In today’s world, we hear about anxiety in a negative light: people having panic attacks, people suffering from social anxiety to the point they can barely leave their homes, relationship anxiety causing turmoil between one person and another, and anxiety in the form of stress and worry about little everyday things even when panic attacks don’t surface.
And yet we seldom talk about why so many of us have anxiety, and I think it’s important. Anxiety isn’t a bad guy. It isn’t here to rob you of joy or keep you from doing what you love or what’s best for you. It isn’t here to make your health worse or put you in fear of dying or losing control in the midst of a panic attack.
For many years, anxiety was humanity’s protector. And for many years, anxiety had a much different relationship with our ancestors. Anxiety was what kept us alive and safe. It protected us from both physical and emotional pain.
That’s one of the theories, anyway, but one I’ve come across again and again in my own research into the nature of anxiety. The theory goes like this: long ago, when humanity faced many more life-and-death scenarios than we do today, anxiety was our signal something dangerous might be approaching. This could be a wild animal, a rainstorm, a change in the landscape, other hostile tribes or people groups, poisonous bugs, or treacherous terrain. In those days, our minds were always searching for danger, because danger was everywhere, and danger was deadly. There was no grace for making a mistake, and life was uncertain. Doctors then did not have much skill aside from herbs and basic knowledge of how to treat wounds. Humans dealt with changing weather and environment and lived in structures that might or might not protect them from either of those.
Anxiety was a hero. It alerted people to a slight movement in the bushes that could signal a wild predator, a shift in tone that could lead to an aggressive assault, a change in terrain up ahead, or a violent storm approaching. Humanity was poised always to be on the lookout for danger, always to stand on guard. Our minds were like skilled ninjas, reveling in their ability to flesh out danger and respond to it.
And, because the danger was actually threatening, these humans were able to act on their anxiety by fighting, running, freezing, or devising new plans or means of defense. There was a release for the anxiety.
Okay, okay, so I’m adding my own thoughts to the theory, but I think it’s a helpful way to understand anxiety. And it makes sense when we look at our modern brains. We’ve evolved so much, but our brains (or at least parts of our brains) appear to evolve more slowly. Anxiety continues to try to champion our survival . . . but there is no danger to protect us from anymore.
Because there’s no danger and because anxiety must still complete it’s mission (or so it believes), it latches onto anything that *might* be dangerous and reacts as if it *is* life-or-death dangerous because there are no real threats to watch out for. As a result, it latches onto the next or more immediate “threat.”
And this explains a lot. For example, how many of us are uncomfortable with transitions? We feel unsettled moving to a new place, entering a new relationship, or starting a new job. Some of us feel unsettled outside our own homes.
How could that possibly be beneficial? Think about it this way. If you know your environment super well, you can more easily spot any change to that environment that may be dangerous. These little cues are something that someone knew to the environment may not label as abnormal because they don’t yet know what normal for that environment is. But you know, and your brain feels safer defending a territory it already knows than fighting when it doesn’t even understand the terrain.
Anxiety was designed to keep you safe and help you survive. But now not only does it alert when there’s no real threat, but because there’s no real threat that warrants a response, the anxiety isn’t released. So it piles up and up and up until we release it via panic attacks, seclusion, excessive worrying, etc.
The first step to overcoming this is understanding anxiety is there to help you. It’s not an enemy. It’s an old friend.
The second step is redirecting your brain. I’ve found following my passions and remaining creative keeps most of the anxious portion of my brain absorbed and offers a release for all our energy. I wonder sometimes if the creative mind is the opposite side of the coin of the anxious mind.
Redirecting is not a simple process and can take a lot of work, time, and outside assistance. That’s perfectly okay! We’re asking our brain to go against instinct and techniques it has used for years, and that feels scary. And that’s okay, too.
Hopefully seeing anxiety as an ally rather than an enemy helps you navigate the shift in mindset many of us are currently undergoing. Having anxiety is so common, and maybe this post helps you understand why we’re experiencing so much of it as we try to ask our very own minds and instincts to change with our exterior circumstances and deepest internal goals.
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