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Our Primitive Anxious Brain

Updated: Oct 5, 2021

It's doing exactly what it evolved to do...

Anxiety could be defined in many ways but to put it simply, it’s a fear that something bad could happen. We are never anxious about anything happening right now, it’s always about the prospect of something happening, and even though it’s a made-up thought, the impact it has on what we decide to do next, is massive.

To get a real understanding of this product of the mind, we need to go back around 1.5 million years. It was during this time when the earliest humans began walking the earth to play a pivotal part in the development of our brain. Much of the brain we know and understand now, just didn’t exist then. The cerebral cortex was a baby, which meant human language, abstract thought, perception, logic and even conscious memory were a distant dream and beyond the comprehension of most cave dwellers. If you ever want to get a sense of this, simply observe someone who is incredibly drunk. Alcohol depresses the behavioural inhibitory centers in the cerebral cortex which are made up of these functions. Basically, that bit we’d rely on to say “that’s not a good idea”.

So, our seemingly drunk (yet well co-ordinated and very athletic) club wielding ancestors had little to go off when it came to acting in a way that was conducive to survival. This isn’t a great combination when you live on the plains of the Savannah surrounded by hungry predators, infection, disease and famine. Natural selection did its job for many years killing off anyone who couldn’t make snap lifesaving decisions in the absence of critical conscious thought. We relied almost entirely on one of our most primitive cognitive functions, fight, flight or freeze. Fortunately, our limbic system, or emotional center, was firing on all cylinders, so the most effective way our brain could keep us out of danger was through a rush of behaviour affecting chemicals. Ladies and gents, meet adrenaline and cortisol. Love them and hate them, their effect can be both euphoric and horrific. Whatever the sensation, one thing is for sure, a big dose will force lightning action.

So, at this point, we’ve got a brain which is trying to protect you from constant threat, it’s not yet smart enough to make complex variable decisions but it can shock you with a clear message if it gets a mere whiff of danger. All it needs now is conditioning. Those who had a brain which learnt to fear the unknown had a much better chance of survival and over time we got better at this. Later we developed an ability to foresee and project outcomes, consider possible eventualities. Again, those who did this in a more risk averse way, had a better chance of survival. If you chose to ignore a rustle in the trees assuming it to be wind and it turned out to be a Saber-toothed Tiger, you’re probably not making it home for tea. If, however that movement created a feeling of anxiousness, whatever the cause, whether it be wind or a predator, you are much more likely to get out of that situation alive. We have become hard wired to recognise that it’s better to be safe than sorry and much of that part of our brain has remained unchanged since that primitive way of life. Today’s world presents a different set of threats and although we are not completely safe from physical dangers, there are certainly fewer and definitely no Saber-toothed Tigers running around.

The most significant shift in our identification of danger has been in the generalisation of emotional threats. These are things that may have once put us at serious risk but nowadays don’t. Our need to belong to a social group derives from our tribal ancestry. Surviving alone in East Africa 500,000 years ago would’ve been near impossible, so it was essential to be part of a group. Being outcast from that group was a genuine life or death risk, thus it became important to us to be integrated, liked, ‘fit in’ and be accepted. This is where social anxiety was born, a fear of other people’s opinion, of judgement, of rejection.

I think we can all agree that anxiety is normal, and actually a sign that your brain is working in exactly the way it should in order to keep you safe from physical and emotional threats. This brings us to a more relevant question – Why does it affect some people more than others? The answer to that is based on how you have learnt to manage it. Now, there is no denying that our genes play a part at the beginning, some people are just more predisposed to worry. There comes a point however, where anxiety crosses a line, where it just isn’t normal anymore. Anxiety should make us aware of danger, but not so we are living in fear. It’s difficult to set a standard which separates what it and isn’t normal but it’s fair to say that if you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety more often than not, it is consuming you more than it should.

Over the course of our lives, we have been learning lessons at an unconscious level which inform us on how we should deal with things in the future. If we learn a lesson enough times, our response to it becomes a habit and the more we do a habit, the better and more efficient we are at it. Older people are often portrayed as being ‘stuck in their ways’ when in fact they have just had longer to get better at bad habits. Anxiety is a coping mechanism that has habitual qualities. If you have ever found yourself anxious at the prospect of going out to a social event where you didn’t know many people, that’s your brains way or warning you there is some kind of risk here. Perhaps the risk of you standing by yourself and others thinking you are alone or maybe the risk of saying something stupid and being thought of as odd. The fact is – it doesn’t have to be reality; it just has to be a thought.

Your unconscious mind is only ever trying to drive you towards pleasure and away from pain so the very prospect of any of that negativity seems like something you should avoid. If the anxiety is strong enough, you will probably decide not to go and make your apologies. As soon as you are no longer committed or obligated to go, the feelings go away. Anxiety wins! Before long you become well versed in a range of ‘get out’ excuses. What follows are your subsequent justifications which go some way to validating your actions, “I probably wouldn’t get on with many people there anyway…”.

So, what can we do about it? The first thing we can do is accept that anxiety is something we do, not who we are. Our primative brain told to us stay away from danger but our experiences in life have conditioned the definition of danger. These are simple connections that are reinforced every time you accept them as true. The key to overcoming it, lies in breaking the connection and changing the habit. Easier said than done though ey?

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