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.
Loretta Graziano Breuning is founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, which helps people manage the ups and downs of their mammal brain. As professor emerita of management at California State University East Bay, and as a mom, she was not convinced by prevailing theories of human motivation. She learned that our happy brain chemicals swing up and down because they have a job to do. She is a Docent at the Oakland Zoo, where she gives tours on mammalian social behavior. Breuning loves to help people discover their power over their mammalian operating system.
Editor: Nadeem Pasha
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 neuron trail that has not been activated much. It’s so hard to
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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.