Why We Worry: An Evolutionary Perspective
James Clear shares his fascinating take on why we worry in his piece, The Evolution of Anxiety: Why We Worry and What to Do About It.
Clear contends that the human brain evolved while we lived in an Immediate Return Environment. In other words, human lives were focused on the immediate benefits of living in the present moment during the bulk of our brain’s evolution.
- When we were hungry, we ate.
- If it stormed, we took shelter.
- When danger presented itself, we fought or fled.
Nearly every decision we made provided an immediate benefit.
Today, we live in a Delayed Return Environment, which runs counter to the environment during which we greatly evolved.
In modern society, many of the things we do today (e.g. – save for retirement, eat well, purchase disability insurance), will reward us in the future.
Unfortunately, our brain was not designed to handle the repercussions of a delayed return. The result? Potential feelings of worry, stress, and anxiety. One of the greatest reasons behind why we worry is the constant uncertainty of the future.
Four Misdirected Beliefs That Justify Why We Worry
It is can be difficult to live with uncertainty. It often creates a situation where we repeat potential “what if’s?” We try to control uncontrollable situations.
If I worry about enough things, I will never be surprised.
Some worry to avert disappointment through anticipation. It is impossible to worry about everything, or to avoid disappointment. Is the suffering that occurs through this belief worth it?
It will be safer if I continue to worry.
Some believe that the process of worrying somehow decreases the chance of a dreaded outcome. As if worrying about the plane crashing can somehow increase the odds of a safe flight.
Worrying helps me solve problems.
Some believe worrying generates solutions to problems. But, heightened worry typically disrupts problem solving capabilities.
I am motivated by worry.
Some believe that worry reduces complacency and encourages productiveness. There is a difference between unproductive worry, and problem-solving to reduce the level of worrying.
Five Strategies That Can Reduce Worry
Along with eliminating the self-fulfilling beliefs listed above, here are some strategies you can take to reduce your worry. They strike at the very heart of why we worry.
A contingency plan. You may worry about things which are outside of your control. For example, the promotion you asked for. The uncertainty is driving you batty. One way to cope is by writing down a plan for what happens if you get it, and what happens if you don’t. Either way, you’ll have a course of action in response to the outcome. This may help alleviate the uncertainty you’re feeling.
Will you be doing any public speaking in the future? Is a difficult discussion with a family member or friend in your future? If you rehearse what you’re going to say, you’ll eventually begin to feel comfortable with the presentation, or the topic of discussion.
Focus on Physical Health
Eating properly, sleeping well, and exercising can all help our body cope with stress, and also help control worry.
Reveal the True Source of Worry
Sometimes worrying about trivial matters is a distraction from the true source of worry. Are you truly worried about the broken dishwasher? Or is that worry substituting for your true worry, a parent’s illness? Tracing the root cause of worry allows you to take the necessary steps to address it.
Generalized anxiety can result from worrying about many small things. If you take a breather and evaluate the chances of each of these small worries all occurring, you can reduce their intensity.
Divide and Address Your Worries
If you break down and list all of the things which worry you, you can take small steps to address each one. This way you’ll slowly scale, and conquer, that mountain of worry.
You Have the Ability to Reduce Worry
Excessive worrying leads to stress and anxiety. Chronic stress and anxiety can have devastating effects on your body, and your psychological well-being. Now that we know a little more about why we worry, methods used to help reduce worry are no longer a mystery. You just need to get to the point where you can say ‘enough is enough’, and head down the path of stress and worry reduction.