In today’s blog we’re going to talk about why for many people, anxiety can create huge feelings of fear, worry and stress that are much bigger than the actual anxiety provoking thing that they’re facing. Why do people with anxiety sometimes get all freaked out over things that for most other people are only small worries or problems.
But first of all, what is a Siberian Unicorn and what could it possibly have to do with anxiety? There were some news stories a few months ago about a creature that lived at the same time as modern humans that was basically a massive hairy rhinoceros.
Paleontologists know there have been 250 rhino species in the planet’s history, of which only five still exist today. Among the most amazing of these rhinos was Elasmotherium sibiricum aka the Siberian Unicorn. The Neanderthals and modern humans lived with and possibly even hunted this massive creature in Kazakhstan, western and central Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. It really must have been an impressive and deeply frightening sight for the people that had to face this creature in a hunt. Fossil evidence suggests the Elasmotherium was about 3 to 4 times the size of a modern rhinoceros, seven feet tall, weighed over 3.5 tons, covered in a thick heavy coat of hair like a mastodon, and sported a huge meter long horn! Can you just imagine having to leave your warm cozy cave to go out to get some take out and having to hunt this big horned monster. Even more interesting, is that this creature may have been the root of all of the unicorn myths!
We Were Eaten by Ginormous Bears!
And then once you’re out looking for a huge hairy and scary rhinoceros to kill; there were creatures like the Agriotherium, a species of Giant Bear looking to hunt and eat us! Agriotherium weighed about 2000 pounds, was 9 feet long and had massive bone crushing jaws that are thought to be the strongest of any carnivore on our planet ever.
Scary creatures indeed! But what do they have to do with anxiety? Well, simply put, our brains have actually evolved to deal with the threats from real and scary creatures like The Giant Bear. Our modern human brains have developed and adapted over the last 200,000 years to deal with huge scary environmental threats to our safety. In doing so, our brains have developed a system known as the “fight or flight system” that activates when we see or sense a threat from our environment.
The “fight or flight process” is a system designed to do exactly what it sounds like, prepare us to fight with, or flee from a threat in our environment.
When a threat occurs… like a Giant Bear trying to make us into a snack, our body is flooded with hormones like adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol. This reaction is designed to give a big boost to our perceptions, muscle reflexes, and physical abilities to improve our strength and speed in order to help us deal with the situation perceived as dangerous or threatening. It increases our heart rate, gets more blood to our muscles, gets more air into our lungs, and in general get’s us ready to deal with whatever threat is present. Your brain and body turns its full attention to survival in that particular threatening situation. The “fight or flight” response brings the body into a state of “red alert”.
There was a time in humankind’s past when the “fight or flight” response effectively protected our distant ancestors from such dangers as wild animals that could easily make a meal out of us or prepared us to war with other tribes that were encroaching on our tribes territory. Although we don’t ordinarily encounter or need to run from wild animals or warring enemy tribes today — sometimes our brain still operates in this very primitive way and reacts as if these dangers actually still exist today. The reason we still react in this way is because we’ve only been a “civilized” people for the last 5000 years give or take, compared to the 200,000 years of living where there were often real and legitimate threats, that would actually hunt and eat us. In a nutshell, anxiety kept us from being eaten and some people still have that “protective wiring” in their brains!
Anxiety and Modern Threats
Our brain has evolved to use worry, anxiety, and stress as an effective survival strategy. Anxiety is an emotion that helped protect humans from their surroundings that included monsters. It was built for solving short-term, immediate and scary monster problems.
Today though, the environmental threats that may cause us to go into the fight-flight or stress/anxiety response are less scary and hairy.
They are things like:
- a deadline for a project at work or school
- a demanding or even bullying co-worker or boss
- having too much to do in too little time
- a big fight with our spouse,
- a delayed flight and long wait in the airport
- a traffic jam making us late,
- perhaps even a colicky baby, a challenging toddler or a argumentative teenager
- or even someone cutting us off and then flipping us the bird on our drive to work
The stress response is designed to shut itself down when the actual threat from the environment passes and your body can then go back to a normal state. We see a Giant Bear, we run away, the threat ends and our body returns to a normal resting state. Today’s threats aren’t like that though, they are persistent and nagging in nature rather than immediate and short lived; and this can create ongoing worry and emotional stress that can trigger a host of health problems for us. This problem occurs when the stress response is triggered over and over again by all of the worries of modern life and this stress response causes the body’s sympathetic nervous system to release stress hormones such as norepinephrine, cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones can increase blood sugar levels and harmful triglycerides and they may even damage our brain and immune systems on the cellular level over the long term. Long term chronic stress can also make us more susceptible to mental health problems like depression. So having persistent ongoing worry and anxiety can have a very serious affect on our physical and mental health.
The anxiety reaction was a great system for human survival for our ancestors as it allowed them to deal with threats effectively and quickly. But in our modern society this chronic anxiety becomes a burden and may be an obstacle for many.
Anxiety As An Advantage
People who experience high levels of anxiety could possibly be seen as having an evolutionary advantage when the environmental threats were Giant Bears with bone crunching teeth. People with high levels of anxiety are likely carrying the genes of successful ancestors, in fact having a strong anxiety reaction is probably one of the very things that helped the human species thrive and survive.
Unfortunately in today’s world having high levels of anxiety can be a hindrance. An extreme anxiety reaction can harm our relationships, keep us from achieving our goals, keep us from experiencing all of life’s wonder and keep us from living a full life.
The problem with a brain that is genetically programmed to be overly sensitive to anxiety is that even though the threats may be real to some degree, an overactive, worrying brain exaggerates the actual level of threat. An over-reactive brain fools us into thinking there is a dire and immediate threat, the emotions and feelings appropriate to a giant bear — when in fact, the actual risk to our person may be minimal or something that is just an ordinary, daily problem of life.
We can see the anxious thinking as being caused by faulty brain wiring — our brain trying to protect us from bad things in our environment. Faulty wiring which takes small life stresses and worries, and exaggerates them into something bigger and more horrible, just in case they might be.
Luckily we can actually rewire our brain to slow and change the anxiety response process through some activities and strategies.
First of all things like physical exercise, meditation and relaxation exercises can help and here a few links to explore:
Here is some information on how to use physical exercise for anxiety: ADAA: Exercise for Stress and Anxiety
Here’s a great place to start exploring more about anxiety: www.anxietycanada.com
Finally if you’ve tried lots of different thing and your anxiety is still strong or is really affecting your life in negative ways; you may want to talk to therapist like myself who can help you find better ways to reduce and manage anxiety. Here’s a link to how therapy can help with anxiety: APA: Beyond Worry: How Psychologists Help With Anxiety Disorders
This blog is not intended as medical advice, treatment or diagnosis and should in no way replace consultation with a mental health or medical professional.
Melissa Bateson, Ben Brilot, Daniel Nettle, Anxiety: An Evolutionary Approach. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, Vol 56, No 12, December 2011 W 715
Price J. S. (2003). Evolutionary aspects of anxiety disorders. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 5(3), 223–236.
Bear Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay
Roar Image by Ian Lindsay from Pixabay
Scared Man Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay
Another anxiety blog. Looking “through a glass darkly”. A key strategy in reducing anxiety.