The Anxiety Spiral and Why You Should Get Off

“I am an old man and I have know a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”  – Mark Twain

Last Friday I got my weekly dose of short recommendations from Tim Ferriss and came across this gem from Neil Strauss. It’s long and some would say has a liberal bias, but it’s really great stuff. The gist is that people in the United States are living in the safest time in the history of humankind. Despite this fact, there is strong evidence that people are more anxious than they have ever been. Anxiety doesn’t really sound all that bad until you read Strauss’s definition.

“Where fear is a response to a present threat, anxiety is a more complex and highly manipulable response to something one anticipates might be a threat in the future.”

So, according to Strauss, our perception of the world is horribly warped. It is like a bad acid trip where the most innocuous things are transfigured by the drug into terrifying monsters that don’t exist. What is this drug that I’m referring to?

The Feed

Strauss hits the highlights, but I’ll recap for you.

  1. We are surrounded by an abundance of spin-doctored talk radio and twenty-four-hour, angled, faux-news channels that shape their messages to reinforce the tribal beliefs of their regular viewers.
  2. Twitter and Facebook allow, and even encourage, you to self select the version of the wold you want delivered to our omnipresent devices.
  3. Local news is often filled with the most compelling stories they can find. Too often these are gore spattered tragedies that we can’t help but watch and remember.

Why is this bad? Well we have something built into our brains called confirmation bias. We inherently seek out information that confirms things that we already believe. The internet makes this incredibly easy. It becomes even easier if you are force-fed by algorithms that are really good at finding things it thinks you will like.

Strauss cites the “Law of group Polarization” which states that people who believe similar things tend to become even more convinced that they are right after spending time together discussing them. Not only that, but they tend to have less empathy for those holding opposing views.

Finally, it is a proven fact that we remember, and recall to mind, negative events twice as easily as positive ones. That means the more terrible things you experience through The Feed, the more you will begin to believe that storyline is the reality. This is a held over survival strategy from long ago. It made sense when lots of things wanted to eat us. It’s far less useful now.

So back to our custom tailored Feed. Is it a stretch to think that the unprecedented connectedness of the modern world, the incredible availability of information, and the complementary ability to seek out and associate with those who are just like us in giant virtual groups, has accelerated this anxiety exponentially? I don’t think so.

So if we know that your brain, and your personality are altered by what you consume and who we associate with, it seems obvious that we need to pay as much attention to what enters our bodies through our eyes and ears as we do through our mouths.

Like any diet, there are several approaches. Fasting can work, but it’s not really sustainable. Moderation is a good solution, but unless it is coupled with diversity, there is a real risk of malnutrition.

As with most difficult problems, I find the solution is education. By understanding the manipulation methods, hard wired biases and irrationality of my brain, and searching for the facts behind the flashy propaganda, I can avoid most of the pitfalls to clear thinking. By limiting my exposure to algorithms I can stay as independent as possible. By limiting my attention to things that I can directly control I can avoid most of the anxiety.

How about you? How do you fight the fear?

I am addicted to learning about why. From nutrition to neuroscience and philosophy to behavioral economics I am always seeking to understand. When I am not completely immersed in the latest book to catch my eye or practicing Brazilian jujitsu, I am usually cooking for my wonderful wife, playing with my two beautiful kids or out running with one of our dogs.

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