Anxiety is an ancient emotion that can help us assess and respond to future risks to our safety and security, a basic human psychological need as Maslow taught us, in his hierarchy of needs.￼￼ ￼ Anxiety refers to a prolonged state of apprehension brought on by uncertainty about future threats. Past threats logged in our neural memories and unconscious can also influence our view of upcoming risk. As such, anxiety is a natural emotion and vital for survival.
In contrast to anxiety, fear is an acute or phasic response to an immediate and identifiable threat. Anxiety has apparently persisted over human history, indicating that it has an important evolutionary role. Simply put, the evolutionary advantage of anxiety could be that it leads individuals to take fewer risks, seek safety, and focus on doing things well. On the other hand, anxiety can limit the risk-taking that advances mental flexibility, growth, and adaptability.
Interestingly, across the data, anxiety has a curvilinear relationship with behavior. For example, if you are moderately anxious, it can spur action and involvement. However, once over the hump of the curve, when anxiety becomes excessive, it leads to destabilizing and even shutting down of behaviors that are productive.￼
There are certainly plenty of reasons to be anxious about the state of the nation: the coronavirus pandemic, the economy, climate instability, physician burnout, mental and medical health, ￼homeschooling, and racism, among other societal and personal psychosocial stressors. Some mental health professionals are calling 2020 the most challenging year they’ve ever seen.￼
Also, partisan political warfare, civil unrest, and terrifying conspiracy theories on TV, news media, and the internet. The actual polls confirm intuition: we are a nervous nation. In May 2020, the US Census Bureau found major depressive disorder at the highest level since they recorded statistics. ￼Earlier this year, my professional organization, the American Psychological Association, conducted a “Stress in America” survey, in which they found more than half (about 56%) respondents identified the 2020 election as a significant stressor. At the end of June, the Centers for Disease Control reported that the highest rising levels of anxiety were among young adults, as well as black and Latinx people of all ages.
The physical and psychological symptoms of anxiety, such as feeling tense or having trouble concentrating, can be so uncomfortable that they cause behavioral changes. Fight or flight stress responses range from avoidance to aggression, as well as self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. One can also have anxiety about one’s very existence and the purpose of one’s life. That is called existential anxiety disorders, as coined by the psychologist, Irvin Yalom.
In terms of evolutionary psychology, anxiety helps us survive. We look for threats. One way that anxiety can do this is to organize our cognitive functions quickly in response to danger. ￼Another body of research indicates that isolation induces anxiety. For most of us, being with community helps alleviate anxiety.￼ we need people. ￼What else helps? Keeping to routines and schedules, self-care, engaged ￼participation, and hope through improved mental well-being. And, when needed, seeking mental health professionals. ￼