The Evolutionary Purpose of Difficult Thoughts and Emotions

Depression, anger, anxiety, worry - what do these emotions, and the thoughts which accompany them, have in common?

They all serve important evolutionary purposes in the context of survival. Imagine being chased down by a hungry tiger, your nervous system in a hyper-aroused state. In this situation you don't despise your feelings of anxiety or your worrisome thoughts about being eaten, you thank them for keeping your mind focused. When cornered you don't try to wish away your anger, you utilize it for the task at hand. Finally, when your efforts fail and you enter hypo-arousal, the ensuing depression and thoughts of helplessness serve you well by reinforcing your being's last ditch effort at survival - playing dead.

Where we go wrong

If these thoughts and emotions are just our nervous systems doing what they're supposed to do, why do we seem to suffer them so frequently? The problem is two-fold. First, we've developed strong beliefs and reactions which have elevated issues such as finances to the level of immediate existential threat. Rationally we know those overdue bills aren't going to eat us but our nervous system doesn't and so it responds as evolution intended by keeping you fixated and worried.

Then we compound this issue by reacting to the reaction, creating a feedback loop. Not only do our finances increase our arousal but so does the ensuing anxiety; we see it too as a threat to our existence. At best this is a motivator to solve our apparent issues. At worst we feel helpless and can even find ourselves moving into a panic attack.

To complicate things a bit

Even when we seem to have solved what appears to be the issue, the mind seems to just find another one. This is where projection keeps us on the rat wheel. We don't see the actual root of the problem, which is often buried in developmental issues - childhood trauma. We're not actually hyper-aroused because a co-worker snubbed us but rather because it triggered an unresolved wound.

When we remain in an uncomfortable emotional state to which we are averse, the mind looks for the next possible cause (projection). But since the original cause is long past, we have little hope of rationalizing and problem-solving our way to freedom. Thus we seek out coping mechanisms to unwind.

What to do about it - "state over story"

Simply by realizing those troublesome thoughts and emotions are not something to be blamed on immediate circumstances, we begin to create a little space, a little freedom. They are effects of something, namely the state of our nervous system, which we can learn to directly influence in a skillful way.

Bypassing entanglement in our stories, we can employ simple techniques (with some practice) to start to shift our nervous systems into a more optimal state. Specifically our aim is to signal to our bodies that we're safe from immediate threat. Over time we gradually reprogram our relationship to triggering events and the resulting survival response effects (difficult thoughts and emotions).

A comprehensive guide to doing the "inner work" is beyond the scope of this article, but I'll leave you with some simple techniques you can start honing today.

Simple techniques

 The breath is an excellent place to start; it's a two-way street which both reflects and informs the state of our nervous systems. Start by developing a greater awareness of the breath. Check in with it periodically. How are you breathing when you feel a sense of well-being? How does this contrast to when you're anxious or totally shut-down?

Next, start breathing as if you were in an optimal state. Typically this is a calm, easy breath which is not too fast and is well-balanced in terms of inhale and exhale durations. A reasonable aim is a 5-6 second inhale and exhale with little to no pauses in between, 5-6 breaths per minute.

You can also orient to your environment and expand your sense of space. Orienting to your environment is as simple as slowly shifting your head and eyes around to take it all in. Notice all the directions, all the space around you. Involve the other senses by feeling the surfaces you're in contact with, hearing the sounds and smelling the smells. These orienting actions signal to your nervous system that you're safe.

Expanding your spatial awareness can help reduce the localized intensity of any discomfort you might be feeling. This sense of awareness can be expanded both externally, by noticing your environment, and internally, by noticing bodily sensations - a skill known as interoception.

Where to go from here

There are many ways to start improving your experience by doing the "inner work" - top-down techniques which focus on the mind and bottom-up techniques which focus on the body. Simply developing a greater self-awareness in all respects tends to drive this process but can elicit some discomfort. Learn to work with it and you will be well rewarded.

Also keep in mind this is simply one model for viewing your thoughts and emotions and is therefore insufficient. Models cannot describe the totality of experience but they can serve as useful frameworks for making progress. By no means should this discount, trivialize or diminish anything you're going through. I often repeat to myself "it's okay to feel whatever you feel right now."

I look forward to sharing more insights in future articles.

If you'd like more help learning to regulate your nervous system, feel free to reach out.