The Holy Trinity of Human Survival – Part 1 Anxiety
Anxiety, Anger and Depression – The Holy Trinity of Human Survival
Written by Graham McDowell – Mindfulness Coach, Solution Focused Hypnotherapist & Psychotherapist and Founder of Monkey Mind Ltd, a company that provides organisations and individuals with specialist resources to measure, understand and improve mental wellbeing.
In this three part series, I hope to make the case for why anxiety, anger and depression, ought to be considered as the holy trinity of human survival, instead of being exclusively spoken of as unwanted illnesses or disorders.
The words “I have terrible anxiety” or “I’ve got really bad anxiety” or some version of this, are heard across the nation each and every day and if you notice, we tend to speak about anxiety as if we have somehow ended up with something that we were not supposed to have, like ‘having’ a broken leg or ‘having’ cancer.
Outside of my work coaching groups in schools and businesses, I do around 750 one to one sessions per year and as I sit and write this, I am struggling to think of even a handful of occasions when anxiety wasn’t on the agenda, so out of our holy trinity it seems a good place to start.
But the reality is if your ancestors didn’t experience anxiety, you simply wouldn’t be here now. You would no longer exist, as your family line would have died out long ago because anxiety is in fact a vital survival mechanism, which we can explore by taking a moment to visit one of your direct ancestors.
There are websites now where you can trace your family tree back a couple of hundred years, but just imagine for a moment that you could trace your family line back 10,000 years to a specific ancestor wandering around a savannah or forest somewhere.
Remember it was a very dangerous environment back then with wild animals or neighbouring tribes that might attack you so if you were walking through a forest, all of your senses would be on high alert, getting you prepared to react instantly to any danger that might be waiting behind the next tree.
So, your ancestor hears a noise, see’s a shadow, smells something or senses something unconsciously and in a fraction of a second their limbic system reacts and releases a mixture of hormones to get their attention by making them ‘feel’ something and to jack them up so they’re ready to react to the threat or perceived threat.
Now I say perceived threat because remember, at this point we don’t actually know if it is in fact a threat, but one of the reasons that humans have survived so well as a species is because we are so good at avoiding danger and that’s because we are programmed through evolution to always predict the worst case scenario.
If your ancestor heard a twig snap, they wouldn’t think it was a branch snapping due to old age, they would think it was something getting ready to attack and the really important thing to understand is that your brain reacts in just the same way today as theirs did 10,000 years ago but we now have a name for it an we call it the stress response.
You see evolution takes a long time and our modern brains are very little different in terms of how this stress response operates and in fact the central part of our limbic system actually dates back millions of years to a reptilian brain that was designed to manage survival situations with a simple but effective fight or flight mode.
So, this amazing system enabled your ancestors to survive and they have passed it down to you virtually unchanged but take a moment now to reflect on the differences between their life and yours and how these differences can effect this primitive survival system.
The first thing to consider is what causes the stress response to trigger? Well one of the triggers can be new information because when your ancestor walked around places they new with familiar faces, sights and sounds they were fine. But when they experienced a new face, sight, sound or smell, the brain would have been on high alert just in case this new piece of information turned out to be a threat.
But obviously back then very little happened in terms of new information. You would have stayed in familiar places with known people and situations so there would have been relatively little to react to and the things that you did react to would have probably been genuinely life threatening situations.
So, fast forward to today, with the same survival mechanism, that reacts to and evaluates all new information in order to keep you safe and warn you of potential danger, with a default setting of predicting the worst case scenario and then consider how much new information your brain has to process each day, hour or minute.
Every new face, place, smell, sight and sound. Every letter, phone call, text or meeting. Travelling in cars, trains, boats and planes all provide an endless source of new information for your primitive survival mechanism to process and it will react to many of these new experiences in the same way as your ancestors brain reacted to a snapping twig.
So what we refer to as anxiety is simply our amazing brain and body doing precisely what it was programmed to do through millions of years of evolution, it’s getting your attention and letting you know that there ‘may’ be danger, in order to keep you safe.
However, as those that suffer from anxiety will know, it’s not just new information that this survival mechanism reacts to and that’s because it learns. For example, you walk into a supermarket one day, there are lots of people and noise and you feel trapped so your survival mechanism triggers and releases a mixture of neurotransmitters to get your attention and make you want to leave, all in order to keep you safe from a ‘perceived’ threat.
So, you leave and because you survived your system learns what worked, and effectively says “hey I’ve done a good job”. So next time you go to the same supermarket it’s going to do the same thing and because you survived it will do it even more and may then also do it at other supermarkets and that’s because it’s creating a template in your brain a bit like a computer programme that operates without your conscious control.
So again, there’s nothing wrong with the system it’s just that we haven’t read the user manual and learned how to operate it properly. You could think of it in terms of having a toaster and a smoke alarm in your kitchen. If the toast caught fire you would want your smoke alarm to go off in order to get your attention.
But, some peoples smoke alarms go off when they open the bread bin or as soon as they drop the bread into the toaster, but understand, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the bread or the toaster and the smoke alarm is just doing it’s job.
The only issue is that the smoke alarm is reacting to what ‘might’ happen instead of what ‘is’ happening. So in most cases of anxiety that I deal with, it’s simply a question of education coupled with applying this new knowledge in daily life, which over time, re-calibrates your smoke alarm to only go off when the toast’s on fire!
If this piece was of interest, please look out for the companion articles on Anger and Depression and also for the related article on The Stress Response, which explains that we suffer so much because we are the only species that can trigger the stress response through thought alone.