Anxiety is something that I have been helping people manage for over a decade, I have even written a book on it and created a helpful journal. Most of the time, when we discuss anxiety we focus upon its harmful impact upon our life. However, understanding the evolutionary basis of anxiety can shed light on its role in motivating behaviour and its potential benefits.
A piece of advice I regularly share with clients is that "Not all anxiety is bad". That's not to diminish your experience of anxiety, but it is sometimes helpful to identify the reason we feel anxious, to help manage anxiety and understand the potential benefits of feeling it.
1. Heightened Awareness
Anxiety is not a modern phenomenon; it has deep evolutionary roots. Our ancestors relied on anxiety to survive in a world filled with physical dangers. This heightened state of awareness made them more attuned to their surroundings, enabling them to detect threats quickly. Today, this aspect of anxiety can still serve a beneficial purpose. It makes you more vigilant and prepares you to react to potential dangers. Whether you're navigating busy streets or assessing risks in your environment, anxiety helps keep you safe by enhancing your sensory perception and attention to detail.
2. Motivation and Preparation
Anxiety also plays a critical role in motivation and preparation. The discomfort it brings can be a powerful motivator, pushing you to prepare more thoroughly for upcoming challenges. For instance, anxiety about an upcoming exam or presentation can encourage you to study harder or prepare more meticulously, ultimately improving your performance. This kind of anxiety acts as a signal, indicating that something important is at stake and that you need to take action to ensure a positive outcome. By driving you to take necessary precautions and prepare adequately, anxiety helps you achieve goals and face challenges more effectively.
3. Encouraging Social Cohesion
From an evolutionary perspective, anxiety has been crucial in maintaining social cohesion. Our ancestors needed to cooperate and maintain strong social bonds to survive. Anxiety about fitting in or being accepted by the group encouraged behaviours that strengthened social ties, such as empathy, communication, and collaboration. Today, while the fear of social rejection can be stressful, it also motivates us to be more attentive and considerate in our social interactions. By fostering a sense of empathy and understanding, anxiety can lead to deeper, more meaningful relationships.
When Anxiety Becomes a Problem
Whilst we can see some benefits for feeling anxious, this of course is not everybody's experience. Persistent anxiety can be incredibly debilitating, so how do you know when anxiety has moved beyond helpful and is a problem?
Anxiety becomes a problem when it is disproportionate to the situation, persists even when the stressor is gone, or interferes with your ability to function in daily life. Symptoms can range from constant worry and restlessness to physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, and difficulty sleeping.
If you find that anxiety is overwhelming, persistent, and impacting your quality of life, it may be time to seek help. Effective treatments, including therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes, can help manage anxiety. Remember, seeking help is a sign of strength and the first step towards regaining control of your life.
Understanding the evolutionary basis and beneficial aspects of anxiety can change how we perceive this common emotion. While it has its downsides, recognising the ways anxiety helps us can lead to a more balanced and compassionate approach to managing it. However, it's crucial to remain vigilant about the line between helpful anxiety and harmful anxiety. By acknowledging when anxiety becomes overwhelming and seeking appropriate help, you can ensure that this ancient survival mechanism works for you, not against you.