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The Evolution of Anxiety

Meet It, Then Beat It

When was the last time you had spun a web of thoughts that drove you in a state of (at least mild) panic?

Anxiety has never been talked about as much as it is today, and it has never been as commonplace. And mind you, we’re not talking about the severe end of the anxiety spectrum – disorders which present clinical conditions, although their growing presence in the US alone could be a topic of its own. We’ll be focusing in this article on the feelings of uncertainty, worry, and exhausting anticipation of the future, which are present in variable degrees in, well, each and every one of us. Anxiety has in many ways become a part of the global culture and there’s no debate as to whether the modern lifestyle is to blame – it is.

But while anxiety, going hand-in-hand with stress, has become an ailment of the modern lifestyle, it has been an inherent part of the human condition ever since humans existed. However, our internal mechanisms of inducing panic have fallen off track with our environment, and there’s a biological reason for that.

How our environment has changed

Since we’re looking into how anxiety has evolved along with humans, let’s look at how our environment has changed from an anthropological point of view.

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Researching hunting and gathering societies, anthropologist James Woodburn classified societies into two major categories: those with immediate return systems and those with delayed return systems. This entails two different environments.

The Immediate Return Environment

In an Immediate Return Environment, the actions of an individual bring about immediate benefits. Everything that prehistoric humans did was oriented at the present, as a result of following their instincts to survive: avoiding predators, finding shelter when they need it, reproducing, hunting and gathering to survive. For the sole purpose of completing these tasks, they made tools and weapons that didn’t require a lot of labor.

The human brain evolved in this type of environment to use anxiety to protect humans from danger and starvation, compelling them to solve all the short-term problems they were faced with. The feelings of stress and anxiety were relieved as each problem was solved.

The Delayed Return Environment

The actions you take in a Delayed Return Environment are not directed at an immediate benefit, but with future reward in mind. Just look at the way we live today:

Each day we work, we’re putting in the effort to get a reward in the future: a paycheck at the end of the week/month/project.

We study in order to obtain a degree in years.

We save money so we can invest it or enjoy spending it later.

We choose healthy foods and exercise knowing that it won’t make us fit immediately, but in the future and only if we maintain a regimen, and so on.

You can find millions of other examples as to how our society is directed at the future – in fact, we pride ourselves as a society in looking ahead and preparing for whatever may come accordingly.

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Naturally, we didn’t shift to this kind of environment overnight. As humans evolved, they adopted more characteristics of delayed return societies, making elaborate weapons, processing and storing food for future use, etc. But the modern environment presents a very abrupt change when you look at it from the perspective of evolution.

What this means for us

Quite simply, the Delayed Return Environment easily induces chronic stress and anxiety in humans because our brains are programmed to value immediate returns and face acute stressors. You see, we spent hundreds of thousands of years evolving for the Immediate Return Environment. The modern society is just a tiny speck in time compared to the thousands of years of the brain evolving to work in a certain way.

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With technology, our environment is changing much faster than in previous eras, but our brains cannot possibly change their hardwiring in such a short period of time. Most of the problems we face daily are also directed at the future, and we can rarely solve them immediately. When faced with a stressor, the brain still responds with anxiety in order to help you evade what it perceives as a threat – but as you cannot get immediate solutions or be certain if your actions will provide a benefit, the anxiety does not subside.

What can we do?

So the question is – how do we reconcile the way our brains work with the problems of the Delayed Return Environment?

First things first: we need to deal with the built-up chronic stress through small lifestyle changes. Many of us have excess levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) as a result of this fast-paced environment, so adjusting our diet, sleeping habits, and exercising more is the first step to balancing these hormones. Additionally, supplementing with a cortisol blocker packed with adaptogens can help as fast-acting stress support; as the name suggests, adaptogens are natural substances which help the body regulate homeostasis and adapt to its environment, most notably when it comes to stress. Of course, practices such as meditation can help us regain emotional balance and realign our thoughts; meditation takes time to perfect, but it’s worth it (there we go, delayed return all over again).

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Now, how do we outsmart our brain to deal with stress? Here we need to keep in mind: the brain values immediate return and seeks acute problems to solve. To take advantage of this, we need to adapt our problems. This is the reason that the key to success, in the long run, is focusing on short-term goals and tasks. So instead of focusing on the wider problem which you can’t solve at the moment, worry about the immediate step you need to take that will help solve it in the long run. Baby steps – they do a lot for relieving anxiety. For example, when we’re faced with a big scary project and pressing deadlines, we approach it in segments, pushing through as we solve each problem individually.

This type of approach is also helpful because it helps us deal with all the uncertainty that the modern environment imposes on us. By constantly focusing on problems we can solve immediately we can measure our contribution to the bigger picture to relieve us from the uncertainty – measure how much you save each month rather than thinking about how much money you’ll have in the future, take note of what you’ve completed at work today, pencil in how much exercise you got this week, etc.

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Hopefully, by reflecting on the way the brain works and acknowledging how it puts anxiety in motion, we can use these mechanisms to our advantage. The Delayed Return Environment presents a challenge for humans, but there is a way to reconcile the age-old hardwiring of the brain with this environment that presents itself as threatening. Imagine a society of humans whose brain has evolved to inherently value delayed return – that would be beyond fascinating, and it might happen in thousands of years. But even then, anxiety will still have a place among emotions, to protect and to compel humans to act. 

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