncertainty from the situation by measuring how much you save each month. You can't be sure that you'll get a job after graduation, but you can track how often you reach out to companies about internships. You can't predict when you find love, but you can pay attention to how many times you introduce yourself to someone new.

The act of measurement takes an unknown quantity and makes it known. When you measure something, you immediately become more certain about the situation. Measurement won't magically solve your problems, but it will clarify the situation, pull you out of the black box of worry and uncertainty, and help you get a grip on what is actually happening.


2. Shift Your Worry


The second thing you can do is “shift your worry” from the long-term problem to a daily routine that will solve that problem.

· Instead of worrying about living longer, focus on taking a walk each day.

· Instead of worrying about losing enough weight for the wedding, focus on cooking a healthy dinner tonight.


The key insight that makes this strategy work is making sure your daily routine both rewards you right away (immediate return) and resolves your future problems (delayed return). 


Our brains didn't evolve in a Delayed Return Environment, but that's where we find ourselves today. My hope is that by measuring the things that are important to you and shifting your worry to daily practices that pay off in the long-run, you can reduce some of the uncertainty and chronic stress that is inherent in modern society.


Having trouble getting to grips with your anxiety? Get in touch today!

masteryourmind@mail.com




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