Our minds sadly did not evolve to be happy or free from anxiety. Rather they evolved to make us highly risk averse - to allow us to survive; to avoid dangerous situations, like encountering a sabre-toothed tiger or eating poisonous berries; and to find the resources like food, water, shelter, and a mate, necessary to survive and pass on our genes. This is really our only biological goal – to live as long as possible and to have as many children as we can. As Russ Harris says in his amazing series of resources The Happiness Trap our brains are basically a ‘don’t get killed and collect more of what you need’ machine only. These are traits that have enabled us to pass on our genes to our children, and so (where those attributes remain useful to an organism) pass on those same genes to their own children. As such we’ve only got better and better at predicting danger.
But as we develop in our technology, medicine, engineering and security, there’s less actual danger in our lives. But our minds just can't keep up. Evolution works on long time scales (i.e. we measure it in thousands and millions of years, rather than months or single years). So, whilst the threats to our existence have changed in our environment, our responses to perceived threats have not. Instead of reacting to the sabre-toothed tiger, our nervous systems now get agitated (or ‘aroused’) by being stuck in traffic, or having a disagreement with a work colleague or getting annoyed with a disagreeable post on Twitter.
We’re also an animal that lives in social groups: our primate ancestors probably first banded together more than 50 million years ago. This provided us with many advantages we’d not otherwise receive if we only lived as individuals or pairs, like sharing the workload of keeping watch and hunting, and sharing knowledge of what was dangerous or edible. Social living however comes with a considerable cost: we need to ensure that our behaviour remains acceptable to the rest of the group in order to continue to be accepted by that group.
So, in order to maintain our safety and group membership, we continually review our past experiences to ensure we are aware of warning signs of future danger, just in case that tiger comes and kills us or our offspring, and despite the fact that this level of threat is often not actually present. And then our inner critic examines our own previous interactions with others around us, in case we offended someone and we then end up being cast out of our favourite group. This was probably a lot easier to deal with when we only had to analyse our contributions to our caveman tribe of, say, 20 other people. However, our modern groups can now number in the hundreds or thousands through our connections via mobile phone, email and social media. This is a lot of interactions to consider, and a lot of time dwelling or ruminating on the past and this takes our attention away from the here and now. We can get caught up in the story of the past, and as I mentioned in my previous blog article, we can start to view that story through faulty filters which mean we can start to interpret meaning and content that may not have actually been there.
If this wasn’t enough, we then also project ourselves into the future to predict the possible outcomes from our actions, to ensure that we don’t behave in a way that either puts future dangerous situations, conflict (fighting the sabre-toothed tiger or arguing with our boss), or saying something stupid, out-of-place or incorrect to our peers and ending up being ejected from our social group. In both scenarios, we’re no longer ‘being’ in the present and end up dwelling on what we should have done, should have said or speculating on whether Bob in accounts thinks we're stupid, or Jane on Facebook thinks that we're ugly. And then its possible we can get preoccupied with real or imagined future dangers and get ourselves whipped up into a state of hyperarousal or hypervigilance where we begin to unintentionally exaggerate the risk of real danger. Its perhaps easy to see how these behaviours can readily and rapidly deteriorate into low mood (and even clinical depression) and anxiety.
Now, from in the cognitive behavioural perspective, the cause of the issues that affect us are sometimes considered relatively unimportant. We talk often about addressing the factors and sub-optimal behaviours, emotions and thoughts that affect us in the here and now rather than digging into the past. When addressing low mood and mid-life malaise therefore, we tend to focus our attention on addressing these current factors and improving the quality of our living right now. Now, this isn’t to say that people don’t sometimes need help with addressing traumatic events, because they definitely do, but we are always clear on ethics and responsibility at The Resilience Project UK, and as such we would usually try and help such clients find specialist help, such as with a clinical psychologist or trauma specialist.
Having said all that, I do feel knowing why something occurs can also have a couple of benefits on our paths to change. We often ask clients in therapy and coaching about beliefs for example something like “How did that belief help you at one point in time?" . Because there can often be good reasons for these thoughts and behaviours in a specific context. Then this might be followed by "How does that belief continue to serve you now?” . And frequently the answer from the client will be something like “damn…well I guess it doesn’t really”. This process of exploration enables us to identify our screwy thoughts (what we might call cognitive distortions) and start the process towards shifting our thoughts to something more flexible.
Adding context to our experiences in this way also means we know we’re not alone and definitely not abnormal – this can normalize our experiences and elicit a sense of hope. We’ve talked about the importance of hopefulness in my previous article. Secondly, I feel it helps with our defusion (de-fusion, to detach or create distance) from our sticky, Velcro-like intrusive thoughts in a way like “oh there’s my stupid caveman brain doing its thing again!” way. Lastly, as someone who transitioned to psychotherapy from biology, I just find this quite interesting!
Russ Harris, the ACT and General Practitioner from Australia has a wonderfully accessible cartoon on the evolutionary basis of our anxious mind. I always recommend my clients check it out.
If you are interested in pursuing a more hopeful future, addressing thinking errors and developing personally-valued goals, then please get in touch for a no obligation phone consultation. Chris