Feeling anxious? It’s all the caveman’s fault

Anxiety is a fairly unpleasant emotion that is sadly very normal with all of us suffering from it at one point or another to varying degrees.

Anxiety is a fairly unpleasant emotion that is sadly very normal with all of us suffering from it at one point or another to varying degrees. It’s that sickening, stomach churning, extreme sense of worry that, if serious enough, can pervade our every waking moment and interfere with our daily lives. 

It takes many forms, exam nerves, money worries, phobias, obsessive compulsive behaviour and even PTSD are all types of anxiety disorders. 

It can cause changes in behaviour, such as avoiding certain situations, irritability and difficulty concentrating and physical symptoms such as tiredness, headaches and nausea. But why do we suffer from it?  What’s the point of this, at its worst, utterly debilitating emotion?

Recent research by French scientists has shown that even crayfish can suffer from a form of this emotion.  If stressed enough, crayfish have been shown to exhibit the avoidant behaviour we associate with anxiety and have raised levels of serotonin, the chemical produced by the brain to counter it. 

Furthermore, when given a dose of anti-anxiety drugs, the crayfish stopped their avoidant behaviour which adds credence to the theory they were experiencing some form of anxiety.  As we tend to think of sea life at the lower end of the IQ scale, and not generally capable of emotion, this is a bit of revelation.

The role

So given that we now have evidence that implies this emotion is species wide, what is the purpose of it? Why would we need this pointless and draining emotion? The simple answer is, it’s a survival tool that kept our ancestors alive and that we haven’t yet, and may never, evolve out of it.

Although not so much now, throughout history humanity, like every other species, has faced daily threats to its survival, be it from illness, predators or natural disasters and anxiety kept our ancestors safe by making them avoid situations where they might encounter these threats. But how does this relate to anxiety in the far safer modern world? 

To answer this, you need to think like a caveman. For example, if you take the modern day anxiety over needles, it actually makes very little sense.  Yes they hurt a little, but no worse than having a plaster ripped off, yet people do all they can to avoid blood tests and injections.  We know the procedure is safe, the needles are sterile, the staff are trained and it’s something that’s happened millions of times over the years, so why the fear and anxiety? 

It makes no sense in the modern world. However, in the prehistoric, with no antibiotics, if bacteria entered the bloodstream, even the tiniest cut could kill. So while our rational minds know there is no threat to our health, the little part of our brain that hasn’t evolved past being a caveman (or woman!) will still process the threat of even the tiny pin prick injury of a needle as potentially life threatening.  

Once you start to think about it in those terms, other anxieties begin to make sense.  For example, why would anyone be scared of the dark? 

A different view

We have secure homes and electricity so we can have light in an instant if we need it.  But in terms of our ancestors, for whom darkness increased the risk of being eaten by predators and made something as simple as walking around dangerous (the chance of suffering a fatal injury from a fall is much higher when you can’t see where you are going and don’t have modern medicine to fix you) it suddenly makes perfect sense.  Essentially all anxieties relate back to a fear of death, needles mean infection and death, darkness means being eaten or injury and death, even modern day anxieties relate back to this primordial fear. 

For example, the modern anxiety over not having enough money can be related back to a caveman type fear of not being able to provide food and shelter for ourselves and our family and so death from predators or starvation.  Social anxiety relates back to the need to be accepted by our peers and to be part of a group.  Cavemen lived in tribes who could defend each other against predators and hunt for food for one another, a single person not part of a tribe was far less likely to survive.

So to put it simply, we have anxiety to keep us safe. Our brains still carry the baggage of our ancestors’ emotions and survival mechanisms, so sometimes this anxiety gets a little misdirected. There are a multitude of situations we are exposed to, that on the face of it seem innocuous enough and anxiety over them seems senseless, but if you put your caveman head on, they don’t seem quite so ridiculous after all!

What do you think? Have your say in the comments section below.