Imagine you and I are walking in the African Savanna 200,000 years ago. I’m basking in the sounds of the birds singing in the trees, gazing at the orange sun on the horizon and soaking in the fragrance of the various flowers as we walk.
You are anxiously scanning the horizon for potential enemy tribes, looking at the clouds, wondering whether the drought may continue, and are hyper-vigilant about that rustling in the bushes up ahead. All of a sudden, a saber-toothed tiger jumps out and the chase is on. Who is going to survive?
My money is on you. You will get the quicker head start and as the saying goes, you don’t have to outrun the saber-toothed tiger; you just have to outrun the other guy. I will be eaten and my genetic lineage will end. You will make it back to camp (albeit with a newfound fear or “phobia” of jackalberry trees) and have the opportunity to procreate, passing your genes to the next generation.
Fast forward 200,000 years and we humans walking the Earth today are YOUR ancestors, not mine. Every modern day human owes his or her very existence to the brain’s ability to scan for and seek out threats. Generation after generation of our ancestors has narrowly averted its demise because of this survival instinct. Scientists call the brain’s ability to automatically scan for danger the “negativity bias.”
In a nutshell, it means that our brains are hardwired to register, dwell upon and remember the unpleasant experiences of life far more than the positive. As famed neuroscientist Rick Hanson has pointed out, this is conducive to survival, but not necessarily well-being. But, of course, back in the day, well-being was a luxury; survival was the name of the game.
Nowadays, we don’t have to worry about encountering a saber-toothed tiger on a walk through the neighborhood or being attacked by our neighbors while we eat Yet we are still saddled with this brain that is constantly scanning for and registering unpleasant experiences in an attempt to protect us. As a result, for many of us, the threats that we perceive these days are largely psychological.
We don’t remember the 99 compliments that our boss has given us over the years, but that one critical comment on our performance review still stings. We take for granted all the invites that we have received for social functions, but leave us off the text chain one time and we are questioning everything. Have a big speech coming up? Ten bucks says that your mind’s default isn’t to envision you confidently delivering an Obama-style address to a room full of adoring audience members. If your mind is like mine, it probably initially pictures your pants falling down and you fleeing the room in tears.
That’s good, old-fashioned negativity bias for you. The brain says, “To prevent us from meeting our demise, let’s remember all the unpleasant stuff of the past and envision all the possible negative stuff that may happen in the future. Then we will be bullet-proof!”
So how do we navigate the modern world with these ancient brains? Here are a few strategies that we can use:
- Recognize the bias and respond accordingly— Let’s say that I have a roommate named Jim, who is overly anxious. He’s always bringing up old failures and uses those two magic words, “what if,” whenever he is projecting into the future. Eventually, I learn to take a lot of what Jim says with a grain of salt. I have to or I’ll end up just as anxious and crazed as Jim! I can’t change Jim, but I can change how I relate to Jim. Your mind is a Jim; respond accordingly.
- Breathe in gratitude — Gratitude, we all know it helps, but then many of us forget to practice the most important part. We often will make it mechanical by just listing out that which we are thankful for. That’s a good start, but then sit with and breathe in each experience for three full breaths. Envision it as a white light penetrating and soaking into your body. This little practice will carry over and train the mind to pause and soak in the pleasant throughout the day, which balances the negativity bias, at least somewhat.
- Limit toxicity — The mind doesn’t need any help finding or predicting negative outcomes. As we’ve mentioned, it’s got that job down. Therefore, take stock of what you are pumping into your brain each day. Is it helpful or needed? Or is it feeding fear or division or just purely a distraction? Mega corporations have done a wonderful job of convincing us that it is our obligation as good citizens to “stay informed” by “tuning in to the news.” As Jerry Seinfeld once said, “Isn’t it amazing that there is always just enough news to fill the exact space of a newspaper each day!?”
- Get out of your mind and in to the senses — The old saying is that everything works better if you unplug it for just a bit, including the mind. Tuning in to the senses is the quickest way to do just that. It’s impossible to TRULY sense and think at the same time. Try it right now. Pause the mental chatter for a second and really listen. Notice that you have to pick thinking OR listening. Of course, the mind will continue to interject every two seconds and then your job is to just come right back to listening. The birds chirping, the faint buzzing of a leaf blower, the typing of the keys…
If you are ready to cease the war with anxiety, I can help you. Please reach out with any questions or to schedule a free consultation. You can text or call 804-210-7891 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about my approach to therapy, visit www.richmondanxiety.com.