Stop Anxiety by Adjusting Expectations
Old expectations trigger your cortisol, but you can adjust them.
Posted August 30, 2016
Anxiety is caused by our own expectations more than we realize. For example, a pothole in the road causes huge anxiety if you drive right into it, but if you see it in advance it’s manageable. So anxiety is caused by the expectation of a flat road when that fails to fit the facts.
Of course, expecting potholes all the time would not relive anxiety either. Realistic expectations are the key to a smooth ride. But how can our expectations be realistic when the world is unpredictable?
We can adjust old expectations for new information.
We resist doing this, however, for a good reason. Our brain evolved to hold on to old experience. It's meant to protect us from having to touch fire more than once, or eat poison berries on a day when you’re hungry. But when old expectations cause anxiety, it’s good to know that you have some power to adjust them. To find that power, let’s take a closer look under the hood.
Expectations are real physical pathways in the brain. Each brain built its pathways from its own past experience. Each release of pleasure or pain connected neurons that guide expectations about future pleasure and pain. Expectations tell us how to make sense of the world more than you realize. Your senses are always taking in more information than you can process. To make sense of the overload, the brain generates an expectation about the next chunk of information it is about to receive, and then it scans for a sensory input that matches.
An expectation is not a conscious thought; it's a trickle of electricity into a pathway built by past associations. This electrical pre-activation makes it easier for you to find things. You can find a pattern from past experience that matches the experience your senses are now reporting.
If there’s a reasonable match between expected and actual, your brain releases a bit of dopamine and moves on. If it’s a bad match, cortisol is released, which motivates closer inspection. Cortisol helps us avoid being misled by false expectations, but it’s also the root of anxiety.
When a new experience conflicts with old expectations, we have a choice. We can let our electricity flow effortlessly down the neural pathway that's already developed. Or we can restrain that impulse and let our electricity seek a new path. The choice is complicated by the fact that it's hard to get electricity to flow along a neural trail that has not been activated much. It's so hard to blaze a new trail in your brain that we often turn back and take the old familiar highway. Your trail blazing is easier when you understand the resistance.
We did not evolve to accommodate every new thing that comes along by discarding the mental map of the world we spent years building. That would lead to unreasonable risks that get a person eliminated from the gene pool. The brains we've inherited hold on to their laboriously built neural network by building superhighways.
The superhighways of our brain are built from emotional experience, repeated experience and early experience. So your repeated early emotional experience built your unique individual superhighways. Early experience is most important because a young brain produces a lot of myelin. This substance paves its neural pathways so they become super efficient. Anything you do with your myelinated pathways feels easy and natural. Myelin plummets after puberty, and then it takes a huge amount of repetition, or a huge surge of emotion, to build a new pathway. This is why each brain sees the world through an old lens, and why old habits feel right even when we consciously think they're wrong. And this is why anxiety-provoking habits are so hard to replace with new calmer habits.
Sometimes your old experience is a bad guide to your new reality. It's not just the painful experiences of your past that can mislead. Positive past experiences are just as relevant. For example, on a recent trip to the beach, a friend showed me her lucky vending machine. That machine had given her TWO juices instead of one when she was vacationing there at age seven. After that, the vending machine was the first place her family went when they returned to the beach on their annual vacation. When the world exceeds your expectations, a big surge of dopamine paves a big neural pathway. This is how the brain wires itself to find rewards, but it can leave us with the anxiety of misleading expectations.
Once our peak myelin years are over, repetition and emotion are the tools we have to blaze new trails through our jungle of neurons. Emotion works fast, but it’s limiting. You'd have to fall into holes or get lucky at vending machines before you could build a new pathway. That leaves repetition. If you repeat a new behavior for 45 days, you will build a new expectation. It will become your new normal.
Repetition is not so appealing. No one wants to repeat a behavior that makes them uncomfortable. It’s hard to believe your uncomfortable feelings are just electricity trying to flow down an undeveloped neural pathway. If it feels bad now, you can't imagine that it will feel good later. It helps to remember the role of randomness in the expectations you hold so dearly. A random collection of experience built your myelinated pathways.Though your old expectations seem right and true, they got there by chance rather than by sophisticated analysis and careful choice for the most part. You can rewire your old impulses by feeding your brain with different experience, repeatedly. You can wire yourself to focus on the good that you want instead of on disappointed expectations. You can give your electricity a new place to flow! You have billions of extra neurons just waiting for you to do that.
Learn how to rewire yourself in my book, Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin levels.
Here’s a free introduction to Guided Neuroplasticity in a fun and attractive format.
Visit the Inner Mammal Institute for many other free resources on your happy brain chemicals and your power over them.