Evolution and Anxiety

The Evolutionary Psychology of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Woman with fear of flying. Credit: Peter Dazeley

The following is a brief overview of some recent theory on evolution and anxiety. Evolutionary psychology is a growing field that is attempting to unify the variety of perspectives on human behavior. Some of the best of this work is in understanding emotions and the development of our emotional processes. 

Anxiety and Fear

The pure form of anxiety is that it is the experience of some sort of fear. If you think about how your body feels when you are anxious compared to when you would consider yourself fearful, you may notice a lot of similarities.

But the anxiety experience may be slightly less intense. In the clearest case, consider anxiety as a way your body is alerting you to some sort of fear like the future, failure, or embarrassment.

Evolutionary Psychology

The basics of evolutionary psychology are that we all have two basic evolutionary tasks: survival and reproduction. Over thousands of years, most of our experience can now be understood as having some sort of “evolutionary advantage,” meaning that having these traits (even higher anxiety) helped us survive and/or reproduce successfully.

Evolution and Emotions

One of the major theories on the function of emotions is that they evolved to quickly organize all of our cognitive functions when necessary. For example, if we encounter an angry tiger, we become fearful. The experience of fear sharpens our sense, quickens our thinking, activates our fight-or-flight response, and a variety of other things.

Therefore, we don’t have to consciously get ourselves to notice the danger of the tiger. We are instantly prepared to deal with it. People who were able to do this better clearly could survive and reproduce.

The same principle can be applied to anxiety. Obviously anxiety and fear are linked, so the organizing power of anxiety is important.

Additionally, the evolutionary advantage to anxiety specifically could be that worrying about danger forces people to take fewer risks, seek safety, and focus on doing things well. Clearly this would help the basic evolutionary tasks. Read more on genetic vulnerability and anxiety here.

So What About GAD?

People with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) could have a predisposition to experience greater levels of anxiety that again in previous forms of human life were advantageous. Essentially, GAD can be seen as an over-reaction to the fear response in modern society. As modern society has created a place for more people to be evolutionarily successful, this chronic anxiety becomes a burden and seen as an obstacle. Seeking treatment for GAD can certainly be helpful in this, but know that you are likely carrying the genes of your ancestors who found some advantage in them that allowed you to be here today.

References:

Buss, D.M. (2005). The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Wiley & Sons.



Mayo Clinic. Generalized Anxiety Disorder. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/generalized-anxiety-disorder/basics/definition/con-20024562

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