The Evolutionary Psychology of Anxiety

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The following is a brief overview of some recent theories on evolution and anxietyEvolutionary psychology is a growing field that is attempting to better understand the adaptive function of specific psychological traits. Some of this work is in understanding emotions and the development of our emotional processes. 

Anxiety and Fear

Fear is the complex reaction to a clear and present danger whereas anxiety is a response to an unknown or anticipated threat. If you think about how your body feels when you are anxious compared to when you would consider yourself fearful, you may notice a lot of similarities. But the anxiety experience may be slightly less intense.

Consider anxiety as a way your body is alerting you to some sort of fear of the future, failure, or embarrassment.

Evolutionary Psychology

The basics of evolutionary psychology are that we all have two basic evolutionary tasks: survival and reproduction. Over thousands of years, most of our experience can now be understood as having some sort of “evolutionary advantage,” meaning that having these traits (even higher anxiety) helped us survive and/or reproduce successfully.

Evolution and Emotions

One of the major theories on the function of emotions is that they evolved to quickly organize aspects of our environmental responses. For example, if we encounter an angry tiger, we become fearful. The experience of fear sharpens our senses, quickens our thinking, activates our fight-or-flight response, and does a variety of other things. Therefore, we don’t have to consciously get ourselves to notice the danger of the tiger. We are instantly prepared to deal with it. People who were able to do this better clearly had an advantage in survival and reproduction.

The same principle can be applied to anxiety. Obviously, anxiety and fear are linked, so the organizing power of anxiety is important. Additionally, the evolutionary advantage of anxiety specifically could be that worrying about danger forces people to take fewer risks, seek safety, and focus on doing things well. Clearly, this could potentially help the basic evolutionary tasks. 

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

People with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) could have a predisposition to experience greater levels of anxiety that in previous times of human history were advantageous.

Essentially, GAD can be seen as an over-reaction of a basic evolutionary fear response in modern society.

As modern society has created a place for more people to be evolutionarily successful, there are less acute threats, and more chronic and uncertain ones. Seeking treatment for GAD can certainly be helpful, and it may useful to know that you are likely carrying the genes of your ancestors who found some advantage in them that allowed you to be here today.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Bateson M, Brilot B, Nettle D. Anxiety: an evolutionary approachCan J Psychiatry. 2011;56(12):707–715. doi:10.1177/070674371105601202

  3. Willers LE, Vulink NC, Denys D, Stein DJ. The origin of anxiety disorders - an evolutionary approachMod Trends Pharmacopsychiatry. 2013;29:16–23. doi:10.1159/000351919

  4. Shin LM, Liberzon I. The neurocircuitry of fear, stress, and anxiety disordersNeuropsychopharmacology. 2010;35(1):169–191. doi:10.1038/npp.2009.83

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