One of the biggest hurdles of being human is how we handle our tricky brain. Whoever we are, we go through life’s experiences with a brain that leaves us vulnerable to difficult negative emotions, including anxiety, depression, anger and shame. One of the first steps to overcoming any emotional difficulty can be to learn to understand your mind and how it’s only trying to help. Let’s get real about the way our minds work, because the mind is a tricky beast. Left to its own devices, your human brain can get up to all sorts! It’s just the way human minds have evolved and that’s no fault of your own. Your mind means well, it just goes a little overboard at times, trying to keep you safe.
Evolution of the human brain
The human brain is a product of evolution. The brain is a marvelous thing – if you think of the positive potential and capabilities of human beings – over the centuries, societies have made advances in science, knowledge, art and technology in ways that are truly astonishing. While it’s open to debate that all of these advances are a good thing (that’s another story in itself), there’s no question that the human brain’s capacities to think, reason, plan, invent and create are immense.
The problem with our tricky brain stems from the simple facts that our brain still retains many old brain functions from our evolutionary past – our ‘old’ mammal brains. Our brains are ruled by complex motivations for survival, food, reproduction, status and caring, all of which were essential for the survival of our species. There are also primary emotions of anger, anxiety, sadness and joy, all of which motivated us to take action, whether that was to fight, take flight, shut down, find food, compete for resources or find a partner, or engage in caring for young.
Bigger brain, bigger problems
Over thousands of years our brains evolved and, in simple terms, grew bigger. However, the trade-off that came alongside all the benefits of being a human were the disadvantages that can come of being able to think about your own experiences. We can monitor and judge ourselves, we can criticise, we can worry about and imagine what can go wrong, we can be frightened of our own feelings, we can feel inferior to others, we can ruminate about the past... Being able to comment on the content of our own minds can be sometimes be a design flaw in an otherwise amazing brain. The good news is that knowing that our own mind is a product of evolution we can begin to leave behind any ideas that we are to blame for any unhealthy negative feelings. Through no fault of your own, your brain will sometimes respond in a way that is out of proportion to a threat, because that’s the way our brains are made. Our modern brains have the unfortunate capacity to rev up and sustain any sense of threat for far longer than a mammal in the wild.
Fight or flight reactions
One way of thinking about this is to picture a zebra in the wild. The zebra is happily grazing with his pack, when along comes a lion. Lion gives chase and the zebra flees for survival. As luck would have it, on this occasion the zebra gets away. It then wanders back to the herd, and continues to graze. Its threat system served it well. The threat system kicked in, and the zebra’s body took over, ensuring its best chances of survival in a real life or death chase. Now, if that zebra had been gifted with a more human brain, he would still have that instinctive fight or flight reflex, but problems could begin after the event.
Rumination and worry
On returning to the herd, the zebra may begin to reflect as follows: “That was scary – I could have died. I can picture how awful that might be. What if next time I die? What if I had tripped and fallen, that could have been the end of me. How am I going to prevent that from happening again? Why did the lion pick me? Did I look weaker than the others? Hey, wait a minute, why didn’t anyone help me out there? They all just carried on grazing as if nothing happened. Maybe they don’t like me. What would have happened to my children?” Not only would the zebra be giving itself a wealth of new threats to dwell upon, but he’d be feeling worse for longer by ruminating about the past and worrying about the future.
This is what happens to humans. In face of a threat, real or imagined, we can bring the threat into our heads and keep it going in creative and unhelpful ways. As humans we can add to our original problems with shame and self criticism, unhelpful comparisons and negative judgments, all of which can sustain the feeling of threat and create a more persistent cycle of negative emotions.
The important thing to remember is that when this happens this is not your fault, it all comes down to your brain’s evolutionary design. The good news is we can take responsibility for our tricky brains and learn to manage it. Once we can see under the bonnet it becomes easier to understand and work with its foibles. There is a freedom and a power in knowing this.
Ali Binns is a CBT therapist in Bath. If you need further help and would like to talk things through with an accredited CBT therapist, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or via my Contact page.