Anxiety is the “gift of life” created by sensations from the unconscious nervous system. Every living creature, from one-cell organisms to mammals processes input from its surroundings in order to navigate challenges in order to first remain alive and secondly to pass its genetic material to the next generation. The nervous system processes input from outside the body (exteroception) and from sensations arising from within (interoception). Nervous systems evolved as the complexity of organisms required it and central nervous systems gradually emerged. Language is a recent development that allowed homosapiens to cooperate, physically thrive, and engage in complex abstract thinking.
“The gift of the unconscious “– life
The interoceptive nervous system is intertwined with every cell and organ in your body. The interpretation of these internal signals gives rise to consciousness. The warning signals evolved to be intensely unpleasant so as to compel the organism optimize function and act in order to survive. Conversely, sensations of safety became equally as powerful to drive cooperation and reproduction. The reward and warning system are both always active and in a delicate balance. This finely tuned interaction allows immediate action in either direction. However, since survival is clearly the primary need, unpleasant sensations will be more frequent. Most of the time, your actions will minimize them quickly, and avoiding physical pain and unpleasant sensations is how we are programmed to stay alive. This incredibly powerful complex unconscious system is the “gift of life.”
“The curse of cognitive consciousness” – RUTs
Language allows us to possess “cognitive consciousness”, and the capacity to describe these sensations. Meaning is given to the feelings generated by these neurochemical reactions reflecting danger and safety. Since we are always on some degree of alert for trouble, there is an endless stream of RUTs (repetitive unpleasant thoughts). Since physiology (how the body functions) affects every cell in your body, it is all encompassing, feels like who you are, and becomes a core part of your identity. So, the “gift of life” translates into the “curse of cognitive consciousness.”
Our brains become inflamed and hyperreactive with excitatory neurotransmitters and inflammatory cells when in flight or fight physiology. Humans describe these sensations generated from an activated threat response, “anxiety and anger.” They are physiologic states and not psychological.1,2 Blood flow in the brain shifts from the neocortex (thinking centers) to the limbic system (fear and survival regions) so you cannot think as clearly when you are under real or perceived stress. An inflamed brain fires up even more RUTs, which are also perceived as dangerous and there is no end to this cycle.
While we have an automatic withdrawal response (nociceptive system) for acute physical pain, there is no such response for mental pain. Suppressing RUTs only fires up threat physiology more and further creates more RUTS. There is no end to this loop, and we have no protection from mental pain.3
We attempt to create “good thoughts” from our conscious brain to counter the “bad” thoughts. This is an impossible task, as the unconscious brain continues to remain “fired up” and the bad thoughts continue to fly. Cognition requires conscious mental effort, consumes energy, is a gross mismatch of power, and is not sustainable. The unconscious brain processes between 20-40 million bits of information per second and our conscious brain deals with only about 40 per second. This interaction is why RUTs are so common, miserable for many, and the consequences are often severe.
Consequences of RUTs
One consequence is that well-intentioned people are more affected in that they may view themselves negatively because these thoughts are such a dark contrast to who they perceive they are or what they stand for. They don’t realize that these thoughts are interpretations of feelings generated from the unconscious brain. Efforts to combat RUTs often border on heroic, but the fallout is that people who potentially could significantly contribute to the common good are often crippled by anxiety (threat physiology) or just get worn down.
Less well-intentioned people may simply act out these thoughts and impulses without a lot of self-judgment. Hence, history is replete with tyranny and control. There is actually a physiological reward for power and control. Bullies have been documented to have lower inflammatory markers than average, whereas those who have been subjected to being bullied have higher inflammatory markers.4
Not only do humans expend a lot of energy fighting bad thoughts with good ones, but we also create “stories” to feel better about ourselves. We call it ego, self-esteem, or identity. As the powerful unconscious brain continues to keep us alive regardless of what we think or feel, there is no end to our efforts to create an identity that is bulletproof.
Another, more primitive solution, is exerting power and control based on these stories. The solution to anxiety is control, but without a way of decreasing RUTs, there is also no limit to what we do to control ourselves and others. These “stories” are often the basis evil actions. Once we label someone or a group of people as “less than” than we can justify any action in order to “bring them in line” or exterminate them. Labels are cognitive distortions that destroy awareness of details and the needs of others.5,6
“The gift of cognitive consciousness” – choice
Anytime you are anxious or frustrated, you are reacting to something that was perceived as dangerous from the past. You are no longer in the present and cannot clearly see the details of the situation in front of you. You can will your way back to neutral or better for periods of time. But you have now lost choice, which is the gift of consciousness. It is truly a gift in that you can use the body’s property of neuroplasticity to create any brain (and reality) that you wish. But you cannot access it while you feel under threat. It is simply not possible.
The gift of our unconscious is life, and it keeps us alive at any cost. RUTs reflect this effort and are the curse of cognitive consciousness. Separating our identity from them and regulating our physiology from threat to safety allows us to access the gift of consciousness, which is choice. There are no shortcuts. You must separate your identity from your survival reactions with awareness create choices. You are “letting go” (“Cing” first) in order to proactively move forward into creating the brain (neuroplasticity) and life you desire . Our lives can and will transform from reaCtive to Creative.
Why has this not been figured out long ago? Maybe it is because anxiety and anger have historically been placed into psychological/ mental categories instead of understanding they are such powerful activated physiological states. Avoiding the sensation of anxiety (vulnerability) drives most of human behavior. Much of it is dysfunctional and destructive. Medicine has not collectively acknowledged threat physiology as the driving force behind chronic mental/ physical symptoms, illness, and disease. It is no wonder that the burden of chronic disease continues spiral out of control.
The human race is a reactive species that knows how to physically survive. We have choice but can’t seem to access it with enough regularity to proactively create a thriving life and planet. Awareness allows choice and is where mental and physical healing begins.
- Teed AR, et al. Association of generalized anxiety disorder with autonomic hypersensitivity and blunted ventromedial prefrontal cortex activity during peripheral adrenergic stimulation. JAMA Psychiatry (2022); doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2021.4225
- Takahashi A, et al. Aggression, social stress, and the immune system in humans and animal models. Front. Behav. Neurosci. (2018); 12:56. Doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00056
- Wegner, DM. Ironic processes of mental control (1994); 101:34-52.
- Copeland W, et al.” Childhood bullying involvement predicts low-grade systemic inflammation into adulthood.” PNAS (2014); 111: 7570-7575.
- Burns, David. Ten Days to Self-Esteem. Harper Collins, New York, 1993.
- De Mello, Anthony. The Way to Love: The Last Meditations of Anthony De Mello. Doubleday, New York, NY,1992.