Anxiety Is a Psychological Smoke Detector
Make sure you change your batteries at least yearly.
Have you checked your smoke detectors lately? You need to put in new batteries at least once a year.
Smoke detectors serve a very important function. They provide an early warning system for potentially lethal house fires. No one wants to sleep soundly while a small fire turns into an inferno.
Therefore, the smoke detector is designed to pick up any hint of smoke. The assumption being, where there is smoke, there is fire.
According to estimates by the National Fire Protection Association and the U.S. Fire Administration, U.S. home usage of smoke alarms rose from less than 10% in 1975 to at least 95% in 2000, while the number of home fire deaths was cut nearly in half. Thus the home smoke alarm is credited as the greatest success story in fire safety in the last part of the 20th century, because it alone represented a highly effective fire safety technology with leverage on most of the fire death problem that went from only token usage to nearly universal usage in a remarkably short time.
However, smoke detectors may be overrated. Many people think the death rate was already trending down. They claim these results would have occurred with or without smoke detectors.
Secondly, smoke detectors frequently pick up "false alarms."
For example, when I am cooking too aggressively and the smoke from the skillet is rising!
FALSE ALARMS ARE ANNOYING...
There are many reasons a smoke detector sounds randomly. Here are 7 common factors contributing to a false alarm.
Fear: Fire Everywhere!
Among other things, evolutionary psychology helps explain the existence of emotions, moods, and psychological states in the context of natural selection.
What role did this emotion, and the related behavior, play in propagating the human species?
What was the evolutionary purpose for anxiety?
First off, its easy to see the primacy of fear in terms of survival.
If you wanted to live, fear was necessary. Fear was good.
A dangerous planet!
Homo Sapiens, or (anatomically) modern humans, have inhabited this planet for over 300,000 years; and for the overwhelming majority of that time this been a brutal existence.
Life was a matter of survival in its most basic form.
Finding food to eat, water to drink and shelter was a daily struggle. Avoiding death via predators, another tribe or disease was a singular focus. On any given day, death was likely.
Early Homo Sapiens were full of fear and trepidation.
The humans who were calm were eaten. The genes of fear were passed on; the genes of calm were selected out. We evolved in a manner preconditioned for fear.
Therefore, sounding the alarm in the face of any perceived threat was commonplace. There was no such thing as over-reacting.
Picture yourself hanging with your Homo Sapiens crew:
One dude says: "Hey man, my boy Uggie was Mammoth Stomped when he walked down that path 2 days ago. I say we run the other way."
The response is a unanimous: "Hell YES… let's get out of here."
Everyone runs as fast as they can. No one stops to investigate the situation.
No one says: "I don't know. I don't think that's rational thinking. Statistically speaking, we are unlikely to experience another Mammoth Stomping so soon…"
Even in more modern times, at least up until the 20th century, life was generally hazardous and short-lived. As the philosopher Thomas Hobbes put it: (when describing life in the 17th century):
"In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." (Hobbes, Leviathan)
Existence was not taken for granted.
Furthermore, our physical and psychological systems evolved for efficiency in order to conserve energy. Reacting without thinking was more practical than abstraction and deliberation. Automatic, subconscious processing became part of the surviving gene pool.
We are automatically cued and triggered. We are automatically on high alert. If we over-react, so be it. Better safe than sorry.
Anxiety: The psychological smoke alarm!
Anxiety, as we know it today, evolved out of these automatic fear responses. As time went on, the immediate dangers were not so obvious. Human beings began to tame the world. Threats became a bit harder to detect.
However, these threats were very real. The fire was still burning.
We needed a smoke detector to warn us as early as possible. Enter anxiety, worry, rumination, preoccupation, discomfort, fight or flight.
As the centuries rush by, the world does become safer (relatively speaking). Our anxiety system gets more refined. We need to look for different threats. For example, disease and infection becomes more immediate threats than getting eaten by a predator.
For the most part, however, we are fully engaged in survival mode. Physical threats, in the form of disease, violence, and starvation, are at the top of the list.
In this environment, there is no anxiety disorder. In this environment, there is no "over-reacting."
Conditions remain brutal until the late 19th century. It really isn't until the 20th century that human beings find relative safety.
As a matter of fact, the 20th century sees a dramatic improvement in living conditions. A good example is life expectancy in European countries:
Max Roser-Life Expectancy Soars In the 20th Century
An unprecedented era of safety!
An unprecedented era of safety!
Despite conventional wisdom and fear mongering human beings have entered into an unprecedented era of physical safety over the past 100 years. This is widely misunderstood for a variety of reasons. People believe the world to be a dangerous place.
However, when you consider the facts, it's easy to see the dramatic improvement in living conditions. Max Roser does an outstanding job addressing these issues. See link here for more information.
"In 2012 about 56 million people died throughout the world; 620,000 of them died due to human violence (war killed 120,000 people, and crime killed another 500,000). In contrast, 800,000 committed suicide, and 1.5 million died of diabetes. Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder."― Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow
This is clearly great news! I'm not likely to be attacked tonight, I can probably come up with food for dinner, disease and pestilence is not as big a threat. My demise is likely to come at my own hand rather than some foreign invader.
However, convincing your brain you are safe is a difficult task. From an evolutionary perspective, we are still the same vulnerable, fragile creatures.
Threats are everywhere. They just aren't physical threats.
The beast is now psychological in nature rather than physical. This isn't to say physical danger and threats are non-existent. However, the facts are physical harm is much less imminent.
It is important to understand that our alarm system is still looking for smoke.
The questions have shifted a bit:
Are we in danger of embarrassment, drop in social status, financial ruin, or betrayal?
Over-reaction and obsession with future problems takes the place of surveying the landscape for threat of violence.
On occasion, our psychological smoke alarm will sound when there is no real threat. Just as smoke alarm in the home is triggered by steam or smoke from cooking. You really aren't in danger. But the alarm goes off anyway.
When we experience these false alarms on a constant basis it becomes debilitating. Irritating. Frustrating.
Occasionally, a smoke detector in the home will beep incessantly and go off for no reason over and over. Usually this indicates a battery needs changed.
Sometimes there is no legitimate explanation for the false alarm.
You get up over and over and check it. This is a very unpleasant experience.
And this is analogous to unchecked anxiety.
We just need to find a way to replace our battery. So that we do not need to get up every 5 minutes to check the alarm.