The Evolution of Anxiety

The Evolution of Anxiety

Anxiety is a funny thing. It can be our best friend, or our worst enemy, and originates from the most basic instinct we have: survival. Every organism on this planet tends to naturally prioritize survival above all else in life. And for good reason. Without survival, there is no life. This instinct is innate and does not require thought to be activated. Even as complex creatures, humans are no different from the rest when it comes to self-preservation. If you need proof, tell a friend to sneak up on you sometime when you’re completely unaware. Odds are you will flinch, jump, recoil, or adopt a fighting stance. Why? Because you sensed danger and experienced fear.

When we experience anxiety, our bodies release a number of hormones such as adrenaline, norepinephrine, and dopamine that heighten/intensify our senses so that we stand a better chance of surviving the perceived threat. We become more alert, display faster reflexes, and experience a rush of energy to accommodate our next move: fight or flight.

While our knee-jerk reaction to danger has allowed us to thrive as a species, it can become over-developed when constantly bombarded by stressors. In the modern world, the specter of life-threatening harm is far less common than it was for our ancestors thousands of years ago. Yet in many ways our instinctive brains experience similar sensations of stress when they perceive danger to our emotional well-being. A commonly used example would be public speaking. Often regarded as the number one fear among people (out-ranking even death), speaking in front of crowds is terrifying to many. But why? There is an extremely low probability of death when presenting in front of a classroom or pitching an idea to a group of colleagues. The answer lies in the evolution of our species. A new form of survival has emerged out of the creation of modern civilization: social survival.

As humans we are a predominantly communal species. Just as wolves form a pack, or dolphins live in a pod, people largely require social relationships to thrive. However, due to our advanced brain structure which allows for complex thought, humans differ from animals in that we are far more selective when choosing members of our social group. We often hand-pick our friends,  rigorously vet our employees, and otherwise proceed with extreme caution when letting people into our lives. An unfortunate side effect of this highly evolved form of social selection is that the margin for error shrinks dramatically. It becomes quite easy to make social mistakes, even relatively small ones, that can cost us our protective community. The need for acceptance by others is innate within us. And so our awareness of how easily that acceptance can be stripped away becomes abundantly clear, giving rise to the fear of being alone. In a sense, loneliness can be equated to a type of death: social death.

Here is one such example of “social death”:

Now fully aware of what’s at stake, a 6th-grader in the school spelling bee becomes petrified with fear. She knows that making a careless mistake has a high probability for embarrassment as hundreds of students laugh and jeer at her expense. The overwhelming notion of potential humiliation on this scale triggers a series of biological responses akin to those necessary for surviving a life-threatening event. Her heart begins to pound as her breathing becomes shallow and rapid. Her thoughts race, eyes dart around, and hands shake uncontrollably as adrenaline courses through her body. As mentioned before, human biological survival protocols circumvent higher brain function and complex thought in order to provide a quicker response to danger. The 6th-grader can no longer think as clearly as she would if she were calm. Her turn comes to spell a very simple word she has spelled a thousand times. Consumed by her anxiety she forgets to include an obvious letter. Suddenly her worst fears are realized as the buzzer eliminating her from the competition is met with roars of laughter from the student body. She turns to her parents standing in the back row for comfort only to find looks of embarrassed disappointment on their faces. Crestfallen, the child cannot help but begin to sob, now exposing the most vulnerable of emotions to the ridicule of hundreds of students she must face for years to come.

This is but one of countless ways that chronic anxiety can be formed.

One Reply to “The Evolution of Anxiety”

  1. I think you’re making a big error by leaving out attachment. Anxiety is evolutionary because it led to survival, and cued us to dangerous things in the environment. That’s obvious, but today, we know that anxiety and similar “negative” emotions are born out of attachment, or lack thereof, in infancy. If the infant expresses distress, and the primary caregiver comes and soothes the infant and mirrors him/her, creating a safe space for the infant to feel the anxiety, letting the infant know that when they get anxious, they will be attended to, and also defining what anxiety IS by mirroring. This doesn’t prevent the infant from having an anxious temperament that he/she carries into adulthood, but it’s certainly a protective factor against anxiety that is pathological. I think it’s also important to identify what “anxiety” you’re talking about. There’s anxiety about getting a parking spot and there’s anxiety that keeps you locked up in your room and afraid to leave the home. These are clearly quite different. The reason the pathological individuals get “fight, flight, or freeze,” is because that’s how they learned to deal with anxiety as an infant. Their distress cues triggered negative responses from caregivers and often even violence towards the child. When the child has internalized primary caregiver as perpetrator at the same time, this is what creates severe pathological “anxiety” due to the push-pull sensation they feel which is a product of the fact that the same person they turn towards for care is also perpetrator. Thus, the infant learns different skills (throw a tantrum, become disinterested, act out, be violent, or freeze) in order to get their needs met. Research has shown that these “skills” they learn are carried through adulthood and can be seen in the individual’s future relationship and is quite stable over time. Having a friend sneak up on you would obviously create anxiety in anyone, whether they are pathological or not. A better way to explain it would be what the exact reaction to that anxiety would be for the person; not just that they feel it. Chronic and pathological anxiety is created in infancy. The child you describe would have a completely different reaction to the “humiliation” depending on their attachment style and if their world view is one in which they are safe, their needs are met, and they are securely attached. If that was the case, the child could very easily say, “Yeah, i suppose that was funny, but i realize this is nothing personal, i can laugh too.” Whereas the individual without secure attachment could act out, get violent, freeze, walk off the stage, etc. I think it’s important to help our patients examine the real source of their neuroses, without being confrontational to the parents or infusing anger into the child, but rather from a compassionate place. Perhaps saying that their primary caretaker was so busy trying to raise a family as a single mother, that she was not available to attend to your needs as an infant the best that she could. This subconscious world model in which your needs will never be met creates dismissive behavior. A world model where your needs as an infant were met conditionally or seldomly, either by screaming or being violent, then likely they will throw a tantrum when they are laughed at. Of course there a millions of other variables, but I felt the desire to mention this very large part of the formation of negative emotion. And you are right about feeling a sense of death, because as infants, we literally RELY upon our caregivers for our very survival. If you leave an infant in a room and don’t attend to him and he has no attachment, then likely it will die. So we internalize attachment to be as important as food, shelter, and water as primal instincts. By bringing awareness to patients and providing them skills and tools to employ when the attachment mechanism is triggered, we in-turn give them a tool for their anxiety.

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