For way too many people, worry and anxiety are the normal, default emotional state. The phone rings and you assume it’s someone calling with bad news. There’s a knock at the door and your first thought is that it’s the police, coming to inform you that your son has been in an accident. The school sends a note home with your child and, before you’ve even opened it, you’re convinced it has to do with a behavior problem.
Why do our minds always and immediately go to the worst possible negative outcome? Why doesn’t my mind, instead, respond, “I bet it’s Publisher’s Clearing House with my million-dollar check!” Or, “They probably want him to represent the school at the United Nations!” Why do we imagine all the things that could go wrong but never give equal time to consider, list and weigh everything that could go right? Why is our default position always to instantly imagine all the horrible outcomes that are likely to befall us?
Turns out that there are two reasons for this.
The first is that our brains are naturally wired with something called a ‘negativity bias.’ This means that, through millions of years of evolution, our brains have grown to be more sensitive to bad news than good. Dr. John Cacioppo was a Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. In studies that he conducted when he was at Ohio State University, he showed that our brains react more strongly to negative stimuli than to positive. Our attitudes are more significantly influenced by bad news than by good.
It makes sense, too. When we were wandering around in the same neighborhood as hungry saber tooth tigers, we were well served by a brain with systems that made us notice, and respond to danger. Today, the tigers are long gone but that biology is still with us. Now, instead of noticing a charging mastodon, our negativity bias is alerting us to the insulting Facebook post or the (extremely remote) possibility of a bad medical diagnosis. As Hara Estroff Marano wrote in Psychology Today, “Nastiness just makes a bigger impact on our brains.”
The second reason is that, from the earliest age, we’ve been trained and conditioned to worry.
And I do mean earliest! Numerous scientific studies indicate that anxiety in the mother during pregnancy can have significant mental and behavioral effects on the child as it grows up. The results of one study showed that high levels of maternal anxiety have a “significant relation with mental disorders, emotional problems, lack of concentration and hyperactivity and impaired cognitive development of children.” The same study also concluded that anxiety during pregnancy can lead to “irritability and restlessness, individual differences in reaction to stressful life events and more fear in dealing with life events.” Another study concluded that both physiological and emotional/mental effects of prenatal anxiety continue into infancy and childhood. Mental and emotional effects can include “greater negative emotionality and in infants, lower mental development scores and internalizing problems. Anxiety disorders occur during childhood and elevated cortisol and internalizing behaviors occur during adolescence.”
None of this means, however, that you can’t lessen your own anxiety levels. In fact, simply knowing the origins of your own unease begins to make it far easier to walk away from.
Perhaps your mother was completely Zen-like during her pregnancy and you emerged as balanced and unblemished as can be. Immediately, and rightly, your parents began to look after and protect you.
Think about the advice that all caring parents give to their children: “Don’t talk to strangers!” “Don’t forget to wash your hands – you don’t want to get sick.” “Be careful on the way home from school.” “Your hand will turn green and fall off if you keep doing that!”
To be sure, the advice about not talking to strangers is excellent – when you’re eight years old and walking home from school alone. But when you’re 26 or 56 and still cringing when someone you don’t know walks up and rings your doorbell, things are out of control. While it’s good that our parents taught us to be cautious, they should also have taught us when it’s okay to back off on the yellow alerts. All the admonitions taught us to be basically untrusting and wary of the world around us.
It’s also a very good idea to wash your hands regularly. But when you carry a bottle of hand sanitizer everywhere you go, wiping down every surface you plan to touch, it’s reached a level of anxiety that borders on paranoia. Our biology provides us with an immune system that’s designed to filter out the germs without any help from Purell. In fact, your immune system needs to encounter and learn about new bacteria all the time if it’s to remain robust and effective. If we’re constantly killing off all the germs on the shopping cart handle before our bodies have a chance to encounter and learn how to deal with them, it’ll lose its ability to ward off disease. Then, like the Mayans, Incas and Aztecs when they encountered the first Europeans, our bodies won’t stand a chance to fend for themselves when some new virus sneaks past the Handi Wipe.
There is no doubt that there are some things out there of which we need to be cautious. But let’s recognize that the vast majority of people, events and circumstances we encounter every day aren’t just benign, they’re downright beneficial, delightful and good.