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  • Matthew Emerson

Feeling Anxious? It's Probably your Ancestor's Fault

Today's article is written by a guest author, Daniel Sullenberger. Sullenberger graduated from California University of Pennsylvania with a B.S. in Biology and a minor in Chemistry. He now works as a Quality Specialist in plasma collection.

What if people don’t find what I write about interesting?” was the first such thought to crack it’s way through the dam that is my consciousness, followed by a torrent of other thoughts ranging in severity. Such is the risk of writing for publication.

A knot in my stomach formed upon attempting just to write the first sentence. I promptly closed my word document and opened YouTube to watch another chess instructional video or maybe watch a streamer on Twitch just to avoid the uneasy feeling of anxiety that came from within my guts.

I succumb to this feeling of anxiety on the daily.

Whether it’s at a store in a line of people who I think will judge me for being unhealthy for picking up a candy bar, or at work where I have deadlines to meet and bosses looming over me.

As the day went on I decided that writing an article, being productive, or engaging in some type of meaningful thought was just too much for me to handle, and I slumped back down into my familiar idosynchorsies that don’t cause me anxiety.

Upon laying in bed for the night (when my anxiety is usually amplified) I remembered a paper that I wrote in my Evolutionary Biology class in college. The paper, which was actually one of my favorites to write, was how anxiety is a horrendous byproduct of evolution.

And now, because of my ancestors, I look for an exit in every building I enter.

Today, I made a cup of coffee, turned on some Sam Cook, and decided to delve into this topic. Let’s take a quick trip back in time to our earliest ancestors.

Obviously our modern times are nowhere near as frightening as it was for our early human ancestors. While they were worried about starving or being eaten by another carnivorous creature, we decide that it’s just too scary to go into work because a coworker you don’t get along with will be there.

There is this term called Strategic Decisions in Evolutionary Biology. This breaks down how creatures respond to potential dangers in their environment. There are rational decisions, emotional decisions, and instinctive decisions. These decisions can be used to either escalate or de-escalate situations that you come across. For example, let’s say in your hunter and gatherer pack that you become cornered by some sort of ancestor to the great lion. Your Rational Decision part of your brain has two options: do you attempt to escalate the situation and fight, or do you de-escalate and try to run and hide? There are these types of escalation and de-escalation for each Decision. Unfortunately, in today’s world, Generalized Anxiety Disorders can be linked to two of these leftover Strategic Decisions: Emotional and Instinctive (Price, 2003, 223-228).

The science, when simplified, is rather easy to follow. If you remember the term survival of the fittest, these Strategic Decisions come into play. Let’s say it’s night time, and your hunter gatherer pack is attempting to sleep for the night. You, however, hear a rustling noise in the nearby brush. Emotionally and Instinctively, you kick into action. Do you escalate or de-escalate? Do you go in spear first, or do you run and hide? This is how Evolution specifically selects for anxiety to be a good trait.

Imagine waking up to this hiding in the bushes.

Creatures with anxiety are selected for as they become more cautious in their environment, making anxiety a rather great trait for survival. A hunter gatherer who hears a rustling noise at night and decides to ignore it may just get eaten by a lion’s ancestor. However, the hunter gatherer who decides that the rustling noise is a threat and prepares to deal with it accordingly will most likely live to repopulate and pass that trait on to their offspring. If you combine this with millions of years of Evolution selecting this trait for humans, it leads us to be rather cautious, self-aware of our environments, and more attuned to deal with threats (Hofer, 1995, p. 19-20).

Unfortunately, if you fast forward to the last few hundred years, where food is abundant in every supermarket and there are no real predators in our suburbs, it has a rather undesired effect. You still have those traits that up until a thousand or two thousand years ago was essential to survival is now just hanging around in your subconsciousness. This now, however, manifests into psychological disorders which sometimes become debilitating to people (such as myself). Today, if you have an escalation in Emotional Decisions, you can have anger and hostility, and an escalation in Instinctive decisions can lead to a heightened mood. However, if you de-escalate both Emotional and Instinctive decisions, this leads to feelings of inferiority, depression, and the feeling that so many people refer to as anxiety (Price, 2003, 226-228).

In today’s age, where our biggest problems are our commutes to work and us jumping down the rabbit holes of social media, our hidden evolutionary anxiety component becomes expressed in some pretty unfavorable ways. The best example I can clearly define of how this works is when I saw an ex-girlfriend in public on my way to class. Instead of making Rational Decisions, I acted on Emotional and Instinctive decisions, which led to my fight or flight instincts activating (as if there was some sort of threat), and me obviously choosing flight. I missed the first ten minutes of my next class all so I didn’t have to look an ex-girlfriend that I had a bad breakup with in the eyes.

There are also many other factors that go into whether an individual has an anxiety disorder such as genetics and past traumatic events. While we can’t change our evolution, there is hope. We currently live in a time of Mental Health Awareness where the stigma of having anxiety or depression is at an all time low. Going to therapy and taking medication for your anxiety is not only available to most people, but are no longer considered weak or embarrassing. Wherever you are in your life with your anxiety, there are options and people willing to help. And if it helps to blame your hunter and gatherer ancestors for your anxiety, more power to you.

Special thanks to Daniel Sullenberger, our guest author this week, for sharing his insight with us. Sullenberger is a Quality Specialist at a Plasma Collection Center

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Hofer MA. An evolutionary perspective on anxiety. In: Roose SP, Click RA, eds. Anxiety as Symptom and Signal. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press; 1995:17–38.

Price J. S. (2003). Evolutionary aspects of anxiety disorders. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 5(3), 223–236.