Understanding The Free Fall of Uncertainty
“The fool, with all his other faults, has this also, he is always getting ready to live.” - Epicurus
Anxiety starts as a small seed within our minds and grows out of the fertile soils of uncertainty. This uncertainty opens the door for our brains to run wild. As our thoughts race, we seem to automatically take the position of knowing what is best for us as individuals. If we are not careful, from here, the feeling can strengthen as malaise begins to set in and we start to worry about worrying. With the help of a few quotes, I would like to explore these ideas further and provide a poignant anecdote that I experienced a few years ago.
Factors Behind Anxiety
Anxiety stems from a survival instinct known as fight or flight. This response was initially adapted to prevent us from getting eaten by things like mountain lions. In modern day, we do not face such life-threatening events. Our mind scales our experience to the relative danger that we are in over the long term. Because we do not experience any significant threats, our mind places the most amount of importance on the greatest perceived threat. So if in our mind's eye, we begin to look at exams, job deadlines, or financial woes as extreme challenges, our brains have difficulty separating such danger from that of a bear attack.
Our mind also tends to be certain about the good or bad when thinking of a situational outcome. From here we can think back to Shakespeare in Hamlet: “Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me, it is a prison.” There are two perspectives to note here. The first is the relativity of all things. Only the judgment of the human mind weights situations as good or bad. Secondly, we cannot always see the causality of cause and effect. This idea is to say if some event occurs and we deem it right, there is no way to tell what will follow from that and whether the subsequent events will be good or bad in nature.
We must also keep in mind the innumerable amount of variables that go into the manifestation of any single outcome that we cannot take into account. We so quickly forget the complexity of the system within which we live. We live in a sort of interconnected web-like reality. All events depend, relatively, on all others. Each of these events is not isolated, but much more like a process. So instead of many finite variables, many variables are continually changing and ever dependent on many other systems. This can be thought of like many rivers flowing into and out of one another.
Alan Watts sums up these last two paragraphs well:
“The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad — because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.”
How many times do we worry ourselves to pieces and when the time comes, either the mentally projected outcome is nowhere in sight, or it is far less in magnitude than anticipated? We can expect potential future consequences that have not yet come to pass. This sort of abstract thought allows us to plan for the future and critique the past. Difficulty sets in when we begin to reside in these mentally constructed places. Seneca elaborates on this notion:
“It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so look forward meanwhile to better things. What shall you gain by doing this? Time. There will be many happenings meanwhile which will serve to postpone, or end, or pass on to another person, the trials which are near or even in your very presence. A fire has opened the way to flight. Men have been let down softly by a catastrophe. Sometimes the sword has been checked even at the victim’s throat. Men have survived their own executioners. Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime it is not. So look forward to better things.”
In addition to the proper way of thinking about these anxiety provoking thought patterns, there are external factors that can magnify this mental freewheeling. Caffeine is one of those things. Caffeine also affects sleep negatively which reduces our ability to deal with stress and as a result negatively feeds back into this anxiety loop.
Other lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise can play either a positive or negative role in increasing or decreasing anxiety. When we exercise, our body produces anti-anxiety chemicals. When we eat healthily, we tend to exercise more. A positive feedback loop is created by focusing on these healthier patterns which in turn lead to an increased state of mindfulness. In the age of more is more, it is difficult for us to realize that we must take a holistic approach to this mentally fictitious enemy. To illustrate my battle with this elusive enemy, I want to share a powerful experience that happened to me.
My Personal Anecdote
My troubles all started with me living a life to please my parents. I never realized that we must take responsibility for our actions and what we want to become. This lack of realization created a false premise to the story of my life. I convinced myself that I was an impostor, that I did not deserve to be at the college I was and somehow the people who let me in screwed up. To overcome such a shortcoming, I developed a routine of self-tyranny. I thought to myself “If I go to every class, and study as much as I can, and I still fail, at least I did everything that I could do.” It was not until years later that I came to realize that more is not always more.
This dialogue should be setting up the picture in your mind of how much emphasis I placed on succeeding. It was a tremendous amount of self-pressure. This tyranny came from the deep down place of wanting to be loved. I had convinced myself, that unless I was successful, I was not worthy of love. Now, this probably had something to do with a father who was mostly absent. This void allowed for my mind to overemphasize the importance of his approval.
So, junior year of undergrad, I end up enrolling in an Aerospace course as a non-aerospace engineering major. Now mechanical engineering is difficult, think something like running a marathon. Aerospace engineering concepts are like running a marathon up the side of Mount Everest while carrying a 100 lb rucksack. I struggled profusely.
There were four exams in the semester including the final. By the time the third exam came around the material was so complicated that I was having a hard time of it. I went to all of the office hours and worked in all of the groups that I could. This effort was still not enough. To make sure I was studying all of the hours I should, I was drinking copious amounts of coffee. This slide was a slow degradation from the first day of class when I realized the professor was less than approachable and that I was on Everest without a good source of oxygen.
After studying many hours and taking the third exam, it all came crumbling down. I lost control of my mind. Between poor sleep, too much caffeine, and my mind perceiving the exam as it would an assault by a bear, I went into full panic attack mode. My heart was racing, and I was not able to sleep at all. The next day I proceeded to call the counseling center in an anxious and panicked manner telling them that I had an emergency. They took me in mid-morning.
Upon arriving at the campus counseling center, I waited a few moments before being shown into a room. It was a small office space with a few chairs placed around. After a few minutes of sitting a tall, thin, older gentleman came in and sat down in a chair directly in front of me. His posture was relaxed and his gaze at ease. He soon asked me “What’s going on, how can I help you?” I immediately launched into the story about the exam and how I just knew that I had failed it. After some time of explaining this, he smiled at me and let out the slightest chuckle. This reaction irritated me because in my head I had big problems and how dare he laugh at me.
He quickly proceeded to ask me “Okay, on a scale from one to ten, how important was that exam to you?” I said, well probably about an eight out of ten. He then asked me, “Who is the most important person in your life?” I responded, “My Mom.” He said, “Okay, how important would a situation be where your Mom’s house burned down?” I said, “Well, of course, a ten!” Finally, he said, “Fair enough, how important would it be if your Mom’s house burned down with here in it?” That stopped me in my tracks. I had already weighted the relative importance of the house at a ten and the exam a close eight behind it. It became crystal clear to me that I was entirely overemphasizing the significance of this one exam. This conundrum is the relativity of our mind. It was also me projecting things that had not yet manifested. I was suffering a consequence that did not exist.
This experience was the most profound moment of my college career, and possibly my life. It was in an instant that I realized all of the anxiety that I had been dealing with was a result of overweighting of things that were not that important in the grand scheme of things. It is difficult to keep our heads out of the weeds of the day-to-day, but it is essential for a life well lived.
We have been simultaneously blessed and cursed with the most complex computational devices in the universe. Because we can imagine the future with no limits (think infinite), we can project things that are highly likely never to come true. It has been shown via a psychological study that our brains are prone to overpredict events that have a low probability of occurrence and underpredict those with a high chance. This skewed view compounded with our ability to project future events that not only have not occurred yet but would take countless variables to manifest leaves us untethered at best.
As a final thought, we can examine what Seneca has said:
“There are more things...likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
This illusion seems to be more accurate than ever in our modern day society devoid of many horrors of times past.
Inspiration and Quotes Drawn from: