EPPP Preparation: Perception and Expectation

During your EPPP preparation, it is not unusual to experience anxiety. In fact, manageable anxiety can be a good thing, because it alerts you to the fact that passing the EPPP is extremely important. (See Dr. Elizabeth Soliday’s comments on anxiety during your EPPP prep.)

Anxiety can be a relatively harmless part of life, as it is our body’s mechanism for telling us that something is wrong. But anxiety can also become pathological and disabling, leading to phobias.

In phobias and anxieties, what often happens is that certain experiences activate neuro-pathways that are actually pathological. To illustrate this, I’d like to share an experience of a friend of mine, whom we will call Jeff, who used to suffer from chronic fatigue.

If Jeff woke up in the morning and the day was cloudy, he would label it a “gloomy day” and this would immediately activate a well-worn network of neuro-pathways associated with gloom, depression and tiredness. On such days, Jeff found it incredibly difficult to have energy or sometimes to even get out of bed. Each time this happened, it strengthened those unhelpful neuro-pathways even more, making it more difficult to overcome these neurological habits the next time there was a gloomy day.

The vicious cycle became self-fulfilling: Jeff expected to have a bad day, and so he did. This pattern of self-fulfilling expectations began to spill into other areas. If for some reason Jeff didn’t get a good sleep, he expected that he would be tired for the next three day, and so he was. Jeff didn’t realize that the problem, though physical in its symptoms, was of neurological origin.

I didn’t know anything about Jeff problems, but one day when we were talking about the books we were reading, I bought up the topic of neuroplasticity. He was very interested and for about an hour we talked about how the brain is like a muscle that adapts itself to how we use it. I recommended that he read Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, which had a whole section on neuroplasticity.

A year later I was at a meeting and Jeff was also there. He excitedly came up to me and said he had read the book and had gone on to receive neuroplasticity-based therapy for addressing chronic fatigue and depression. He explained about the problems with tiredness and depression he had struggled with since his boyhood and how, by coming to understand what was happening in his brain, he was able to take steps to rewire his brain in positive ways.

Heres how it worked: if Jeff woke up and the day was cloudy, instead of labeling it as a “gloomy” day, he would give it a positive label and refuse to activate the old neuro-pathways. If he had a bad night’s sleep, instead of telling himself that he would be tired for the next three days, he expected to feel great after only one good night’s sleep. Meanwhile, he continued studying about neuroplasticity so he could actually understand what was happening physiologically as he took control of his own brain rather than letting it control him.

This story illustrates an important point. Because of how our brains work, there is a reciprocal relationship between what we expect and what we perceive.

Now think back to the word puzzle I presented in the post ‘Count the F’s.’ If you guessed that there were six F’s then you were correct. Many people (including myself when I first read the sentence) only count three F’s because unconsciously their brains expect F to only be present in words where it makes the sound it does in Fox. In the word ‘of’ we unconsciously do not expect there to be an F because we do not associate F with the sound it makes in that word. We perceive what we expect, and our expectations are conditions by associations built up over years.

In the same way, if you associate certain things with making you depressed, anxious or tired, then the presence of one of those things can become a trigger to the actual experience of those conditions. We perceive and experience what we expect. Because of this, it is crucial what you think of yourself. It is especially important that you do not associate yourself with failure, lest you become a victim of your own expectations.

Keeping this in mind is especially important during your EPPP preparation. As you prepare to sit your EPPP, don’t let yourself become a victim of your own negative expectations. When you sit down with a bunch of EPPP preparation materials, don’t expect to be overwhelmed. Learn to take control of your own neuro-pathways just as my friend Jeff did.

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