Yesterday, I was coaching on the topic of seeing the good versus seeing the bad in any situation of life. Seeing the bad even in a good situation is not that uncommon. We all have done that and sometimes more than we needed to. One of the best quotes on this topic is the one from Mark Twain.
“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
In this article, I will talk about how we are wired to worry and what are the small steps that we can take to reduce our worrying.
We are wired to worry. That is a fact.
It is a well researched fact that we are wired to worry. You don’t have to read scientific journals on this topic to understand this fact. To understand this fact at a very basic level, compare the reactions of a human being to a lion or an elephant. Have you ever seen or can you imagine a lion or an elephant react the way a cat reacts at the sight of a cucumber? (google videos of cats and cucumbers. I promise you will have a blast.) In any situation, you cannot imagine a lion or an elephant reacting like a scaredy cat. Can you imagine any situation where a human being can react like a scaredy cat? I bet you can. We can too because recently we have been watching re runs of America’s funniest videos and it is just hilarious to see people jumping out of their skin at the slightest reason.
For millions of years, human beings as a species, have been near the bottom of the food chain. Obviously, being near the bottom of the food chain can mess up a human brain. The human brain is wired in such a way that to survive it has to spot danger quicker than opportunity. A human brain over the period of human history has been in more situations of being eaten whereas a lion’s brain would rarely have been in that situation. That can explain why a human brain is wired to worry and spot danger even in benign situations.
For an in-depth understanding of this subject, you can google lizard brain or read Jonathan Haidt’s analogy of elephant and the rider in his book, “The Happiness Hypothesis” or Daniel Kahneman’s explanation of two systems, system 1 and system 2 in his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”
How can we stop worrying so much?
The above question has been a subject of countless articles, books, research, seminars, trainings and what not. So, I will not take on that humongous task here. I will list three key understandings, that in my opinion can help to get you started in the right direction.
# 1: Understand that it is not your fault.
At the basic level, worrying is what helped human beings survive. It is part of our survival instinct. Imagine for a moment that you are a pre-historic human and you are out in the wild to bring food for your family. You hear a rustling noise behind you. If you assume that it is your food (a rabbit or a bird or whatever in-fashion diet that you were on as a pre-historic human being) then you could be right 99 times out of 100 but for that one time you were wrong, you could become food for a prowling tiger. So, the conditioned reaction of your brain has been to assume the worst and either get ready to fight or run away.
The same automatic reaction is in play that makes us see bad even in benign, neutral or great situations. Since you are pre-wired to look for danger as a basic instinct for survival, it will help you understand that it is not your fault if you automatically look for danger even when danger is not self-evident. This is the first step. To know that it is automatic.
#2: Understand that you have very little control over your thoughts.
A worrying thought is as automatic as any other bodily function. Just like you do not consciously digest your food, most of your thoughts are unconscious. It is true that majority of our thoughts are automatic. We don’t think them, they just come out of nowhere. If I were to ask you to name the capital city of India and when you say, “New Delhi”, the process of answering this question is as automatic as digesting your food. Which brain neuron triggered what memory and where it was stored and how it was retrieved is as automatic as any other bodily function.
On the other side is the conscious effort that we put. One example is writing this blog post. It is not happening automatically. There is a conscious thought behind this writing. Let’s say I ask you to multiply 43 by 29. Now, it is not automatic and you have to get to an answer by expending your brain power. It is almost similar to that.
Going back to worrisome thoughts, you have to understand that it is not you who is thinking this thought, It is your brain. For example, if your stomach is upset then you do not say I am upset. Similarly when your brain gets a worrisome thought, you have to understand that you are not worried but your brain is. I know it seems crazy but believe me this is where all of the recent neuro-scientific discoveries are leading us to believe.
You may be thinking, it is not my fault why I worry and when I worry it is not me but my brain but so what I am still miserable, how do I get out of it. I am getting there. Having said all the above things, the next key understanding that you need to have is that you can control your thoughts.
#3: Understand that you can exert some control over your thoughts.
Now, this may seem exactly opposite to what I have been saying so far. It is not. Taking the example of the upset stomach further, there are certain steps you normally take to get your stomach back to its normal condition. You may resist your intake of spicy food or greasy food or junk food or the amount of food to help your stomach get back to normal. That is not what we normally do when we are worried. We think harder and longer. And we get more worried.
The way you can exert some control over your thoughts is to relax your brain. Relaxing by not thinking. It can be done in many ways. Through meditation or through chanting or through prayers or through journalling. There are some ways – not easy though – but some ways to control your thoughts. One other thing that may help is to get on a media diet if watching current news is one of the causes of your worry.
My coaching focussed on these key understandings because I wanted to impress upon the fact that sometimes not understanding what is abnormal can be the root cause. What do I mean by that? An upset stomach is not normal, we all know that. An upset and moody brain is also not normal. But that is difficult to understand. We all live in our own head, in our own brains and every thought of ours seems very normal to us because there is no other way of knowing. We have not lived outside of ourselves to know how others think and process the same inputs that we are getting. So, whatever we think seem to us as normal thoughts and that is where the problem is.
I hope that these 3 key understandings will help in becoming self-aware so that we can see more good than bad in most situations.
Thanks for reading and have a great day!!!