An Evolutionary Explanation of Anxiety 

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Right now, more than 28% of Americans reported experiencing anxiety symptoms more than half the day, more days than not (National Center for Health Statistics. U.S. Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey, 2020–2023. Anxiety and Depression). That is a lot of anxiety; so why is this? 

One tiny piece of a holistic explanation may resonate with you and normalize the experience of anxiety. One reason is that our brains are predisposed to anxiety. In other words, we have a greater and more natural tendency to think negatively than we do to think positively. 

How could this be? Wouldn’t it make more sense for human beings to be innately optimistic? To default to positivity? Let’s look back to the early days of our species’ development. Everything in our environment was unknown, so potentially dangerous. If we did not perceive these things as such, our species would have been far less likely to survive. 

The main part of the brain that was (and still is) responsible for identifying potential threats is called the Amygdala. This part of the brain is located near the base of the brainstem and is considered one of the oldest and most primitive parts of the brain, its sole purpose is to keep us alive long enough to reproduce. Without a healthy and functional Amygdala, we would not experience fear and we would not avoid trouble. 

So now, fast forward to the present day; our brains and our societies have evolved, and not everything in the world is unknown, dangerous or threatening. Unfortunately, our Amygdala does not understand these advancements and does not see it this way. Its mission remains unchanged. It still scans our environment constantly in order to determine any potential dangers or threats. So, whenever you experience anxiety symptoms, you can thank your Amygdala for trying to keep you safe. 

Of course, anxiety symptoms can be very distressing and unpleasant. My takeaway is that anxiety symptoms are natural and normal, if sometimes over-active. There is nothing wrong with you if you experience anxiety symptoms. And just like how your Amygdala learned to protect you and the ancestors, your Amygdala can learn to use discretion. You are capable of re-training your brain to think more positively than negatively, and therapy can help with that. If you are not already engaged in therapy, I would encourage you to consider it and see for yourself what you can learn and what you can achieve! 

March 2023 – Alex DeFelice, LMHC