Anxiety - Blame Your Ancient Brain
Living in Silicon Valley and being in the middle of technology innovation is incredibly exciting. The advancement engineers are making is rapid and they are constantly changing our lives. They keep creating new operating systems and fixing bugs. My iPhone has iOS updates every month. Thank you, Apple engineers! I guess... Those of you who are old enough remember a time when your math teacher told you that you needed to learn how to do math in your heads, because "you think you will always have a calculator in your pocket?". Not only do we have a calculator in our pockets at all times these days, we also have a camera, a dictionary, a whole encyclopedia, a CD player and so much more. How ancient does that teacher seem now?!
Unfortunately for us there have been no significant software or hardware updates for the human brain. Our brain has a very old operating system that hasn't been updated for thousands of years. That operating system was designed to function in what Anthropologist James Woodburn called an immediate return environment. In that environment humans focused on the here and now of their existence. They sought shelter when they needed it, gathered food when they were hungry and reacted promptly to an immediate danger like a tiger who wanted to eat them for dinner. Anxiety was an emotion that helped protect humans in an immediate return environment. Our brain was built to solve short term acute problems. Once the acute stressor was removed, the system calmed down almost immediately. There was no chronic stress, because there were no chronic problems in the immediate return environment.
Thankfully there are no tigers roaming Bay Area streets. Many of us have our basic needs available to us and acute danger is not often present. We have evolved into what Woodburn called a delayed return environment. Most of the choices and actions we make today have future reward in mind. We work now to have a paycheck in 2 weeks. We study in college to have a degree in 4 years. We save money now, so we can enjoy it later. Our society is directed at the future and we face different problems in modern days. Will I have enough money to pay the bills at the end of the month? Will I get a promotion in the near future? Will I pass the final exams at the end of the semester? There are no guarantees in life, so living in delayed return environment means you are surrounded by uncertainty. The result of this constant uncertainty is chronic stress and anxiety for humans. What's a human to do with this mismatch between our brain and our environment?
Since stressors are and always will be present in our lives, the goal of therapy is not to completely eliminate anxiety from our lives. That would have been great, I know! But it is not very realistic and we would be setting ourselves up for failure. Instead, we aim at teaching our body to better manage the stressors and training our brain to not be such a diva. Not every stressor is as catastrophic as your brain wants you to think. In the present moment you are mostly safe, the problem is your mind is always in the future. Learning how to bring your mind back to the present and focus on operating there rather than the future can go along way in making you feel more peaceful.
When supporting clients in learning how to manage the stress in their lives, I guide my clients through the exploration of 4 different aspects of their being; physiological, behavioral, cognitive and emotional/psychological. I teach my clients various methods they could employ to calm their nervous system down. I examine my clients' lives and assess the behavioral changes they can make to reduce stress in their lives. I help them learn to focus on the behaviors they have control over today to promote what they want to achieve in the future. I explore problematic thinking patterns that may contribute to my clients' anxiety and work with them to challenge these patterns. Changing how you think about certain events can change your body's response when presented with these events. Lastly, I work with my clients to increase their emotional awareness, which helps with managing anxiety. When relevant, I work with clients on processing suppressed feelings and emotions they haven't dealt with and may be contributing subconsciously to their feelings of anxiety.
Stress and anxiety, though unpleasant, are just a normal part of modern life. It's the only way your body knows to put you in the best position to protect yourself. Understanding what is happening in your body and mind before and during your experience with anxiety can help you find ways to reduce stressful events in your life and better manage the ones that do arise. That in turn may stop you from feeling so helpless against anxiety. You have the power to forbid anxiety from sucking all the fun out of your life. You have the power to prevent it from standing in your way to success. Take charge of your body and mind today and soon the anxiety will start feeling helpless against you! Your path to happiness will then become more manageable and peaceful.