Regardless of their diagnosis or primary presenting problem, most of the clients I see are struggling with some sort of anxiety. From an epidemiological perspective, this is not surprising. Anxiety disorders affect more than 40 million American adults in any given year and are more prevalent than any other type of psychiatric disorder.
Why are we so anxious? I would attribute it, in large part, to evolution. Anxiety is a universal emotional reaction experienced by all humans and most non-human species as well. Anxiety is a useful trait that has been shaped by natural selection.
Human beings are wired to respond to threat in a self-preserving way. When our body or brain detects danger, our sympathetic nervous system releases adrenaline and prepares the body to defend itself using one of three types of responses: fight, flight, or freeze. In response to threat, our heartbeat becomes stronger and more rapid and our breathing becomes faster and deeper in order to deliver more oxygen to muscle tissues in preparation for fighting or fleeing. Our pupils dilate to let in more light, which increases the sensitivity of our vision and helps us scan the environment for sources of danger. Digestion slows down or stops so as to conserve energy, and our mouth may become dry. Muscle tension increases in preparation for fight, flight, or freeze. All of these bodily reactions were vital in our ancestral environment. They allowed us to fight off predators to defend ourselves and our families. They facilitated us as we fled from all kinds of danger, from wild animals to brushfires to hostile natives. They made us freeze, like a deer in headlights, to aid in scanning the environment for danger, concealing ourselves, and inhibiting predators’ attack reflexes.
For tens of thousands of years, our ancestral environment was brutal. We faced life-or-death situations on a daily basis. Those of us with well-tuned fight or flight responses survived to adulthood and reproduced, passing their genes along to the next generation. Those of us with insufficient fear were less protected and tended to die sooner.
Fast forward to the 21st century. The fight-or-flight reflex is alive and well. If a car speeds towards us as we are crossing the street, we instinctually dart out of the way in a split second. When a masked stranger attacks us from behind, we make a quick jab to his stomach followed by a swift kick to his gonads, then run as fast as we can. These situations, though, are few and far between.
Advances in science, technology, and medicine have obliterated most of the threats our ancestors faced. Compared to people in previous eras, we face far fewer life-threatening encounters. And yet, we are more anxious now than ever before. Our ancestors feared storms, wooly mammoths, tidal waves, plagues, famines, droughts, and vengeful gods. What are we worried about? Our grades in school, our performance at work, our weight and physical appearance, our daughter’s loser boyfriend, public speaking, keeping up with the Jones, conflicts with our friends and partners, the rising costs of gas, swine flu, socialized medicine and Obama’s so-called “death panels.” Even more “legitimate” fears, like global warming, terrorist attacks, bankruptcy, and breast cancer, are probably less likely, less immediate, and less deadly than all our worrying makes them seem.
We do have an evolutionary excuse for this: the sympathetic nervous system tends to be all-or-nothing. It is not always modulated for varying degrees of danger. From a purely physiological standpoint, our bodies may respond the same way whether we are giving an oral presentation in school or being chased by a hungry lion.
Having some degree of anxiety is still advantageous in many ways. A bit of anxiety engenders caution, preparedness, and motivation. Mild to moderate levels of anxiety are associated with better school performance and higher occupational achievement. Anxiety protects us from engaging in dangerous activities, contracting deadly diseases, and acting in ways that may lead to social alienation. Anxiety, like most emotions and characteristics, can be positive when it is understood fully and managed mindfully.
However, the enormous number of Americans suffering from anxiety disorders suggests that something has gone awry with this natural, universal, ordinarily adaptive reflex. The problem, I think, is that in order to be adaptive, emotional responses must fit changing circumstances and challenges. In other words, anxiety is only beneficial insofar as it increases our fitness as a species in the modern world, allowing us to survive and thrive. We’ve been slow to adapt to certain evolutionarily recent threats. Our fears of ghosts, monsters, spiders, and snakes are perhaps a bit excessive. On the other hand, we could probably benefit from more fear of driving fast, cigarettes, and unprotected sex.
We are not slaves to our biology, and evolution is not destiny. The problem with biological determinism is not the biology; it’s the determinism. A number of psychological and behavioral treatments have been shown to reduce problematic anxiety. Through cognitive and behavioral techniques, we can gain insight into the workings of our bodies and minds, develop new ways of thinking, challenge our fears, acquire coping skills, and learn to live mindful, joyful, fulfilling lives that are not limited by anxiety.