When your anxiety turns on, you want anything that will turn it off. Maybe it seems you’ve tried everything already. But there’s one thing you probably haven’t tried: changing your expectations. I can’t tell you which expectations are causing your anxiety, but I can tell you how expectations trigger the cascade of brain chemicals that we call anxiety.
It’s easier to see how this works in someone else. Imagine that I want a pony for my birthday. When my expectations are disappointed, my brain releases cortisol. This chemical is the brain’s danger alert. It feels bad because that gets a body to focus attention on eliminating the threat. Our brain is designed to respond to threats of all kinds. The obvious kind of threat is a predator, but a more subtle threat is investing effort in a lost cause. For example, a lion will starve to death if it keeps running after gazelles that have gotten away. Their cortisol turns on when their chase fails and the bad feeling alerts them to find a new target. The brain we’ve inherited makes careful decisions about where to invest its energy. If you run after something and don’t get it, your brain releases cortisol to alter your course. It feels bad, but our brain is not designed to feel good; it’s designed to promote survival.
But I don’t expect a pony, you may say. True, but you have expectations that trigger your cortisol. You can find them if you look. You won’t find them in your conscious verbal mind, but in the neural pathways your brain built from past experience. Our neurons connect when we have a strong surge of emotion. This creates pathways that turn on the emotion in similar future circumstances.
The electricity in your brain flows like water in a storm, finding the paths of least resistance.
Your electricity tends to flow into the paths you built in youth because they have developed into superhighways. This flow of electricity through old pathways is what makes something feel like a big deal without your conscious verbal brain knowing why.
For example, imagine I have another birthday coming up and I start expecting a pony again. Last year’s disappointment built a cortisol pathway in my brain, so I should have a bad feeling about the pony thing. But somewhere in my past, I created an even bigger pathway that expects all my frustrations to be fixed by the appearance of a pony. Somehow I connected the pony to my happy chemicals (dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin), so I get a good feeling just thinking about it. I also get a bad feeling thinking about it. What a conundrum! My brain’s natural quest for good feelings activates a pathway that turns on my cortisol!
My cortisol pathway will grow if the pony fails to appear again this year. Cortisol makes you feels like your survival is threatened, even when you consciously know that the lack of a pony does not threaten your survival. I will end up with a lot of cortisol unless I build a new pathway to my happy chemicals. Why does a brain designed for survival build quirky expectations about ponies?
Our happy chemicals are designed to turn on when we meet a need and then they turn off. So in order to stimulate our happy chemicals, we have to constantly take steps toward meeting our needs.
We evolved in a world where you had to constantly forage for food to survive. Finding resources turned on the happy chemicals, but they quickly habituate to old rewards, so “new and improved” is what it takes to get them flowing. In a world where your basic physical needs are routinely met, your happy chemicals respond most when you meet social needs. Anything that met social needs when you were a kid built superhighways in your brain that create your present expectations about what will feel good. Yikes! No wonder we expect ponies and suffer cortisol spurts.
When you know that anxiety is caused by old expectations, you can relieve it by building new expectations.
You can turn off your anxiety by giving your electricity a new place to flow. Of course, you’ll still end up with disappointment sometimes because the social world is unpredictable. But disappointment feels less threatening when you know it’s just electricity flowing into an old pathway.