Mental Matters: Life Is Suffering, but Anxiety Isn’t Inevitable

Being human is hard. So hard, in fact, that the very first thing the Buddha had to say about life was that “existence is suffering.” That may sound like a downer, but it’s also a fact. Given that a big part of being human is to suffer, it’s pretty important to understand what suffering is — and how to deal with it.

In fact, there are two main types of suffering, and they need to be understood and treated differently.

Let’s call the first the suffering of old wounds. This is the suffering we experience when we’re “triggered”: we’re coasting along, then bam, something nails us and we spiral into a dark place. This type of suffering tends to leave us scratching our heads and wondering what the hell just happened: our thoughts become irrational, our feelings disproportionate and overwhelming, and our behaviour becomes rigid and unhelpful.

For example, maybe someone you’ve been dating for a week ghosts you and you’re devastated with grief, imagining this means you’re worthless and you’ll die alone. You decide to swear off romance forever.

The good news is, therapy can heal this stuff. What’s happening is that an unintegrated part of your brain has been activated by a situation that’s vaguely familiar to an original, overwhelming event (or set of events). You drop into a defensive pattern that made sense once upon a time but now gets you nowhere.

This kind of suffering can be dealt with in the short term by learning how to ground yourself in the present moment, and in the long term by integrating those stuck parts of your brain with a deep form of therapy like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.

But there’s another kind of suffering, which we can call the suffering of the human condition. This suffering is unavoidable and it’s been bred into us through evolution.

When it comes to thoughts, everyone has an inner voice that compares them to other people. The evolutionary function of this was to prevent us from being too weird, getting kicked out of the tribe, and promptly dying. Everyone also has a tendency to focus on the negative, which kept us attentive to possible threats.

The same thing happens with emotions: we all experience anxiety in the face of uncertainty (so we avoid unnecessary risks), sadness in the face of loss (so we slow down and reflect to avoid similar losses in the future), and anger in the face of frustration over our needs (to give us energy to take action to meet our needs).

So 200,000 years ago being a zenned out, free-spirited positive thinker was a great way to get yourself killed — and being dead makes it really hard to reproduce and pass your genes on. Painful thoughts and feelings helped keep early homo sapiens alive, and they passed it all onto us. So by nature we’re self-critical, negative, and prone to anxiety, sadness, and anger.

What can we do about this kind of suffering? Since fighting against our nature is pretty unhelpful, this is where acceptance and mindfulness come in.

As much as we can’t prevent this type of suffering from happening, we can prevent it from controlling our behaviour. Our default is just to get dragged along on autopilot by thoughts and feelings, or to get caught up in trying to push them away. The alternative is to notice them, accept that they’re there, and choose how we want to respond to the situation at hand. This is, of course, a lot easier said than done, and it takes a lot of practice. But it’s worth the effort.

John is a therapist who practices in Waterloo