We live in a cycle of endless pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance — and the emotional chaos that can bring — that has been hard-wired into us by evolution.
Our body-mind disproportionately holds onto fearful, negative memories to protect us; it’s our basic survival instinct at work. Our nervous systems are designed to be on the lookout for threats to life — starvation, exposure or predator — so that they can take defensive measures to avoid repeated exposure to the same kinds of potentially deadly experiences. Neuroscience calls it the ‘negativity bias.’
At the same time, physiological reward mechanisms — for example, hits of the ‘pleasure’ neurotransmitter dopamine — ensured our ancestors knew what was good for them when they found it (nutritious food sources, reassuring social connections) and continued to hunt, forage and otherwise seek those things in order to thrive as best they could.
However, in an age and society in which our fears tend to be chronic rather than life-threatening — work pressure, financial difficulty or relationship tensions — and harder to escape; and in which most of us have ready access to whatever we crave via supermarkets, pubs or click-to-buy, this threat-avoiding, pleasure-seeking drive can — and has — become maladaptive.
We may be too quick to run from uncomfortable experiences without being willing to learn from them, and see an opportunity to build resilience. And at the same time, too eager to run towards things that offer us instant gratification, an escape hatch from the inside of our heads, even though the heightened emotions triggered by these external rewards tend to be fleeting, so designed by nature because they are expensive in terms of our body’s resources.
We repeat these same defensive and evasive patterns — fuelled by our subconscious fears — and collect them through life like armour until they become our ‘personality traits’. And instead of protecting us, these can lead to more pain. Overeating, spending sprees, gambling or drinking a bit too much, perhaps. Or even social…