Naming Feedback Loops

I’ve often thought that the terms “positive feedback loop” and “negative feedback loop” are poorly named. The words “positive” and “negative” have such strong emotional valences that it’s hard not to get confused when trying to talk about, for example, the positive feedback loop of a being in a bad mood. Instead, I’d rather use the terms “explosive feedback loop” and “stabilizing feedback loop”. They seem to capture the relevant characteristics more clearly.

I care about these words because I’ve found myself stuck in a couple of explosive feedback loops recently due to meta-emotional worries. I notice myself feeling bad for one reason or another, and this worries me, and the worry makes me feel even worse. Rinse and repeat. I’ve poked at this behaviour before (primarily in my post on worrying two years ago), but it’s reared its head again recently, and I’m finally noticing the same general pattern in other aspects of my life. For example, I’m not typically a hypochondriac, but as soon as one aspect of my health comes to my attention it’s a short spiral to internalized histrionics.

Typically self-awareness is counted as a positive trait, but there is a very real sense in these situations where it is an active problem. I’m self-aware enough to send myself into these meta-emotional spirals, but not generally self-aware enough to pull myself out of them. The fact that I’ve noticed it as a pattern now produces some measure of hope, but honestly I noticed it two years ago in that other post as well, and I don’t think I’ve applied it once since then. In a lot of ways, half-way up the mountain is the worst spot to be.

I meta-worry about all my worries and then I worry over how to stop meta-worrying and then my head explodes.

Me

Worrying

On Sunday evening, I sat down and wrote a thousand words on this blog baring my soul, confessing my deepest secrets and revealing at least two deeply personal things that I’d never told anyone before. As you may deduce by the fact that you haven’t read it: I never hit “publish”. In hindsight, at least some of it was a tad melodramatic, a sin of which I am more than occasionally guilty. But the essence was right.

Now, of course, I’m sitting here two days later writing a very confusing meta-post about something that none of you have read, or likely ever will. You’re welcome. Really, as the title would suggest, I want to talk about worry, since I think it was the thread that underlies my unpublished post.

I worry a lot (this is a stunning revelation to anyone who knows me in real life, I’m sure).

There are of course a lot of posts on the internet already about dealing with worry. I don’t want to talk about that, even though I could probably do to read a few more of them myself. Instead, I want to ramble for a while about the way that worries change our behaviour to create or prevent the things we worry about. This is the weird predictive causal loop of the human brain, so it should be fun.

First off, some evolutionary psychology, because that always goes well. From a strictly adaptive perspective, we would expect that worry would help us avoid the things we worry about, and indeed the mechanism here is pretty obvious. When we worry, it makes us turn something over in our head, looking for solutions, exploring alternatives. Perhaps we stumble upon an option we hadn’t considered, or we realize some underlying cause that lets us avoid the worry-inducing problem altogether. The people who worry like this have some advantage over the ones who don’t.

But of course, nothing is ever perfectly adaptive. The easy one is the immediate mental cost of worrying; worrying about tigers is less than helpful if in doing so you distractedly walk off a cliff. The slightly more subtle concern is the fact that we don’t always worry about the right things. Every time we choose to worry about some future event we are inherently making a prediction, that the event is probable enough and harmful enough to be worth worrying over. But humans make crappy predictions all the time. It’s an easy guarantee that some of the things people worry about just aren’t worth the extra mental effort.

These mis-worries still affect our behaviour though. We turn scenarios over in our mind, however unlikely or harmless, and we come up with solutions. We make changes to our behaviour, to our worldview. We make choices which would otherwise be suboptimal. Sometimes, in doing so, we create more problems for us to worry about. These things are sometimes bad, but even they are not the worst of what worrying can do to us.

The most terrible worries are the meta-worries: worries about our own emotional state. If you start to worry that maybe you’re emotionally fragile, then you’ve suddenly just proved yourself right! The constant worry over your emotional fragility has made you fragile, and reinforced itself at the same time. These worries aren’t just maladaptive, they’re also positive feedback loops which can rapidly spiral out of control.

With all of these terrible things that can come from mis-worry, we can make bad, hand-wavy assumptions that historically at least, worry has been more adaptive than not, else we wouldn’t have it. But certainly in the modern age, there is a plausible argument that worry is doing us far more harm than good. Instead of worrying about tigers, and cliffs, and what we’re going to eat tomorrow, we worry about sports teams, taxes, and nuclear war with North Korea. (If you’re me, you worry about all of the above, tigers included, and you also worry about that girl you think is cute and you meta-worry about all your worries and then you worry over how to stop meta-worrying and then your head explodes).

For about three years now I’ve been actively fighting my mis-worries (aka my anxieties) kind of one at a time, as I realized they were hurting me. This has involved regular visits to a therapist during some periods, and has been a generally successful endeavour. Despite this, I am not where I want to be, and in some respects my meta-anxieties have actually grown. So in the grand tradition of doing bad science to yourself in order to avoid ethics boards, I am going to do an experiment. The details are secret. Let’s see how it goes.