We're all afflicted - each and every one of us. Yes, that means you, your friends, your family, and even those you hate. We have a sickness, one we're born with and one we can't get rid of, no matter how hard we try. That illness? Being human.
I call this a "case of the humans." We've all come down with it, and no, the symptoms aren't things like a running nose or sore throat, but rather a feeling of existential angst - fear and anxiety about the future and guilt and embarrassment about the past. We all feel it, and yet we all try to sweep it under the rug, pretending that it's not normal - that only broken people feel this way.
Well, I'm here to tell you that it is normal. Each and every person around you has symptoms of the humans and is ever-dealing with the underlying sickness. I promise that not only are you not crazy, but you can actually overcome these negative feelings on the way to a healthier and happier life. How? I'll show you.
Humans are animals. There, I said it. We've divorced ourselves from our animal environment, choosing to live in concrete structures and wear cotton garments while relying on technology to make our lives more efficient. However, at our core, we're apes - great apes at that. Our animal mind hasn't changed for hundreds of thousands of years, meaning that our animalistic impulses and desires haven't changed while the world around us has.
We've adapted, yes, as humans are known to do, but we're still out of our element, as our physiology can attest, relying on outdated impulses that have a negative effect in modern times. For example, does checking your work email stress you out? If yes, why? Outside of losing your job, nothing that awaits you in your email is worth the stress you're undoubtedly causing yourself. And if you lose your job via email, how bad is it really? Chances are you'll land on your feet.
However, thousands of years ago, this type of stress and anxiety would actually be an evolutionary advantage. Think about it - wouldn't it make sense that humans who were more alert and stressed about certain situations survive, while less stressed humans were eaten by lions due to their lack of vigilance? Consider a squirrel. Doesn't it make sense that squirrels with high levels of stress would survive while ones that were less, well, squirrely would lose out to predators?
Watch a squirrel next time you spot one and watch how it shakes. How scared and unsure it is out in the open? This is actually an advantage, because less scared squirrels would get picked off by hawks due to their brazenness. The same goes for humans. Stress and anxiety were once a positive survival trait, but no longer.
Consider also guilt and other negative feelings. Doesn't it make sense that if humans increased their chances of survival by staying in the safety of tribes, that humans with guilt and other social anxieties would survive because they were aware of how others perceived them, thus allowing them to further integrate themselves within said tribes? Ones who didn't feel guilt were excommunicated or unable to procreate, thus removing themselves from the gene pool.
This is the case of the humans. It's our animalistic nature and impulses rearing their ugly head in a day and age where they're less needed. Whereas before anxiety helped us survive, now it just causes us to spiral into unneeded negative thought loops. Where social anxiety used to be positive, now it just makes us feel belittled when no one laughs at our jokes, but there is no life or death hanging in the balance like it used to.
This is the case of the humans. For more information on how our animalistic nature and our evolutionary psychology affects us today, check out my article on divergent evolution.
Chances are, it does. If you're human, you're probably facing some level of stress, anxiety, guilt, or fear. Good! It means you're alive and that you're brain's working properly, constantly looking for the next threat on the horizon, such as the proverbial lion in the cave up ahead. However, for most of us, we don't live next to lions, and therefore don't actually need the level of anxiety and other feelings that we do.
However, sometimes our case of the humans results in stronger symptoms than other times. This is often when you're pursuing something you really want to achieve or when something's happened with someone you love or respect. When pronounced symptoms show themselves, it's time to stop, take a deep breath, and walk through the steps below. Still, overcoming your case of the humans is a lifelong journey similar to pruning trees, and just because you don't feel anxious in this moment doesn't mean you shouldn't implement practices to better control your mind consistently.
Overcoming your case of the humans - i.e. your consistent and negative feeling of stress, anxiety, fear, guilt, and other similar things - is an intentional and methodical approach. Think of it as your baseline, the things you should be focusing on at a minimum. Yes, routines come and go, but if you focus on the 10 steps below, you'll build a foundation that helps you better control your mind and more quickly overcome unproductive thoughts and feelings.
The 10 steps to get over your case of the humans include the following:
Sleep is key. Without it, you can't think straight, you're more impulsive, and you're more susceptible to thinking negatively and letting your mind spiral downward. If you lack sleep, the rest of this list cannot be achieved, so get this right first.
Conventional wisdom says that you need between seven to eight hours to be healthy. However, it's also important that you get to bed at roughly the same time each night as well as reduce the amount you look at bright screens and other lights, which can throw off your body's clock and rhythm. So, create an evening routine where you shut down your computer at a specific time, brush your teeth, and wind down, reading in bed until your body signals that it's time to sleep.
Once you've got your sleep under control, the next thing you want to do is create a morning routine. This is the foundation of your day and is extremely important if you want to start off on the right foot. For me, this starts with making my bed. From there, I meditate for 15 minutes and then write in my gratitude journal.
What's interesting here is that I often wake up anxious, my mind grabbing on things to worry about before I'm out of bed. Does the same thing happen to you? My theory is that it goes back to our evolution, where it would be an advantage to wake up alert, ready to run from a lion at a moments notice or fight a neighboring tribe that attacked under the cover of night.
Only now, the things I worry about are my work email and the person I forgot to text back the previous day. To combat this, I make sure the first hour of my day is spent in quietude, pushing off my email until I'm able to balance my brain and focus on positivity and gratitude.
After you're well rested and have spent the first hour of your day on positivity, the next thing you should ensure is that you're eating enough, and enough of the right thing at that. This is because your brain power and energy relies on the sustenance you put in your body. If you're well rested but starved, negative thoughts are still able to creep into your mind.
What's more, you become lethargic and unable to think with complexity, making you feel inadequate and unable to control your mind, instead letting it control you. However, while keeping your stomach fool is important, filling it with the right stuff as well as the right amount of stuff is equally important. Don't stuff yourself with donuts here, but rather fill your body with a balanced diet based on your individual needs, which will feed and strengthen your brain.
A quote from Tony Robbins really sticks out to me here. I'll paraphrase, but it goes something like this: "Sometimes you feel like you have to figure out the meaning of life when all you need is a handful of almonds." What he means by this is that decisions often seem large and insurmountable when you're hungry or filled with junk food, but when you have a full stomach of good nutrition, large decisions become bite-sized (no pun intended).
The next thing to do is feel like the work you're doing is purposeful, that your time invested has meaning. I believe that this also has roots that trace back to our evolutionary nature. When we lived in small tribes, it makes sense that it would be an advantage to want to help the greater whole. Those who did were ingratiated in the tribe, and those who didn't were kicked out (as well as removed from the gene pool).
So, our animalistic nature requires that we take part in work that makes us feel like we're helping a larger group. Now, this can be the work you're getting paid to do, a passion project, or even volunteering, but the point is that you invest your time in things that make you feel like you're being impactful - like you matter. Without this feeling, it's easy to question the meaning of our life and fall into feelings of existential angst.
Remember, help the tribe to help yourself.
There's something about our physiology that requires us to be active. Probably due to our evolution, but I'll try to stop harping on it. The key here is that people typically feel better after they've worked out or partaken in a similar type of activity like intramural sports.
This is largely because through exercise we bump our body with good endorphins that make us feel happy. Whether it's a neurotransmitter like dopamine or a hormone like testosterone, working out gets the good juices flowing. I often find that if I'm stuck in a rut or if my mind is spiraling downward towards a single thought I can't get rid of, going for a run will do the trick, at least in the short term.
However, short-term gains are never enough, and it's extremely important that you fall into a routine of consistent exercise. This ensures that you're putting positive stressors on your body, forcing it to adapt, grow, and strengthen, all while balancing your body's chemicals and ensuring you get consistent flows of neurotransmitters and hormones while successfully breaking down the food you eat into easily digestible peptides and amino acids.
Similar to step four regarding meaningful work, getting human interactions via friends, family, and strangers is extremely important to our mental health. This is because we're social animals, and over time, we selectively bred ourselves so that more charismatic people who found value in human connection survived, while people who felt the opposite way were removed from the tribe and the gene pool.
When we're feeling down in the dumps and like the whole world is out to get us, it's even more important to get out into that world and hang with people who make us feel good. We need to seek human interactions so we can form meaningful connections and have meaningful experiences.
Don't have any friends? Strangers will work. In fact, sometimes forming a new connection with someone makes you feel even better than if you hung out with a friend you've known for ages. The point here is that humans feel better in groups and feel better when they're interconnected, so make sure you grow your network of strong ties and weak ties.
Hate to break it to you, but the Internet didn't exist 100,000 years ago. And yet, we rely on it today like it's a part of us, almost like we're cyborgs. However, given that our brains and overall physiology haven't changed for ages, it makes sense that while the Internet and all the technology that it's brought along with it is extremely beneficial and important, it has adverse effects.
For example, we're used to tribes of roughly 100 people, but now, we're connected to millions of them. Before, we only interacted with the people around us, perceiving their lives with our own two eyes. Now, we see thousands of people's best lives on social networking sites like Instagram.
This admittedly has a negative effect. For example, if I don't text someone back within roughly a 24 hour period, I feel like I've done something wrong - something socially unacceptable. This isn't healthy.
To combat this, we need to schedule time specifically so we can unplug and reflect on our lives as well as experience the world in real-time, truly valuing the present moment. To do this, I often institute no screen Saturdays or no screen Sundays, forcing myself to do other things like going on a hike or reading a book.
Often times when we feel negative thoughts it's because our lives feel directionless - like we're floating from day-to-day or week-to-week without a clear vision of our future and the things we want to achieve. When you're feeling down, and after you've addressed the seven other things above, it's time to clearly define your ideal life and then set goals to get there.
Once you've defined your vision and set goals in the direction of your vision, it's time to actually create and implement a plan to achieve your goals, and therefore, your life vision. Whenever you're feeling down or blue, it's always better to take action than not to take it. For this reason, when you have a case of the humans, it's best to get off your ass and try to implement the life-changes you want.
At the end of the day, life is uncertain, and you can't control everything - embrace it, and control the few things you can. Get sleep, exercise, talk to friends and family, have higher level goals, and try to implement those goals. However, when it's all said and done, life is random and it's better to enjoy the ride rather than trying to rage against it. For this reason, it's best to affect what you can and stop worrying about the rest.
Don't frett when life's got you down. Chances are you're human. When you feel depressed, anxious, or simply all-around blue, take a look at the steps above to overcome your case of the humans.