Hacking Evolution

A couple of questions for you as we get started. Over the past year have you had times where you have answered “yes” to any of the following six questions?

  1. Have you felt restlessness, keyed up, or on edge?
  2. Do you feel easily fatigued?
  3. Have you had difficulty concentrating or experienced your mind going blank?
  4. Have you been irritable?
  5. Have you experienced muscle tension?
  6. Have you had any sleep disturbances?

How about yes to three or more? Now, here’s the bad news. According to the DSM which is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders used by mental health professionals to screen and diagnose for a number of mental ailments, answering yes to three or more of these questions would end up with being diagnosed with GAD or Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

Other self-descriptions offered by those afflicted with this issue include statements like, “my concentration stinks these days.” “I’ve been feeling more angry and hostile than usual.” “I walk around feeling nervous and am more guarded around others.” “My sleeping is disrupted. I wake up more often during the night and can’t get back to sleep for hours.” These don’t sound like sentiments of those having a lot of fun or feeling good about themselves.

Conversations about our mental health during COVID seem to have increased as the on again, off again lockdowns linger. It’s more than reasonable to have felt out of sorts somewhere along the journey of the past 14 plus months. Increased anxiety is an inevitable outcome of the disruption to our way of working and living. Perhaps, you’ve read an article in the news similar to this one highlighting how rates of depression and anxiety seem to climbing steeply during the Pandemic?

The bad news is that the past year’s pandemic panic has amped and continues to amp up our anxiety. The good news is that Canadian Psychologist Brad Kelln has written a book that helps us both better understand the natural sources for our anxiety as well as offers some steps to soothe our souls.

Professor Kelln uses evolution as a lens for explaining our brain’s bias for interpreting things in a negative light. Everything that is part of our biology today is the result of eons of evolution. Our biology was set a long time ago and has largely been the same for the past few hundred thousand years. It was set when we occupied a world fraught with risk. Evolution has ensured that everything about us exists to serve our survival. Our biology is designed to keep us alive, not happy.

Our brain is designed to be alert to threats. Coupled with this is our brain’s wiring to avoid pain and pursue pleasure. We are not designed to sit around comfortably. Those that did in our distant past didn’t last long. We’re wired to defend against dangers and look proactively for ways to protect ourselves and plan for the future. Worrying worked for our ancestors. Planning for problems was worthwhile. Anxiety accelerated action. Negative emotions serve. The fact they aren’t fun to experience is the point. Professor Kelln points out that trying to be immune from anxiety isn’t possible or good. The negative feelings we get from fear and anxiety serve as fuel to get us to move. We are motivated to move away from these. Where we’re successful we may also benefit from a positive emotion of accomplishment or satisfaction as a result of our efforts.

Much of our difficulty today is that we live in an entirely different world than that where our biology became what it is. Most of us no longer face imminent physical threats. Most of us aren’t worried about where our next meal is coming from or whether we have a roof over our head and warm clothes. Our day to day lives are largely removed from threats. We also now get news from all over the world. We’re exposed to danger and bad events from parts of the world which have no impact to us and over which we can do nothing. Nonetheless, our biological alarm bells ring warning us to act by setting off negative emotions. A separate side effect of our brain’s built in bias for problem seeking is that where it can’t find issues, it will create them. In short, our brains and bodies are great and wonderful, serving us well in the world of the past, yet getting in our way today.

For over a year, the number one news story has been COVID. We’ve been bombarded with bad news about the consequences of COVID. We’ve been inundated with images of suffering. We’ve seen scenes of death all over the world. We’ve heard health care professionals harp about how awful it is to treat and how limited our resources are to manage. We have been separated from loved ones and strangers through distancing, masks, and outright lockdowns. We’re on alert and our brains are rich with the air of anxiety. Even the media may be coming to recognize that they have erred to the side of inducing anxiety instead of providing information.

It’s perfectly normal and natural to feel negative emotions. Our goal shouldn’t be to remove them. We should be paying attention to what they are telling us. We should also work to put things in perspective. Are we letting our feelings fuel our thoughts? We are separate from our feelings. We are even separate from our thoughts. Our goal is to seek an awareness of what is going on inside our minds. Our brains are constantly scanning our surroundings seeking change. Professor Kelln introduces his readers to the concept of discrepancy monitoring. One way you may be familiar with consciously applying your discrepancy monitoring mechanism is when golfing where the wicked wind sends your tee shot slightly off course. As you look for your ball in the woods, you’re scanning for the white color to stick out amongst the greens and browns. You’re training your attention to be alert to the white that should stand out as something that doesn’t fit in the natural context of the terrain you’re looking at. Where change is noticed, our brain then works to evaluate the change. Is it positive, neutral, or negative. If positive or neutral it can be ignored. The brain’s limited resources are geared to focus on problems. If we recognize something that’s a problem our brain then tries to compare what it sees to what is desired. The bigger the gap, the bigger the negative feelings we experience as a result. This is a natural process. Our difficulty today is that we’re overly sensitive to small changes and we overreact in our negative interpretation.

We can reduce negative feelings in our lives where we become better at developing awareness and questioning our interpretation of discrepancies as they’re identified. Is this really that big of a deal? With enhanced awareness of our brain’s bias to bad news, we can work to give ourselves a chance at feeling better instead of being at the mercy of having our feelings forced on us from outside events. Can we try to rank things in terms of their significance and consequence to our lives? Is this something that implies immediate action or involvement? Can we just ignore it? When you do come across negative stuff, question whether it impacts your life in any way. Ask yourself, “so what, now what?” Yes, it may be true. Yes, it may be bad news. However, does it really apply to me, today, right now? Critically reviewing and reflecting on things that trigger our attention will help us put things in perspective and let many, if not most, minor annoyances roll off us like water from a duck’s back.

A separate suggestion Professor Kelln gives us is to take back control of what we allow to enter our minds as opposed to being reactive to news, social media, and other external influences. Tune out the news. Limit time on social media. Turn off notifications on your devices. You can control what you allow in. Give yourself a chance for mental calm. Step away from the news. Give yourself a TV or social media fast. Free yourself of intense inputs. By owning our inputs we reduce the discrepancies our brain will encounter in the first place. With improved inputs and better interpretation of events, we’re giving ourselves a chance at minimizing triggering negative emotions. From here, Professor Kelln helps us see that additional anxiety follows our mind’s wandering back and forth through time. Much of our anxiety stems from reliving the past and worrying about the future. When we time travel with our thoughts we are allowing things outside of our control to determine how we feel in the present. Not only do we allow ourselves to become miserable in the moment, it’s not productive. We’re, effectively, choosing to become victims to negative feelings. Developing mindfulness and awareness in the present is the cure.

In the late 70s, a psychologist from Chicago began to study the opposite of anxiety. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was interested in learning about how we feel when we experienced our highest states of positive feeling. His studies led to the concept of flow. Flow is the mental state we achieve when our attention is fully absorbed in a task that we both enjoy and puts us in the place of performing at the edges of our ability. We are keen to lean in and participate and the level of difficulty isn’t too easy that we’re bored nor is it so difficult that we’re stressed. When we find this sweet spot we’ve achieved flow and experience calm, pleasant emotions. Time seems to stand still and move quickly at the same time. We’re right where we want to be. It’s a very positive experience. It can be found in sport, hobby, work, and a number of other types of activities. We find it playing music, listening to music, reading, writing, exercising, gardening, in conversation with loved ones, as examples.

Csikszentmihalyi (apparently, it’s pronounced “chick sent me higher”) conducted an experiment where he directed people to not undertake any activity which provided these experiences. He and his researchers gave subjects pagers which prompted them six to eight times a day to check in and record how they were feeling. After two days of this study, the results of subject experiences were so profoundly negative that Csikszentmihalyi called off the study. Daniel Pink in his book Drive writes of this study, “Forty-eight hours without flow plunged people into a state eerily similar to a serious psychiatric disorder. The experiment suggests that flow, the deep sense of engagement… isn’t a nicety. It’s a necessity. We need it to survive. It’s the oxygen of the soul.”

At times during the Pandemic of 2020, have you felt like restrictions imposed by lockdowns seem similar to the deprivation Csikszentmihalyi imposed upon his test subjects? When we’re denied the ability to engage with family, friends, and activities we derive deep satisfaction from, we suffer. It’s not a casual, it’s no big deal kind of loss. It may seem a touch ironic that research studies conducted over 40 years ago give us a reason why we’ve been feeling out of sorts.  Our suffering is real where we are prevented from doing things from which we find flow. Csikszentmihalyi’s research experience may also help us explain in hindsight why so many of us seem to have adapted and jumped on to whatever form of recreation was available. Sales for bikes, boats, trailers and RVs, as well as for activities like golfing all exploded as many of us flocked to embrace any kind of fun that could be had. The boom in certain forms of recreation may by an indication of both our ability to adapt as well as be an explanation for some positive news related to our mental health. The idea that our inability to access the things we enjoy doing is causing us anxiety is at the heart of our earlier article encouraging us to find something towards which to look forward. In this vein, Professor Kelln encourages us to find activities that constructively consume our attention in the present. Having hobbies helps.

Adopting Professor Kelln’s guidance will help you hack your evolution by choosing to have a proper perspective of events, enjoying more time mentally engaged in the present, and controlling where you allow your attention to flow. Hacking Evolution is a well-written, concise read that will help readers develop an awareness of why anxiety may be afflicting us as well as offering some useful tips to help counteract our built-in biases.