The short answer to, ‘Why am I so anxious and stressed?’ is, we become anxious and stressed as a result of the natural functioning of our brains. Prioritising the constant scanning for possible danger or risk in our environment is a key function of our brain.
The short answer to, ‘Is it possible to change?’ is, yes, we can change both the level and the impact of our naturally occurring anxiety response to our modern world.
Often clients arrive to therapy in search of insight and effective strategies in order to lessen the impact their anxiety and stress is having on their general well-being, their intimate relationships and their functioning at work.
In the first of three posts on the theme, Owning My Negatively Slanted Brain, we will initially consider the nature of our tendency to notice and focus on the (perceived) negative aspects of our reality. In the second post, Gaining Influence Over My Mood, we will consider why paying attention to our thoughts and feelings can help to gain influence over our mood. In the final post My Plastic Brain: Working Towards Calmness, we look at how it is possible to make changes to how our preceptual neural pathsways might improve mood by regulating our response to free ranging anxiety.
Owning My Negatively Slanted Brain – Post 1 of 3.
One key job of our brain, and one which has played an important role in our survival in the past, is what is referred to as our brain’s natural negative bias. This means that our brains are hardwired to be better at scanning the environment for negative influences (danger and risk), than it is able to scan for positive influences. In order to survive and be successful, our neural circuitry compels us to make many critical decisions every day – most of which boil down to avoiding hazard and approaching reward. As a result we naturally tend to pay much more attention to the negative aspects of our experience. We are therefore, more likely to judge a situation as negative, because this is the best way we avoid harm. This natural tendency for negativity, causing heightened anxiety and increased stress, can become an unhelpful trait when it goes unchecked in our current lives.
Although there are far fewer actual physical dangers and risks in the world where most of us live these days, we are faced with countless abstract, interpersonal and social challenges which the brain assesses and categorises as negative, and therefore as potentially stressful. These could range from a raised eyebrow over the dinner table at home, trying to clear an overdraft, a brief grimace from a significant superior at work, or knowing that several potentially challenging and unpredictable phone calls need to be made later today. These abstract threats raise our anxiety and stress levels in exactly the same way it used to be raised with the possibility of coming across a poisonous snake in the grass while searching for berries, or coming across a predator whilst hunting for rabbits or birds in a previous incarnation of our species.
The panic button in our brains is situated in the amygdala – two small almond shaped regions in the brain which uses two-thirds of its neurons to scanning for negative stimuli. Not only is it obviously geared towards negativity when triggered, the negative experience is then directly stored in the long term memory for future use. In contrast, positive experiences need to be held in our awareness for around 12 seconds in order to shift from short term memory, to long term memory. This means we are hardwired to not only notice negative aspects, but also to prioritise and record these negative experiences into memory.
So, what historically seemed an extremely useful set of behaviours, helping us to survive during our evolution to this point, may now have become counter productive. Bringing forth a world with such a strong negative bias may be potentially counterproductive to our closer relationships, performance at work, as well as our mood and wellbeing in general. It is therefore essential that, when we feel overwhelmed with stress or anxiety, we pay due attention to the functioning of this negative bias and its consequences.
It is possible to change both the level and the impact of our naturally occurring stress response in our daily experience. We can do this by learning the skills to remain calm and developing strategies which will enable us to recalibrate the balance between negative and positive. The second post, Gaining Influence Over My Mood will consider why paying attention to our thoughts and feelings can help to gain influence over our mood.