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.