The Gravitational Pull of Anxiety

Our brains want to repeat feelings, even if they're shitty

DO YOU:

* Obsessively visit websites and social media platforms that make you angry?

* Make yourself anxious by imagining terrible things happening to you? 

* Fantasize about arguments/conflicts with strangers, co-workers or even imaginary people you just made up in your head?

* Struggle to feel joy because you're anticipating some stressful situation ahead (ie,  Sunday afternoon at the park is marred by worries about Monday work meetings)?

* Constantly worry that the world is going to shit?

Then THIS COLUMN may HELP YOU but also it MIGHT NOT. If you're busy and don't have time to read, here is a brief summary:

Your brain prefers to repeat the same emotional states regardless of whether or not there is some actual reason to. If you are in the habit of getting anxious or angry every day, you will subconsciously seek out reasons to feel those things and invent a justification for it later. Your life might make a lot more sense once you notice this.

I'm not a scientist but I'm pretty sure that experts agree with me. If you have another seven minutes or so, allow me to make my case in list countdown form:

6. We Are Creatures Of Habit (And Your Entire Personality Is A Series Of Habits)

"You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness," goes a line in my third-favorite Gotye song (WARNING: I have linked to the adult rated version of the video that pans over and shows his painted dong). Well, I not only agree with him but I think your brain gets "addicted" to any strong emotional state if you feel it long enough. Lots of you have already noticed this but probably drastically underestimate how it drives your decision-making.

Now, I'm not a brain scientist any more than Gotye is, but here is how I understand the mechanism: 

The human brain prefers predictability. Why wouldn't it? There's safety in predictability. We like sleeping indoors because we can safely "predict" that it's not going to rain on us or that we'll get ambushed by wolves. Think about how pissed off you get when a piece of software you use every day gets an update and all of the buttons have moved around. Now imagine if the buttons switched places every day; you'd want to find the developer and take a shit on his desk.

But - and here's where it gets a little weird - your brain also wants your emotional states to be predictable.

I mean, that's how addiction works, right? If you've trained your brain to get a rush of pleasure chemicals at a certain interval, at some point it expects (and later, demands) them. That's when you switch from, "It's fun to get high after work!" to "It's incredibly stressful to not get high after work."

Where I and Gotye differ from the conventional wisdom is that, where most assume that's about the brain wanting to feel good all the time, I think it just as often applies to feelings we think of as "bad." Anger, anxiety, loneliness - take your pick, I think you can get addicted to any of them to the point that you will even sabotage your own life to get back to that state.

5. This Can Turn You Into An Asshole

The internet seems to be like 50% rage addicts and you've surely known at least one in real life (if not, it might be you). If so, you've probably noticed how they invent paper-thin justifications for their tantrums ("How is it that EVERY TIME I go to use this PRINTER it's OUT OF PAPER? How FUCKING HARD is it to put PAPER in this thing?!?!?"). Couples who love to fight do the same thing, they'll scour the landscape for some perceived slight or injustice and amp it up to Armageddon. But it's usually clear from the outside that the reasoning was all just pretext.

In my personal observation -- again, not a scientist -- we waste a lot of time examining the supposed reasons for the outrage ("Would you say that the failure to load the paper symbolizes your fear that your co-workers, and society in general, do not support you?") when it really just started with the brain saying, "Okay, it's time to get back to the outrage state so we're going to trigger it at the next inconvenience." And when I say "personal observation" I'm talking about my own lifelong anger issues.

I'll scroll and scroll through Twitter or Reddit looking for that outrage headline or dunked-on quote tweet and won't stop until I find it. I thought I was just a rage addict, and maybe I am, but I find my system responding on the same "Time to feel distress!" schedule in other circumstances.

I ran a large website for almost thirteen years and woke up every single morning panicked about some deadline - I never had to set an alarm, the deadline fear literally jolted me awake seven days a week. I've now been away from that job for sixteen months and the exact thing still happens, my body demands the anxiety. When I have some menial errand to run - say, I've scheduled a haircut with a plan to pick up groceries on the way home - I'll stress over it the way I used to stress out about meeting our utterly impossible revenue goals.

The source of the anxiety went away, so my brain simply went looking for other sources because the predictable ("We are going to feel stress today!") is better than the unpredictable ("Is something stressful going to happen?"). As for when exactly that rut gets so deep that you need medical intervention, that's between you and your doctor. 

4. No, It Doesn't Mean You Literally Do The Exact Same Thing Every Day

I like to imagine the reader talking back to me while I write, specifically, a reader who hates me and everything I stand for. Here's what he's saying now:

"None of this is true! If people's brains wanted the same thing all the time, they'd just watch the same movies and eat the same food over and over! If anything, they're constantly demanding novelty!"

First, the anxious people I'm talking about do tend to consume the same movies/shows/games over and over -- this is why Netflix streamed billions of hours of Friends during the Trump era and it's why so many of us zone out on the sofa playing mobile games.

Second, when they do look for novelty, it's because re-watching Game of Thrones doesn't put them in the same emotional state as it did when it was new - the Red Wedding will never be as shocking as the first time. So, they seek out something they hope will be the next Game of Thrones (we thought it would be Westworld, goddamnit) but they are still trying to get back to that same state.

3. This Means Your Anxiety Doesn't Actually Need A Real-World Cause

"Why do you keep talking about anxiety as if it's some irrational brain misfire and not a reasonable response to the fact that I AM BROKE and THE WORLD IS ENDING?!?"

I mean, the world isn't ending but that's beside the point. When discussing whether a particular feeling is a rational or irrational, it seems like there's a fairly clear test:

Is there something you can actually do to resolve the feeling?

Ideally, every urge is intended to prompt a specific action. You feel hunger because your body needs you to eat food, then you're rewarded with feel-good chemicals when you eat and the hunger goes away. You feel horny because you need to reproduce to keep the species going, then your body rewards you with pleasure sensations when you orgasm and have physical contact with another human being (yes, you need the second part -- as any Incel can tell you, porn only gets you part of the way). 

Anxiety, like every other impulse, is supposed to trigger some kind of action that hopefully resolves it. Some ancient version of you is picking berries in the woods, you hear an approaching predator and feel fear, which motivates you to run away. After you successfully escape, you feel the pleasure chemicals of relief. Or, maybe you fucked up the last hunt and felt shame in the presence of the tribe for a prolonged period, but then corrected the mistake for next time and were rewarded with warm feelings of approval. 

But if your anxiety is about just the general state of the world (or rather, the state as it is portrayed in mass media), we now have a form of anxiety that can literally never reach resolution. The media will never run out of crises to cover. 

Ideally, you'd see a news report about global warming, feel anxious, then take productive action (voting, donating, changing personal habits) and then get those pleasure chemicals of relief. Not the relief of having fixed global warming -- that's not something you can personally do -- but of having successfully taken the only actions available to you. Instead, we're tell ourselves we must stay anxious all the time, because that is what a good person does. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen some version of this phrase:

That is, literally, madness. If you're feeling anxiety that never resolves or, in fact, isn't possible to resolve, then it's a clear glitch in the system, a fire alarm that shrieks nonstop whether there's smoke or not. It's objectively unreasonable, pointless and counterproductive. It saps your energy, ruins your health and hampers your ability to find some kind of happiness.

And yet...

2. Your Brain Will Rationalize This Forever 

I know from twenty-plus years of writing things on the internet that this article has made some readers very angry, unless they're still just scouring the text looking for a reason to be ("Did you see that porn reference in #3? Is he ANTI-PORN? Is he coming out as some kind of a Jordan Peterson RIGHT-WING GURU?!? In the intro he hyperlinked the words 'experts agree' as if he was linking to a source, but it's just a guy kicking a horse in the penis!").

The issue isn't that those readers disagree (the world is full of opinions we don't agree with, who gives a shit?), it's that this disagreement triggers rage, that they're using this column in the same way that I scroll for Tucker Carlson clips I can get mad at. If asked, they'll unspool a long list of reasons why their anger is completely rational and appropriate. The most extreme will come up with some tortured logic about how bad words and ideas are a form of literal violence and that it's their duty to stop it from spreading (as if dunking on said content doesn't just increase its engagement and audience).

If challenged, the one thing they will not say is, "You're right, my rage was irrational, thank you for ridding me of this negative emotion that was ruining my day!" Instead, they'll fight to the death to continue feeling it, clinging to the angst like a life preserver in a shipwreck. It's almost as if, I don't know, their brain demanded that particular emotional state and will construct whatever logic will sustain it ("Oh, so you're saying my EMOTIONAL STATE isn't VALID? This is the definition of GASLIGHTING! I'm now ANGRIER THAN EVER!")

If you point out that a particular perpetually-outraged person is actually living a very safe, privileged life in the most prosperous country in mankind’s most prosperous era, they'll reply that they're anxious on behalf of someone else, worried about all of the endangered refugees or oppressed minorities. But I'm fairly certain that the marginalized peoples of the world want safety, freedom, food, housing and relationships. What they do not want is our loud, endless, wheel-spinning neurosis.

Again, if the anxiety leads someone to donate/vote/volunteer in a way that actually helps, great! What I usually see instead is an irrational belief that somehow the anxiety itself helps, that we owe it to the oppressed to be nervous and miserable all the time. This is a straight up superstition and at times kind of seems like OCD behavior though I, AGAIN, am not a doctor.

And just to be clear: I am every bit as unreasonable. I'm one of those people who is  afraid of treating my anxiety because it will mean "losing my edge," as if the angst is making me cool and productive instead of withdrawn and cranky. Trust me, I get it. But...

1. A Whole Society Of People In This Situation Is Probably Not A Good Thing

I'm sensing more questions:

"Why does this have to be a bad thing? Aren't there people out there whose brains default to a state of chill contentment and instinctively want to return to it, no matter what?" 

Of course! We call them lazy pieces of shit and make sure they die in poverty. 

"Are you saying that all of our thoughts and emotions are just brain meat trying to return to some chemical equilibrium?"

No, not any more than I'd say addicts are incapable of human emotion. I'm just saying that this tendency exerts a kind of gravitational pull on our decisions and we rarely acknowledge it. 

"You started by saying this is the brain’s tendency to revert to certain emotional states, then started blaming the news media. Which is it?"

I’m saying it’s the circular relationship between dealer and addict. For example, much has been written about political polarization in the social media era, about algorithms and economic anxiety and all that. But you'll notice that arguments on social media never progress toward any kind of resolution or compromise, they're always structured to maintain the same conflict at the same level, forever, everyone cherry-picking the worst posts to dunk on while pretending literally no common ground exists.

I personally think we're overcomplicating the cause of this, which is that humans in a state of fear and rage prefer to remain in that state, whether they admit it or not. I think the algorithms feed us outrage simply because they have detected this tendency and zeroed in on it. Human news editors of the past knew about it, too, but the difference is that a human might scale back the outrage bait out of pride ("We're a  prestigious magazine! We don't engage in the wanton yellow journalism of the tabloids!"). The social media algorithms have no such concerns. Outrage = engagement for literally the same reason that cocaine = money.

I'm also not saying the issues being argued about aren't real or important but I am saying that if those issues went away, we would just find something else to fight about so that we can remain in that state of conflict. I know this, because I've seen it a hundred times online, fandoms in which everyone agrees on 99.9% of the issues who keep examining each other for that .1% that will let them descend into a vicious civil war.

I don't have a blanket solution for this - it'd be weird if I did - but I figure at least some of you might notice this tendency in yourself going forward and maybe adjust to it. I don't know. If you want to see more articles like this and/or get them delivered into your inbox, hit the Subscribe button below.

Jason Pargin used to write under the pseudonym David Wong, he is the former Executive Editor at Cracked.com and is the New York Times bestselling author of the John Dies at the End series. His most recent book is called Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick and the reader reviews are almost suspiciously good.

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