Anxiety and evolution

[wallcoo.com]_2560x1600_Widescreen_GreenLeaves_wallpaper_da035011e‘Evolutionary psychology’ is a relatively new field in psychology but more significant in the realm of the science of the mind. According to this new school of thought, our genetic psychological mechanisms of today acquired current forms by surviving millions of years of evolution and natural selection, proving useful for survival and reproduction. The latter statement is especially interesting regarding one particularly powerful, yet vastly common psychiatric abnormality: anxiety.

Why would such an agonizing state be regarded as useful?

Unbelievably roughly 30% of the entire population of the United States will suffer from acute anxiety at least once in their life. The larger question remains, if it hurts so much why has evolution allowed it to survive for so long? Pain does not deem a psychic mechanism useless from an evolutionary point of view.

The following theory has formed around anxiety, especially the Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). According to Bateson, Brilot and Nettle (2011) anxiety is a behavioral and physiological set of conduct, or strategy, that detects, assesses and prevents potential danger or emergency. With this in mind anxious demeanor is easy to observe in the below example.

What is rattling in the bushes? The passer-by needs to decide if it is only the wind or something more alarming, e.g., a lurking tiger. First we set criteria to judge the potentially life threatening question. The criteria has a threshold below which the noise will be regarded as wind, above which it will be thought of as tiger. In the former case the passer-by will not be alarmed and will not get their resources ready for fight, as opposed to the latter incident.

Ideally the sensory perception would precisely identify the nature of the noise, but in real life it doesn’t work like that. Therefore, the strength of the detected signal will always have two overlapping ranges: the ranges of errors and false alarms. The threshold should rather be optimal than ideal in order for the person to stay alive and not make any errors with a given number of false alarms. False alarms cost less than errors, as the price of the former is loss of energy as the maximum, while the price of the latter may be loss of life.

According to evolutionary psychologists this threshold is far too low in case of anxiety patients, especially those with GAD; they consider almost every sign to be dangerous. In other words the alarm goes off far too often, which is extremely energy consuming. The most common GAD symptoms, such as sleeping issues, poor concentration or stress, are in accordance with the amount of energy used up due to frequent false alarms.

Having examined individual experiences, let’s now look at how anxiety interferes with the chances of survival in case of groups. When it comes to rivalry in groups, both anxiety and depression, which is a closely related diagnosis, play a crucial part, according to evolutionary psychology. When there is a fight for a specific rank within a group, the defeated party goes through a phase of depression that makes him give up his ambitions to hold on to this position; retiring and accepting lower rank or status within the group. At the same time anxiety helps the loser make friends with his defeater, since paradoxically he can expect protection from him within his group in the future. Groups, the members of which do not suffer from conflicts by being at peace with both themselves and their rulers, can avoid the fate of those that get drawn apart by internal revolts. They are more successful too at a potential war against the latter kind.

Anxiety, as we have seen above, has important benefits for both individuals and groups. No matter how much suffering it brings about, when examined with the eyes of evolutionary psychologist, it seems to make sense that people living with moderate anxiety have better chances of survival than their more relaxed counterparts. We also see that frequent and unreasonable levels of the condition in question will have negative effects on people’s everyday lives and their health on the long run.

After László Bíró

Acute anxiety is a condition that needs to be treated. Certain drugs and psychotherapy can very effectively help you get it back to a range where it is easier to live with. Ironically, many people feel anxiety about getting treatment for their anxiety. In certain social circles, getting psychological treatment is seen as a weakness or deficiency. Modern evidence-based psychology has proven to be useful in treating anxiety and other psychological problems. Should you feel that your anxiety is out of hand, please schedule an appointment to see one of our psychologists.