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The adaptive nature of anxiety

Let’s think about what it would have been like to be a cave person in order to understand the evolutionary utility of the anxiety response. 

You and me, cave people, are sitting next to each around a fire, discussing our recent drawings on our cave. The fire is warm and the conversation is calm, yet engaging. The feeling we both have is one of calm and ease. 

Suddenly, there’s a loud sound just 20 yards away! 

Both of our limbic systems immediately respond. Our hearts start pumping, our blood pressure increases, our pupils dilate, we stop digesting. Sweating, we’re now ready for action. These physiological sensations occur before we’re thinking and as our minds catch up, both due to the noise and due to the increase physiological sensations, our minds start generating all kinds of catastrophic possibilities. 

“Is it a tiger? Is it a bear? Where are our children and are they safe?” 

We’re both on our feet, starting to search for the source of the noise and prepare to take action or run away depending on the threat. 

Step out of this imaginary scene for a second… what do you think about the response you and me, as cave people, just had? Was it silly, stupid, or shameful? Even if there is no threat coming, would you judge us as foolish and irrational? Or, do you think that the sensations, thoughts, and urge to behave were all understandable reactions, even highly adaptive reactions? 

Back to the scene… 

As we start to search around, it turns out that our friend made the sound. She dropped a pot on a stone and it made a loud sound. 

When we hear this news from our friend, we’re so relieved. Our hearts stop racing, our blood pressure starts to go down, our pupils and digestive systems go back to normal, and we stop sweating. The thoughts about tigers, bears, and our children pass by and we no longer have the urge to search for danger. We go back to the fire and our conversation and enjoy the evening. 

This is an example of our effective fear circuitry in action. Just like we didn’t force ourselves to have the sensations, thoughts, and behavioral urges associated with fear, we didn’t force ourselves to stop having that experience. When we were certain that we weren’t in danger, our fear system relaxed for us. There were so many threats in every day life for the early human that our species would not have survived if it relied on us to be responsible for turning fear on and off. 

How does this relate to modern difficulties with anxiety? 

Imagine if you and me, as cave people, heard the loud noise, had a fear response, but then never got certainty that it was our friend that made the sound, not a tiger or a bear. A normal, healthy, and adaptive mind might continue to have catastrophic thoughts and urges search for the source of the threat. 

The modern equivalent is occurring when an individual struggles with anxiety. Our minds are so intelligent at this point that the possibilities we can imagine for what will happen in the future, for good or for bad, are endless. And life is filled with endless uncertainty. If we imagine it, we can fear it. 

As modern humans, given that most of the time that our fear is triggered we will not actively be in danger and we will not be able to get immediate certainty, we must intentionally practice new ways to respond to our minds. Acceptance-based cognitive behavioral methods offer a set of learnable skills that help us cope effectively with the inevitable uncertainty inherent in human life.