June 28, 2011
In case you wonder why you worry even though you know it does no good for your mental, emotional, or physical health, it’s because your brain is hardwired that way. And there’s a good reason why. Your amygdala is trying to save your life. As we were evolving, our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to keep an eye out for danger at every turn —lions and tigers and bears, not to mention poisonous plants and insects and snakes. Those that could sense danger quickly survived; those who sauntered about just smelling the flowers did not.
Because of the advantage there used to be in perceiving physical danger quickly, write psychologist Rick Hanson and neurologist Rick Mendius in an article in Inquiring Mind, “The brain is hard-wired to scan for the bad, and when it inevitably finds negative things, they get stored immediately and made available for rapid recall. In contrast, positive experiences (short of million-dollar moments) are usually registered through standard memory systems, and thus need to be held in conscious awareness for ten to twenty seconds for them to really sink in. In sum, your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones…..this built-in bias puts a negative spin on the world and intensifies our stress and reactivity.”
Now that mechanism generally works against us. We perceive all kinds of things as snakes or tigers when they’re only pieces of rope or mother-in-laws. And we stay on high alert for any possible threat in a vain attempt to protect ourselves from it.
So what are we to do with this tendency of the brain that doesn’t serve us well? Becoming aware when we’re worried or anxious is the first step. Fortunately our brains can do much more than these negative habits and we can use its amazing other capacities to find the solutions we need. Unfortunately, for some of us it can be harder than for others. Next time I’ll take a look at why that’s true.