Do you get a bad feeling when you think about the future? Does it get worse around New Year’s, birthdays, or seasonal changes?
This is natural. Our brain evolved to manage threats. Our sense of threat is heightened by the apocalyptic messages that surround us, of course. But these messages exist because we’re receptive to them. You can escape all this doomsaying when you know how your brain works.
Doomsday thinking rests on our awareness of our mortality. When you think about the future, you know you will not be a part of it someday. You are not consciously thinking that with your verbal brain, so you look for another way to explain the sense of dread that comes over you. You blame the economic system, the political system, and the health care system.
You have more power over your threatened feelings when you know where they come from. Your sophisticated verbal brain sits on top of brain structures that all mammals have in common. Your mammal brain cannot tell you what it is thinking in words, because it cannot process language. It responds to the world with chemicals instead of words. When it sees a potential threat, it releases cortisol, which creates the feeling that your survival is in immediate danger.
Animals are not aware of their mortality
Animals focus on the information reaching their senses because they do not have enough neurons to construct their own information. The big human cortex can construct images internally instead of just relying on external inputs. Your cortex can construct the awareness that you will die, and everyone you love will die. This terrorizes your mammal brain because it evolved to promote survival. When it senses a survival threat, cortisol creates a full-body sense of alarm.
Our brain is designed to learn from threats. You do not touch a hot stove twice because your cortisol wires in that knowledge the first time. Each time you terrorize yourself, you build up the neural pathway that warns you of impending doom. The pathways you built in your youth are the superhighways of your brain due to myelin, so your youthful vulnerability is the core of your neural network.
If that’s not bad enough…
To make matters worse, our cortex looks for new information to fan the flames of old vulnerability. Our cortex looks for evidence of threat the way a gazelle looks for lions once it smells something. Your big cortex is good at finding evidence when it looks! Now you’re sure the threat is real because your mind and body agree. This leads to more cortisol, more scanning for threat signals, and more cortisol. It’s a bad loop!
Our sense of impending doom is nothing new. Humans lived with invasions, plagues, and famines for eons. They taught their children about invasions, plagues, and famines. The risk of angering the gods worried them a lot too (a great book on this is Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden).
Our ancestors had no medical diagnostics, so they could not know if an ache or pain was cancer. People died at home, so children grew up witnessing human mortality, often from the same bed. Today we are taught to blame “our society” for our threatened feelings, so it is useful to see the big picture.
How can you escape this loop?
Here are three simple steps you can take to re-wire your doomsday circuit.
1. Manage your inputs.
I learned to manage my internal alarm on a visit to my aging parents. I was suddenly aware of a very bad feeling, which may seem very familiar to you. But I noticed that my parents had the television blaring all the time, and my ears were constantly exposed to threat messages in fiction and non-fiction. I did not need that extra stress!
I could not control it in my parents’ home, but from that moment on, I took the initiative to protect my ears from doomsday messages whenever possible. I carefully vet my media consumption and filter out the doomsday messaging. You may think that eliminates everything, and it certainly eliminates a lot. I spend a lot of time finding positive inputs, but the time is well spent because it increases my life energy.
2. Feed your brain positive messages about the future.
Positive messages are hard to find when your brain is wired to go negative. You have to look actively, and that may feel dishonest and biased. You have to remind yourself that you are just offsetting the negative bias you already have.
The good news is that tiny, positive thoughts are enough to shift you from threat chemicals to happy chemicals. Dopamine trickles with each step toward meeting your survival needs. Keep stepping, and you will keep stimulating dopamine and keep building the pathway to stimulate future dopamine. You do not need to rescue the world from apocalypse to feel good.
Here is a simple example. My comfortable, everyday pants and shoes wore out last year. I replaced them, but the new ones were not really comfortable, so I kept going back to the old stuff. Every time I got dressed, I saw signs that my comforts were on their last legs. This triggered a sense of time running out, though I was not consciously thinking that.
When I realized that I was triggering my vulnerability circuit, I decided to redirect it. I shopped for looser pants and spent time breaking in the new shoes. This left me feeling powerful instead of helpless in the face of decline. It did not save the world, but it freed me from a false sense of threat.
3. Trust your own survival skills.
Animals face constant survival threats, but they do not shrivel up with fear. They simply trust their own survival skills. When a gazelle smells a lion, it focuses on the path to escape instead of on the lion. A mountain goat focuses on the next tiny foothold rather than on the immensity of the mountain.
An animal expects to escape hunger and predation because it has done it before. You know the animal will die someday. Your big cortex enables you to anticipate threats and, thus, escape them. But you will shrivel up with fear if you do not temper your sophisticated threat detector with trust in your own skills.
You can fill your life with the joy of dopamine instead of drowning in cortisol. And you can find many more tips about this in my book, The Science of Positivity: Stop Negative Thought Patterns By Changing Your Brain Chemistry.