Anxiety Isn’t a Bad Word

Last year, I had the chance to visit an exhibition at the Museum of Science in Boston called the Hall of Human Life. The exhibit explored various aspects of human life and behaviour through the lenses of anatomical, evolutionary and environmental changes. There were five areas of focus: physical forces, community, food, organisms and time. Essentially, the interactive exhibits encouraged visitors to measure their own physical and biological characteristics and consider how our bodies and behaviours have evolved or adapted to our changing environments. Naturally, I was drawn to the discussions around communities and particularly how economics, religion, politics, food and transportation have impacted our family behaviour and how we live together in societies. 


When you think about it, it was not too long ago that it would have been unusual for people to move away from their families of origin. Families tended to remain in communities for generations. Food was prepared, eaten, and even grown or hunted within the family unit. Family members had very specific roles to fulfil, generally determined by age, gender, and status in the family.    


As we have become more mobile, thanks to advancements in transportation, our social experiences have become more reflective of our personal, political or religious beliefs than an extension of our family’s values. And a person must be able to figure out who is a friend and who is a foe in order to survive and be successful in any social group. I suspect this was easier to manage when living in communities that were smaller and more familiar. None of this is to suggest that our evolution hasn’t been beneficial in many ways but to perhaps offer some understanding that our bodies may have been biologically wired to behave in ways that may conflict with our current environmental and social influences.


One of the ways that this may present itself in our current communities is the increased presentation of anxiety. Anxiety actually plays a very protective role in our survival as human beings. Anxiety alerts us to potential dangers and draws out our instinct towards “fight or flight” which likely kept our species alive in our earliest days of civilization. However, when anxious feelings get activated, without the presence of a perceived threat, it can be distressing, overwhelming and exhausting. Is it possible that our anxious responses, originally meant to be protective and essential to our survival are now responding to a different kind of “threat” which has been influenced by our changing communities? Could the “threats” that we are more likely to experience today reflect the abundance of decisions, people, choices, expectations and perceptions of success that constantly impacts our thoughts and decisions? Perhaps it was easier when the biggest threat to our survival was a known predator!


In managing anxious thoughts, we generally have to find ways to provide some reassurance that the perceived threat is no longer present and we have an opportunity to restore or return to our natural state. This is often achieved by activities that provide grounding, or awareness, to our current surroundings and is facilitated by activities that promote calmness and relaxation. As we are not always aware of what activates our “fight or flight” response, we may need to incorporate more ways to regulate our nervous systems to adapt to cues of safety in order to change our automatic responses.

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