How our fears keep us predicting wrongly

As yesterday’s post said, one way we cope with anxiety is that we live somewhat in the future, imagining a better time which is going to happen soon. The capacity of the brain for imagining and predicting the future is an important survival tool, which evolved over billions of years to enable us remember and avoid dangerous situations. The same capacity functions in our early years when it is vital that the child receives consistent and responsive caregiving from the parents. When this is lacking in some key ways, the child forms an picture of how unreliable and unsafe the world is and how much people can be trusted. This knowledge then becomes “encoded” in the brain as a paradigm of how to feel secure. In other words, the child makes a prediction of how relationships will have to be managed from its experience of how it is in its relationships with its parents.

This prediction becomes a working model which stays with us as we navigate our way through relationships in adult life. Thus, we tend to behave in relationships based on how we predict or imagine people will treat us, in line with our early experiences. The problem with this is that, while our early model may have worked in keeping us safe as a child, it can make us be overly distrustful and hyper-vigilant as adults. Something which was adaptive when young frequently becomes maladaptive in adulthood where it is not necessary to the same degree. In this way, the predictive capacity of the brain can become a liability. The stored fears and anxieties of childhood – which are unfortunately quite resistant to change –  can exert a huge influence in adulthood, leading to an avoidance of intimacy and resulting in the person feeling as emotionally isolated as they did in childhood. The brain can continually predict danger, and takes the model it has learnt to be the only way to behave. When it meets new situations,  or new people,  it makes predictions which give preference to fear-based scenarios,  rooted in the past. It then conspires to bring about the scenario it is most familiar with.  Sadly, as psychoanalyst Regina Pally reminds us, we learn from the past what to predict for the future and then live the future we expect. In this way – in a phenomenon which Freud termed the “repetition compulsion” – we frequently end up in the situation which our defenses were set up to avoid, recreating the same dynamics and destructive scenarios that we experienced as children, despite the brain believing that we are doing differently.