“I call myself Sarmishta Mani. I am a counsellor working to help individuals, whether children or adults, lead more effective lives, should they experience any kind of dissatisfaction with what’s happening in their’s currently. I find a lot of things inspiring, and I love it that human beings have infinite capacity for change should they acknowledge that capacity. The message of my mentor never fails to move me: We come from the same spiritual source, one may lose touch with that source as one lives out life as a human being, but one returns to that source as one evolves and becomes more of the Being than what one previously was.” – Sarmishta
Human beings have an evolutionary history in which modern man is a very recent development. For the most part, man has been a hunter-gatherer; living exposed to the elements, with most of his fears to do with immediate dangers like attacks from wild animals, physical injuries etc. In isolation his chances of survival were practically zero whereas as part of a group that shared his ways, he found security, safety and solution to maximise chances of survival.
This meant man had to learn to bond with, trust and depend on his group. Evolution, along with the practices of the group continued to ensure that these learning were handed down to each subsequent generation of children so that it became a part of one’s natural responses, as one grew up.
Where are we today? We live in a modern society. We have safety from the elements and the wild in the form of concrete houses. We no longer need to roam in the jungle hunting and gathering food thanks to technological developments concerning farming, marketing, shopping etc. We have greatly increased our chances of survival through medicine and supplements in food.
What does this mean in terms of where we have moved, from the time we were just one part of the natural world to the current time in which we influence the rest of the world? Yes, we live longer. We also live lives that are busy from both work and entertainment. The flip side though is the risk we all suffer to our mental health.
Our evolutionary history shows us that we were equipped with tools to survive the realities of the wild. Flight or fight – our responses to a threat sensed from a distance, or to a danger right upon us — were developed and passed down from generation to generation as a survival tool. Do we still have these tools with us? Yes. Do we need to use them in our everyday-life? That is where the issue lies. Since we live largely secure lives with little exposure to threats we need to face right away or run from, we often have no practical applications of these survival tools.
As a student of psychology and a practicing counsellor, I have observed how a significant portion of the modern day problems that people struggle with comes from this evolutionary mechanism. Anxiety, which is a feeling of fear for no particular reason, overwhelming stress, stage-fright are just a few examples of causes of distress which have resulted from our comparatively recent movement from our wilder past to our modern living.
When we faced a threat in the wild past, we were forced to take action. That was the goal of the flight or fight response. To gear us up for action, our bodies underwent changes rapidly in order to produce energy as quickly as possible. This meant increased sweating to cool a heated up system, endorphins released to numb any pain that could result from possible injuries, increased adrenalin in the blood stream resulting in faster heart rate etc. and suppression of longer term processes like digestion and immune system activity in order to conserve precious energy. Our pupils dilated to become more alert while at the same time perception became lower, so through our focusing ability, we became more acutely aware of the external stimuli.
How do these responses function in our relatively safe modern world? We have replaced the dangers of the wild with ‘dangers’ in modern living. Job securities, marriage, bringing up children, family dynamics, making it to a reputable university are only some of the modern threats we face. And a number of times these threats cannot be dealt with and resolved swiftly. Further, these perceived threats cannot always be responded to by immediate physical action.
When these responses are not paired with actions to take care of the problem, the individual continues to function with high amounts of adrenalin in the blood stream. When this high amount remains there over a period of time, any additional stress results in immediate, strong and sometimes excessive reaction to even mild sources of stress. Another unfortunate damage is a suppressed immune system which makes the person susceptible to illnesses more often than others.
S is a girl in high school, with a talent for singing. She has been learning classical vocal music from a young age and recently, the school has been giving her opportunities to expose her talent. S’s difficulty is her being acutely conscious of her fellow students and the teachers in the audience. Every time S is informed about a programme, while on the one hand she is excited, she also starts imagining what it would be like to stand before the school, with all attention on her. She worries that everyone would be judging her ability to sing and she would get disappointed if others do not like it. She gets very nervous. What is happening here is, S sees the event, with having to sing before an audience as a threat. Her fight or flight response recognises the presence of threat and gears for action. Since S does not know what to do but wait for the big day, she feels helpless to take any action other than to wait for the actual event. As the day nears, her tense state heightens and when it’s time to come before the audience, instead of enjoying the experience, S is very uncomfortable and unhappy, since there is no clear danger that S can recognise and act on. Stage fright such as S’s can be a very unpleasant experience for many people.
We also have a tendency to pay undue attention to information in the environment that seems to confirm our fears, thereby avoiding the source of those fears. In our wilder past, it was a survival- related advantage to remember a source of threat and be alert to it at all times. If biting into a berry caused an ancient ancestor fall sick, it would be very important to recognise the berry and avoid it the next time. In modern conditions, this mechanism, developed to aid an individual in avoiding dangerous situations, cannot distinguish between situations where an actual threat is present, from a situation where the individual interprets it as threatening, which may not actually be so.
Suppose there is an individual who is stressed from repeatedly realising that the unpleasant thoughts she has about people seem to be coming true. If she would imagine a fight in an uncle’s house, it would happen the day she visited. If she imagines a cousin falling sick, it would happen soon after that. This causes distress to her. What could be happening here? Is the individual too cued into negative situations and outcomes, that she pays attention only to negative happenings? Is the individual overlooking the times there were no fights in that uncle’s house? Is the individual ignoring considering other visits when there were fights? Did she have information that indicated that the cousin was coming down with something? Again, was she overlooking the instances when she had imagined a negative outcome, but that had not finally taken place? All these additional information would make up the big picture, but the individual is so full of stress and fear that she does not have the mental energy to challenge her conclusions.
Do all of us respond and react to stress the same way? What makes some people face difficult situations with resilience, whereas some others become reactive, disturbed or distressed in similar circumstances? A major difference seems to be how the energy created by the fight or flight response is utilised. When we take action to face our problems through effective and efficient problem solving, we have utilised the energy to overcome our dangers. Thus, if I want to get into the University desperately, I have to plan which option suits my future growth best, how to go about meeting the requirements stipulated, how to organise my life so that I can take time off to study, and then actually do it. Here lies the difference between those who believe that cause and effect control their lives and those who rely on outside sources to ensure they get what they need. If I believe I have the responsibility to support myself, I am most likely to find work, pick up skills to develop in it, grow in my organisation etc. If I rely on someone else to do that for me, I would not look for avenues to secure my future, thus giving in to a self-made prophecy.
As a counsellor, I understand the confusion and pain of someone who seems powerless to overcome challenges that have no straightforward simple solution. What that person does not know is that powerlessness can be learned. Problem-solving is a skill that is taught from childhood. If a child has not been exposed to developing this skill, it will grow up building defences against troubles and challenges. In a subsequent post, I will explore the likely causes for a person growing up to be confident about facing one’s world as against feeling powerless in the face of perceived threats and challenges.
- Psychology Today — Darwin’s Subterranean World: Evolution, Mind and Mating Intelligence; Glenn Geher
- Foundations of Psychology; Nicky Hayes, Nelson
Illustration – Madhushree