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Anxiety: From Stone Age to Digital Age

Updated: Feb 3, 2023


Image by Wolfgang Eckert from Pixabay

Anxiety certainly seems to be very much one of the buzzwords of the day along with mental health. Google searches relating to this word have been at a record high in recent years. As a Samaritans volunteer, I’ve noticed it’s a word used frequently by callers to describe their suffering. And, aren't there plenty of things to be getting ourselves anxious about recently? Covid, energy prices, inflation, interest rates, social media, Brexit, global warming, political instability, national debt, artificial intelligence, war in Ukraine... Plus, we live in a time where all of this distressing information is being fed to us with increasing frequency. Within my living memory, I recall a time when most people either received their quota of news in print once a day, or watched the evening news on TV (again once a day). Some people may have just chosen to ignore it. Now with our rolling 24 hour news media and the (very recent) invention of the smartphone, we find ourselves in a strange situation where we are fed a diet of negative information about terrible events about which we can do very little. Media organisations know that bad news is the best way to grab our attention. And why is that? Why aren’t our minds captivated by nice, wholesome, positive news instead -stories about good deeds done or fluffy bunnies rather than another stateside mass-shooting, natural disaster or man-made apocalypse?


Look Behind You...

Image by Klaus Hausmann from Pixabay

A key fact to remember here is that 99% of all human history is the Stone Age. That’s an extraordinary claim and requires a moment of reflection for it just to sink in. And most of that period was the Paleolithic, which means that, for the vast majority of the time humans have been around, we were living in small groups as hunter-gatherers. And during that time there would have been plenty of predatory animals lurking and perhaps the odd neighbouring tribe weren’t too friendly either. Life was undoubtedly very harsh. Food was often scarce and had to be obtained with effort. There were plenty of ways to get hurt, maimed or killed and all this in a time with no insurance policies, no antibiotics, no NHS. You had to keep your wits about you. But, the Darwinian process of natural selection ensured that we evolved some pretty smart ways to deal with these dangers and keep us alive - primarily the autonomic nervous system. In short, the human mind evolved to be constantly scanning the environment for threats. And it was designed to err on the side of caution because vigilance led to an increased chance of survival. Once a threat was detected the human ‘fight or flight’ systems would kick in. In a fraction of a second an electro-chemical chain reaction triggers the release of hormones via the adrenal gland. This then creates a physiological response to enable us to be ready to either run or stand and engage in combat. These responses are familiar to anyone who has experienced fear with a thudding heart, shortness of breath, sweaty palms and fluttering stomach. This is our threat response, our sympathetic nervous system switching on to get us ready to run or fight: increased heart rate, raised blood pressure, heightened respiration and a sharpening of our attention – plus the shutting down of non-emergency systems such as digestion and reproduction.


Everything All of the Time

Image by ErikaWittlieb from Pixabay


Our early human hunter-gatherer’s mind was certainly laser-focused on detecting threats. But those threats would have been relatively short-lived and existed only within the immediate geographic vicinity. What was happening in the next valley was mostly unknown, let alone in other parts of the world. So, for our early humans, when the immediate threat had passed, there would be a period when the autonomic system could rest and return to stasis. How different this would have been to the chronic stresses of modern life, such as workload, commuting and deadlines. And our early human didn’t have TV, smartphones or social media. So here we are, living in that 1% since the Stone Age, a period of exponential technological innovation from simple levers to wheels to combustion engines to micro-processors and AI, all in the blink of an eye. But the human brain hasn’t been upgraded. Evolution is a slow process. Here we are in 2023, smartphones in hand, doomscrolling (great word!) ourselves into a lather of twitching, semi-masochistic apprehension, unable to switch off our threat response – this cognitive bias towards the detection of threat. The fight/flight stress response was only ever designed to be switched on for short-lived emergencies, but when switched on too often for too long, is it any wonder that anxiety is on the increase?


Nature/Nurture?

We all differ in the degree to which we are likely to experience anxiety. As with many personality traits, there may be a genetic component but these are often exacerbated by environmental factors. Personal experiences of trauma, abuse and violence can increase a person’s sensitivity to threat, as can health conditions or the use of drugs and alcohol. Some environmental factors may have led to some people’s anxieties to be focused around specific triggers, such as heights, dogs or flying. Sometimes our physiological or cognitive response to threat can, of itself, create a further anxiety response, leading to an escalating feedback loop sometimes experienced as a panic attack or Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). The body’s emergency response system gets jammed like a faulty boiler that we can’t turn off.


All In My Head?

Modern medicine accepts that there is no mind-body separation. Since the research of pioneers such as Hans Seyle in the 20th Century, it has become abundantly clear that too much anxiety is not good for us. It can take its toll on our physiology - our heart and vascular system, our digestion and our immune response. In short, too much anxiety makes us sick, chronically ill or can contribute to a premature death.


Recalibrate

image by Elisa from Pixabay


So, to summarise, the negative emotion of fear is an essential part of the human experience and it is something that our brain/body developed as a survival mechanism. This is possibly one reason that has led to your existence today. Let's be thankful that our ancestors escaped from enough predators to be able to pass their genes on to us. Great! But, in the modern world we have somehow created an environment where this fear switch can get stuck, leading to a grumbling sense of anxiety which can ruin our experience of existence. What can we do?


Well, we can choose to switch off our phones for some of the time. We can build strong relationships for emotional support and we can engage in activities that are meaningful for us. We can take up a regular practice of meditation. Some people find pharmaceutical (drug) therapies helpful. Modern psychological techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) allow individuals to work with a therapist to explore the relationship between cognitions (thoughts), emotions and behaviour, working to reframe thinking patterns and break negative cycles.


When CBT is combined with evidence-based techniques of clinical hypnotherapy, there is a body of research to show that this can be an even more powerful form of talking therapy. It can change behaviour, alter thinking patterns and recalibrate an over-stimulated nervous system.


Contact neil@focusedattention if you would like to explore how I could help you with issues relating to anxiety or just click on the button below.







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