Anxiety is a present fear of the future. In order to fear the future, we must piece together the following thoughts in no particular order:
- Predict what will happen out of a myriad of possibilities
- Determine cause and effect of our past, present, and future actions
- List out an unlimited number of potential options
- Determine the positive and negative outcomes of each option
- Consider the feelings and emotions of all other people involved
- Choosing to to act based on incomplete information and a high level of uncertainty
We are doing all of these things all the time and it takes a massive amount of brain power to run simulations of future events. The relative importance we attribute to every decision determines how long we are willing to think before taking action. Each additional person or course of action we consider results in an exponential rise in the complexity of analysis.
An age of complexity
Software and hardware improvements usually go hand in hand. That is not the case with our minds and bodies. Our brains have not been developing at a rate to keep up with the increasing complexity of information. The number of considerations for everything we do has been increasing exponentially. For example, social media has taken the stakeholder evaluation part of the anxiety process from a few people to hundreds or thousands.
Every photo, comment, like, or subscribe is visible and scrutinized by hundreds of people we know and thousands of people we might meet one day. The dawn of the internet has also expanded our list of potential options to limitless degrees. Having access to an overload of information makes coming to a decision far more difficult due to the paradox of choice.
As our number of options increases, so does the perceived opportunity cost of taking action. By choosing one option out of many, we discard all of the potential benefits of those other options while discounting all of the potential downsides. The opportunity cost of action can be so great that doing nothing and procrastinating the decision is often perceived to be the safest course of action.
The Curse of EQ
People are all sorts of contradictions that can be irrational, unpredictable, passionate, and whimsical. The ability to read and predict the emotions, feelings, thoughts, ambitions, and interests of others is highly complex. We can all do this to a varying degree and attribute exceptionally perceptive people as having a high emotional quotient. Collectively we agree that having a high EQ is extremely cool, beneficial, and important alongside its less cool, sibling: IQ.
While a high emotional intelligence is beneficial it is also a double edged sword when it comes to anxiety. The more perceptive we are of the joy of others, the more perceptive we are towards their pain. An acute understanding of how our actions can negatively impact others is a powerful paralytic agent that immobilizes with fear.
Old versus new risks
Our outdated hardware is geared for survival in a very harsh world. Pissing off the wrong person in our ancestral tribe could mean ostracism (which was the same as certain death in the jungle). It should be no surprise that fear of public speaking outranks fear of death because saying the wrong thing would not only result in death, but rather a slow, agonizing, starving or getting eaten alive type of death.
There is an innate part of our fear that stems from our history that is struggling to adapt to technology. Modern life brings about rising set of lethal dangers we have only encountered within the last few decades: cancer, obesity, automobile accidents. Electrical sockets kill more people than spiders but we all innately fear the creepy crawlies and feel nothing looking lethal sources of electricity.
Many people with a fear of flying cannot reconcile their feelings of intense anxiety with statistics that indicate airplanes are far safer than the cars they would not hesitate to jump into. It makes sense that we fear social rejection but we base that fear on our ancestor’s outcomes of possible death rather than adapt that fear to our modern day outcomes of, well, not death. Fortunately for us, many of our fears are outdated and inaction often carries a greater risk than stepping outside our comfort zone.
Acting with anxiety
It is worth repeating that our perception of fear is coupled with real risks faced by our ancestors that may no longer up to date. Hence, we spend our days living out anxious lives by attributing the wrong consequences to our actions without questioning the assumptions of that fear. We can leverage our understanding of history to slowly tease these apart. By questioning what it is we fear and why we can reassess if these hold up or not in a modern context and start to shift our paradigms of anxiety.
Once we can update our assessment of risks and benefits, we can act with the confidence that the innate fear we feel is a remnant of forgotten time. Some things are worth doing, others are not but whatever we decide we must not become paralyzed by the nearly infinite choices and future timelines that there are. We will always be acting with incomplete information based on uncertain outcomes, but no matter what happens, we will learn and become stronger having made the attempt.
About the author: Dr. Michael Jiang is a neuroscientist entrepreneur and co-founder and inventor of Nerv, a small healthy supplement for the management of occasional stress and anxiety. His mission is to destigmatize the conversation around mental health by offering accessible, healthy, and intuitive solutions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of others.