Thursday, April 28, 2011

Anxiety and Evolution

Crap, I am anxious all the time, and so are most people I know. 

What gives? 

The conventional reason is that there are evolutionary advantages to being anxious. Essentially, the argument runs that our ancestors who were worried were more likely to gather nuts for the winter, watch out for predators, and avoid the annual Caveman Cliff Jumping Competition and were therefore more likely to survive. For modern people who don't live in poverty or a war-torn country, anxiety is a remnant of an earlier time. Here is a synopsis of this idea. 

I don't believe this theory. I don't think there is an evolutionary advantage to being anxious. Ok, maybe a little bit of anxiety helps motivate you to do the stuff you need to do - study for a test instead of partying for instance. But how well do you perform with a knot in your gut and worries in your head? 

Evolution has two main goals - survival and reproduction - and I contend anxiety doesn't help with either. Would you rather go hunting when you felt calm or anxious? How about picking up a potential sex partner? Anxiety is catchy and it is a libido killer.

I would say that being alert has an evolutionary advantage. Being alert to danger can keep you alive. An alert hunter is aware but calm, receptive to sight, sound, and smell, patient and poised to strike. An anxious hunter is more prone to drop his spear.

So why are so many people in our society anxious? I believe that anxiety is not left-over from an earlier age, but rather created by the isolation of this age. In this society, most of us lack a connection to an extended family group or meaningful community, we don't live close to nature, we don't have a sense of our place in the cosmos, and we don't know what the hell we are doing here. We feel alone and without a sense of purpose. And on a day in day out basis, that is more anxiety making than having to watch out for saber tooth tigers and woolly mammoths.

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