Anxiety starts right in our head, engineered by the most sophisticated organ in the known universe — the human brain. It has learned to trigger and maintain a state of anxiety by deploying three ingenious strategies. In this article, we look at what it’s doing and why.
How our brains work
The first thing we need to understand is that the human brain is a pattern-recognizing machine. It automatically recognizes patterns everywhere. Our ability to recognize faces, for example, relies completely on our ability to complete patterns. That’s why — even in very dim light and if we can only see part of a face — it takes us less than a second to recognize who it is.
“By looking at a face for less than a second, we can judge someone’s age, gender, race, emotional state, and even their trustworthiness.”
This is an amazing ability but the problem is that sometimes it takes this too far. The brain sees patterns everywhere. No matter whether it's a grumpy potato ....
... or a laughing handbag ...
... or a scared sink.
Now that this is clear, we’re ready for our brain’s first anxiety-inducing strategy:
1. Exaggerating the negative
Seeing patterns everywhere comes with a cost. And the anxious brain has learned extraordinarily well how to create patterns around negative experiences. It takes one bad experience and automatically concludes that it would repeat itself if we get into the same situation again. That’s how it exaggerates negative information and drives anxious feelings.
“I failed the test. I’m just not smart enough. I’ll never get a proper job.”
Or imagine you had a terrible day, something threw you off balance and triggered repetitive worries. Negative thoughts keep coming back, over and over again, and you feel miserable. Here comes the brain, doubling down:
“I thought I was making progress but now this. I guess this is just who I am. I’ll never learn to be really happy.”
Many times our brain exaggerates what happened so much that we see the world completely in black and white.
“This always happens to me. It’ll never go away.”
“I can’t believe I let them down. I’m just a total disappointment.”
“Everybody noticed how nervous I was. They must have thought I’m an idiot. I’m such a loser.”
And if we believe those thoughts, it’s not surprising that we become anxious. Who would stay calm if they believed their life to be doomed forever?
2. Downplaying the positive
Next comes the strategy number 2. Our brain not only takes negative details and takes them way too far. It also does the exact opposite. It downplays positive things when they happen.
When we fall for this trap, we see only the negative aspects of a situation. Imagine a student with mostly top grades fail a test. They might be confident enough to put this failure into perspective. Or — if their brains effort to make you anxious succeed— they will go into complete despair and catastrophize their slip-up. They totally dismiss any good performance they had in the past.
“All my good grades don’t matter if I can’t even get this right. My report is going to be ruined!”
Of course, it doesn’t stop there. These thoughts lead down a path of worry and rumination: “What if I’ll screw up again? What if I also flunk the next exam?” Negative scenarios start to play out in their head and by the time the next test is due, they might be plagued by feelings of nervousness and anxiety.
The interesting thing is that everybody’s brain is guilty of downplaying the positive. Whenever we feel down, there’s usually a lot of good stuff that our brain ignores. We take those good things for granted and act as if they didn’t exist.
If you feel bad right now, just take a few seconds to think about what’s good in your life: Are you healthy? Are you free of pain? Do you have two working legs that can carry you around in this world? Do you have eyes so you can see? Do you have people in your life who love you? Do you have a roof over your head? Do you have enough to eat? If you only answer some of those questions with a ‘yes’, maybe things aren’t so bad after all.
Aside from exaggerating and downplaying, there’s a third strategy our brain uses to make us feel miserable. It simply makes stuff up. With little or no evidence, it creates negative stories about the world and ourselves. And it’s really good at that, too.
Fabricating comes in different flavors. A common one is personalizing. That means our brain blaming ourselves for anything that goes wrong, even when it’s not our fault or responsibility. We see this very often with people who’ve been abused. Many victims of domestic violence, for example, often say something along the lines of:
“It’s my fault, I did something wrong.”
It also comes in the form of interpreting other people’s behaviors or opinions as an attack on us and our abilities. Imagine you’re giving a presentation to your colleagues at work. They are all paying attention and following along but at one point you notice two of them exchange glances and with a bored expression on their faces. Then your boss yawns. If your brain is doing its anxiety-inducing job well, it’ll come up with thoughts like these:
“They must be bored. Maybe they’re just waiting for the presentation to finally be over. Oh, I’m such a lousy presenter.”
Or someone doesn’t text you back for a while, and your brain automatically comes up with an explanation that is guarateed to make you anxious:
“I’ve done something wrong. Maybe she doesn’t like me. Or she maybe she’s mad at me…”
And then there’s one more way our brain fabricates stories: It comes up with stories based on our feelings. If we feel like an idiot, it must mean that we in fact are an idiot.
“I feel guilty, therefore I must have done something bad.”
“I feel anxious, that’s why I know something bad is going to happen.”
“I feel really scared when I think about failing. Failing must be really dangerous.”
The reality is this though: Emotions — just like our thoughts — aren’t facts. Treating them as such is simply a convenient way for the brain to make us feel bad. Because if we already are anxious, this helps the brain keep it that way.
Why does the brain do this?
Why does our brain use these strategies if they’re obviously not doing us any good? Well, here’s the thing. We got these brains through millions of years of evolution. And the only thing evolution rewarded was staying alive and having offspring. Our brains simply aren’t designed to be happy. They are designed to survive. And that’s exactly what they’re trying to do.
If we want to reduce anxiety, we need to undo evolution. That’s hard but it can be done. First, we need to become aware of the negative, distorted thoughts that our brain comes up with. And then can we start to challenge them and learn to be more realistic. These three questions will help. When you notice that you’re anxious, take a deep breath and ask yourself:
- Is my brain exaggerating here?
- Is it downplaying the positive?
- Or is it just making things up right now?
It’ll take a while to convince our brain to use new strategies. It will keep coming back to those three anxiety-inducing strategies it learned to use so well. But if we commit and do this regularly, it will eventually come around.
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