Animals live in the present
Animals live in the present and deal with whatever comes their way then and there. They don’t have to worry about what they are going to have for dinner tonight because they just act when an opportunity presents itself.
If a tiger is hungry, it will just find it’s prey easily. It might take a bit of work to finally catch it, but it’s completely focused on the present and doesn’t have a single “what if” thought.
James Clear, who is a well known habit performance expert, says that animals live in what’s known as an immediate-return environment.
An immediate-return environment is when they have to take action right in the heat of the moment to prevent some life impacting outcome or to gain some other form of utilitarian purpose like eating food for survival.
Animals live in fear inducing situations most of the time. They are constantly on the look out for threats because they have evolved this way due to their hostile environment. This is when being in the state of nervous arousal (anxiety) is very practical/useful.
They have to make a choice in the face of danger right now. There’s an immediate return on this because when they run away from the danger, they survive for another day.
Immediate action = immediate benefit. If the squirrel is hungry, no problem. It will just break into a “tree-fallen” nut and dig into it for it’s dinner. Immediate action = Immediate benefit.
No delay here. This shrinks the uncertainty instantly. They haven’t got to face the uncertainty and worry about whether or not they will have enough money for food that week. They close the gap of uncertainty amazingly quickly.
In a nutshell, animals live in the present whilst humans are constantly worried about potential future problems.
Humans live in a continuous state of uncertainty – the delayed-return environment
In James’ article (which I highly recommend reading), he says that the choices we make today, will not usually create immediate rewards.
He states that “If you do a good job at work today, you’ll get a paycheck in a few weeks. If you save money now, you’ll have enough for retirement later. Many aspects of modern society are designed to delay rewards until some point in the future.”
This is what’s known as delayed gratification which can have long-term benefits when all of our small, positive actions add up overtime. However, when it comes to negative issues like worries, then it’s no wonder we experience anxiety-based disorders and chronic stress. Our brains are simply not geared up to deal with the delayed return environment.
Why not? Because our brains were initially designed to deal with immediate-return environments. We were once hunter-gatherers which means we were living how animals live now in the same environment.
It was all about taking action immediately to close the gap of uncertainty. If we didn’t have food, we would go out to hunt.
If we were faced with a saber-toothed tiger, we would take action immediately by either a) fighting off the tiger or b) running away from it, otherwise our lives would end there and then.
Right now though, in modern times, our brain hasn’t really caught up. Whilst externally, so much has evolved, internally, our brain structures have remained the same since the emergence of the homo-sapiens (our earliest modern ancestors). Simply put, they are still designed to fit into the hunter-gatherer age. We are not really designed to fit into the complexity of the modern world.
It’s very hectic, isn’t it? This is why we can’t really cope when we worry about the future because it’s a mental phantom as Eckhart Tolle would say. The only time there ever is, is NOW. The past and future exist solely in our imagination.
We didn’t really need to think about what might happen later on because it was all based on immediate returns. “Me and my family are hungry, we best go out and hunt some animal right now.” “There’s been a tiger spotted, lets throw our spears at it right now.”
So, what can be done to thrive in uncertainty during anxiety? How can our brains, which are not designed for a delayed return environment, adapt to this modern, hectic environment?
Anxiety then compared to now
When we lived in an immediate-return environment, anxiety was a very useful protection mechanism. As you know, this is the true and ultimate purpose of fear/anxiety – an alarm system which gears us up to deal with a danger.
Back then, we must of been extremely present most of the time because we had to deal with problems instantly as our lives depended on it.
Now, it’s a completely different story. We are hardly ever present for very long. There’s always something to worry about whether that be financial, social, or anything that equates to a long term issue.
In this environment where we can’t always close the gaps of uncertainty immediately, anxiety and stress is created. Uncertainty is what troubles us the most in a delayed-return environment.
How can we still thrive when nothing is guaranteed? When uncertainty is always lingering over us?
According to James Clear, he suggests that we measure our current situation.
For example, we can’t promise that we’ll have enough money saved up for retirement, but we can start to close that gap of uncertainty by putting some money into our retirement account each month. This is perfect example of how we can measure something.
This is how we can take action to close the gaps of uncertainty in a delayed-return environment. Where we don’t get immediate returns, it can cause us to feel stressed, so making the effort to take action now so it could can improve our chances of “certainty” in the future can alleviate anxiety at present.
“The act of measurement takes an unknown quantity and makes it known. When you measure something, you immediately become more certain about the situation. Measurement won’t magically solve your problems, but it will clarify the situation, pull you out of the black box of worry and uncertainty, and help you get a grip on what is actually happening.” – James Clear
Shifting our worries
Another thing James recommends we do is “shift our worries”. What he means by this that we can’t guarantee that we will live a long and healthy life, but we can improve our chances by consistently eating healthier.
If we are worried about our fitness, we could perhaps go on a daily walk. Repeating this action on a consistent basis over time would certainly improve our fitness levels without doubt. If you think about it, these concerns we have are basically risk assessments carried out by our anxious brains in order to mitigate risk.
The good news is, we can put the things we are worried about happening in the future to bed by taking action in the here and now.
It’s when we don’t take action, we start to torment ourselves with these worst-case scenario thoughts.
However, when we are not in the position to take action to close the gaps of uncertainty, when action is not possible, what can we do about our worst-case scenario thinking? Simple answer: change our relationship to our thinking so it no longer effects us in the same way. Here’s an example of that.
This article was inspired by an article I read by James Clear – The Evolution of Anxiety: Why We Worry and What to Do About it
I know that things don’t ultimately cause us to feel anxious, it’s something we create internally for ourselves. We fall into the disorder by fearing the way we feel. However, when it comes to everyday life situations, this approach can be very effective. And, this also doesn’t change the fact that we still obsess and worry about stuff. More accurately, we still have anxious thinking toward certain situations and this external approach of measuring something can definitely be useful.
I’ve always been a fan of James. He has a gift of simplifying the complexity of things. I highly recommend reading his article – https://jamesclear.com/evolution-of-anxiety
Until next time