The Evolution Of Stress And Anxiety and 2 Ways To Deal With It
Our cavemen and cavewomen ancestors who lived about 200,000 years ago experienced stress and anxiety very differently to the way we experience it now in the 21st century. This was due to them living in a “here and now” environment whereas now we live with a longer-term perspective which brings its own stress and anxiety.
I read an interesting article by James Clear on the evolution of the human brain and have adapted some of his themes and thoughts as well as my own for this post.
The brain of our caveman and cavewomen ancestors was relatively similar to our modern day brain with the neocortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher level thinking, roughly the same size then as it is today.
Compared to the age of the brain, modern society is incredibly new with dramatic changes to our environment happening progressively over the last 500 years and more dramatically, the last 100 and especially, the last 10-15 years.
Until those changes, we lived in what was called an Immediate Return Environment, when stress and anxiety were useful emotions because they helped us take action in the face of immediate problems such as running away or fighting predators, and finding food or shelter. The brain was built for solving short-term, acute problems and used anxiety, and stress as an emotion that helped protect humans in the ‘here and now’ or Immediate Return Environment.
However our society has now shifted to a predominantly Delayed Return Environment.
Most of the choices we make today will not benefit us immediately. If we do a good job at work today, we will get paid in a few weeks. If we save money now, we will have enough for retirement later. Many aspects of modern society are designed to delay rewards until some point in the future. Similarly many of our problems are future problems such as worrying about career changes, children’s education or being able to afford a deposit on a property.
Unfortunately, living in a Delayed Return Environment tends to lead to chronic stress and anxiety for humans because we worry about the uncertainty of the future. Our brain has evolved to solve the problems of an Immediate Return Environment but suddenly (in evolution time lines) the entire environment has changed and our brain hasn’t evolved to cope with that.
Interestingly, researchers have found no evidence that wild animals experience chronic stress. As Duke University professor Mark Leary put it, “A deer may be startled by a loud noise and take off through the forest, but as soon as the threat is gone, the deer immediately calms down and starts grazing. And it doesn’t appear to be tied in knots the way that many people are.” When you live in an Immediate Return Environment, you only have to worry about acute stressors. Once the threat is gone, the anxiety subsides.
Today we face different problems. Will I have enough money to pay the bills next month? Will I get the promotion at work or remain stuck in my current job?
Problems in a Delayed Return Environment can rarely be solved right now in the present moment.
2 ways to deal with stress and anxiety
One of the greatest sources of anxiety in a Delayed Return Environment is the constant uncertainty. There is no guarantee that working hard in school will get you a job. There is no promise that investments will go up in the future. Living in a Delayed Return Environment means you are surrounded and beset by uncertainty.
So what can you do? How can you thrive in a Delayed Return Environment that creates so much stress and anxiety?
1) Measure Something
You can’t know for certain how much money you will have in retirement, but you can remove some uncertainty from the situation by measuring how much you save each month. You can’t be sure that you’ll get a job after graduation, but you can track how often you reach out to companies about internships. The act of measurement takes an unknown quantity and makes it known. When you measure something, you immediately become more certain about the situation. Measurement won’t magically solve your problems, but it will clarify the situation, pull you out of the black box of worry and uncertainty, and help you get a grip on what is actually happening.
Furthermore, one of the most important distinctions between an Immediate Return Environment and a Delayed Return Environment is rapid feedback. Animals are constantly getting feedback about the things that cause them stress. As a result, they actually know whether or not they should feel stressed. Without measurement you have no feedback.
2) Shift Your Worry
The second thing you can do is “shift your worry” from the long-term problem to a daily routine that will solve that problem.
- Instead of worrying about living longer, worry about taking a walk each day.
- Instead of worrying about whether your child will get a college scholarship, worry about how much time they spend studying today.
- Instead of worrying about losing enough weight for the wedding, worry about cooking a healthy dinner tonight.
The key insight that makes this strategy work is making sure your daily routine both rewards you right away (immediate return) and resolves your future problems (delayed return).
Our brains didn’t evolve in a Delayed Return Environment, but that’s where we find ourselves today. By measuring the things that are important to you and shifting your worry to daily practices that pay off in the long-run, you can reduce some of the uncertainty and chronic stress that is inherent in modern society.
For more on managing stress and anxiety and developing mental toughness, contact us.