8 Ways That Evolution Has Shaped How We Experience Anxiety

by Eva Taylor Grant
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Anxiety may seem like a modern epidemic, but it's actually got roots in ancient history. While it can feel like a bothersome companion to 21st-century living conditions, anxiety is a feeling that's been necessary to humans basically as long as the species has been around. Anxiety and evolution are inextricably linked, and understanding this might help you feel some relief.

Anxiety, at it's most basic, is a survival instinct. “Although often spoken about with a negative connotation, anxiety has been a key feeling to the survival of our species," licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) Jennifer Behnke, Clinical Director at New Perspectives, tells Bustle. "Throughout the course of evolution, humans have vacillated between feelings of safety and insecurity based on the circumstances with which they are presented." Our worries are compounded by the fact that the world around us has changed while our brain, for the most part, hasn't.

"The human brain has remained relatively unchanged for the past 200,000 years," Neeraj Gandotra, M.D., Chief Medical Officer of Delphi Behavioral Health Group, tells Bustle. "But society has evolved tremendously from [previous] times. We have shifted from a society of immediate response to one of delayed responses. The premise of this claim is that up until about 500 years ago people were relatively isolated from each other, living in small groups and or communities, within which individuals decisions would have an immediate return or impact." These delayed responses and social conditions, however, might be making our anxiety worse.

Here are eight ways anxiety is affected by evolution, according to experts.


Anxiety Is Always Present

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It's thanks to our ancestors that anxiety is always at the back of our minds, even subconsciously.

"Recent research [...] speaks about the fact that anxiety is ever present in our system, only stifled when feelings of security exist," Behnke says. Evolutionarily, this means that we're as close as possible to always being ready if danger strikes. However, it also means that sometimes it can be difficult to turn those anxious thoughts off — since they're trying to protect us. Evolution also partly explains why feeling secure, like lounging under a weighted blanket, helps your anxiety feel far away.


It May Be Part Of "Survival Of The Fittest"

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Anxiety might tie into the famous evolutionary concept of survival of the fittest. Basically, this means that anxiety has been a helpful tool to keep humans alive for generations.

"As a society, we believe in evolutionary components to natural selection for those most capable of adapting in the ever-changing environment," Behnke says. "Anxiety plays a key role in this dynamic, as it is the internal indicator that something is amiss and high alert needs to be taken." So even if it trips you up, it's there for a reason.


Anxiety Is Preoccupied With Safety

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It turns out, evolutionarily, anxiety is all about safety and security. And to understand why your anxiety is always there until you find a moment of comfort, you may want to understand how that works evolutionarily. See, anxiety isn't about being in danger; it is about seeking relief from it.

In fact, Behnke notes based on research she's studied, that chronic anxiety and stress aren't about the presence of something bad (like fear or immediate threat), but the lack of something good: safety. So if you're feeling metaphorically "unsafe" in your career, your relationship, or your life in general, your brain might be hinting that it wants to protect you, now.


We Share Feelings Of Anxiety With Other Animals

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Scientists can see that anxiety has been an evolutionary experience by comparing anxiety in humans with anxiety in animals. After all, anxiety is not a distinctly human emotion.

"The physiological responses in humans can be seen in other mammals and non-mammals as well," Joshua Klapow, PhD, clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, tells Bustle. "[This suggests] that the anxiety response is one that has been passed on from species to species as species have evolved over time." You can even see similar anxious behaviors in animals that you see in yourself (hint: your dog in a thunder storm). Anxiety is just another reminder that we're animals, after all.


It's An Emotional Response To Fight-Or-Flight

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While you may not think you've personally been in any fight-or-flight situations in your life, every time you're experiencing anxiety, you're experiencing an emotion that is symptomatic of this exact evolutionary response.

"[Anxious] reactions help protect the organism from danger," Dr. Klapow says. "[...] The anxiety response can assure that the person is tuned in to a dangerous situation and is in a position to avoid it (flight) or live and face it (fight). All of this increases the chances that a person will survive in a dangerous situation." These kinds of evolutionary traits can still help us in life-or-death situations, and can even be triggered when a situation isn't life threatening.

"It is a misperception that when it is triggered it is an all or none response," Dr. Klapow adds. "When we feel a sudden jolt of anxiety, a queasiness in our stomachs, a heat flash in our head, [or] sweaty palms — any of these responses represent the natural fight-or-flight phenomena." So you may actually be experiencing evolutionary fight-or-flight much more than you're aware of.


Anxiety Has Become More Long-Term With Evolution

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People in the past didn't get anxious about things in the future like you do now. They were more concerned with of-the-moment fears and reactions.

"Anxiety and stress used to be indicators of immediate threat or danger, or the possibility thereof," Dr. Klapow says. "There was an urgency there [...] Nowadays, we live in a very different life. Many times, our actions today don’t bear fruit for a long time [...] And to fill in that delay, that gap of uncertainty and 'in-between,' along came anxiety, worry, and stress." This uncertainty also means you deal with anxiety for longer periods of time than your predecessors, which is part of the reason it is now such a major health issue.


There's Less We Can Do About Anxiety Than Our Ancestors

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While we have medication and other modern treatment options, we don't have one thing that our ancestors had when anxiety hit: instant gratification. Since we're anxious about more abstract things, we can't make the same concrete changes to protect ourselves that our ancestors could.

"Up until 500 years ago when individuals felt anxiety they could instantly react and change their state," Dr. Gandotra says. "For example, if an individual felt thirsty anxiety would set in as a warning sign, drinking water would satisfy that anxiety. Today it is much harder to immediately resolve anxiety." While we can still change our situation by going for a walk or applying for a new job, we have to sit with our anxiety for longer than our ancestors did when the trait first appeared.


Ancient Anxiety In A Modern Brain Breeds More Anxiety

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Unfortunately, although we're largely more safe and secure than our ancient ancestors, we still experience the feeling of anxiety as viscerally as those in immediate danger did generations ago. This lends itself to a viscous cycle where you try to contain your instinctual feelings, only to feel more anxious.

"[Suppressing underlying feelings of anxiety] can lead to a maladaptive state," Dr. Gandotra says. "A maladaptive state is a type of behavior in which someone avoids stressful thoughts or feelings in order to protect themselves from psychological damage. This type of behavior, however, actually creates stress and anxiety, which lowers self-confidence." And you may be feeling tempted towards this maladaptive state because your modern life doesn't make sense with your animal instinct towards anxiety. Luckily, anxiety treatments can keep this from becoming a serious issue.

It may be comfortable to know that there is an evolutionary explanation for anxiety disorders — in many cases, anxiety is just your brain adjusting to your surroundings in the best way it knows how. Understanding the facts of how human brains have evolved to understand danger and safety may help you navigate your symptoms in a bigger-picture sense.