The Evolutionary Roots of Anxiety and its Implications for Socialization and Group Cohesion

Author(s): Jeffrey J Mermelstein

Attempts to explain the evolutionary basis of anxiety as a reasonable reaction or valuable over-reaction to actual physical danger do not do justice to the robustness, intensity and resiliency of anxiety as a ubiquitous dimension of human existence. This essay proposes an alternative explanation based upon a clearer distinction between fear and anxiety. Fear is an instinctive reaction to external dangers; anxiety is a more complex psychological reaction involving more advanced cognition. This article tells a story about the blossoming of fear into an almost universal human experience that was no longer simply a reaction to immediate physical danger. Previous stories have mostly focused on basic fear reactions and the adaptive value of a hypervigilant arousal response to real physical dangers in the environment. This article focuses on the time period, 30 to 70 thousand years ago, when human consciousness expanded to include significant room for complex social relatedness. Within this context, a more socially based anxiety with more complex cognition had significant adaptive value. More specifically, fear morphed into a multifaceted anxiety that was moldable, flexible, interpersonal and capable of shaping cognition. This anxiety contributed to group cohesion, group loyalty and a deep commitment to the group’s narrative. Fear as a reaction to actual physical dangers continued to exist, but now, Homo sapiens also experienced this more complex secondary emotion, anxiety, which had adaptive value in the survival and expansion of the population.

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