Why We Feel Anxious

Anxiety is not what we want, but it’s what we need.
By Noam Shpancer Ph.D.

You often hear it stated that ours is the age of anxiety. Indeed, the data appear to back this up. Anxiety problems are the most commonly diagnosed class of psychological disorders.

But what is anxiety? Unlike fear, which involves the perception of imminent unambiguous danger and the mobilization of immediate action, anxiety is a persistent apprehension regarding potential future threats. While fear is associated with an immediate "fight or flight" response that produces terror, anxiety provokes a “stop, look and listen” response and produces anticipatory worry. In other words, anxiety is what you feel on the night before the big battle. Fear is what you feel during battle.

Why do we get anxious? Evidence from evolutionary psychology suggests that the capacity to experience anxiety is a selected species-wide adaptation serving to alert and protect us from various environmental threats. Particularly, anxiety functions to alert us to threats to our reproductive chances. Thus, the anxiety alarms ring loudly not only in the face of threats to life and limb, but also when encountering threats to our property, status, reputation, or skill. In other words, anxiety is effective in alerting us to the myriad risks of loss.

Take, for example, social anxiety, the fear of being judged negatively or rejected by others. Human beings are social animals. We survive and thrive only inside well-organized groups. A loss of social standing, support, or resources reduces our odds of survival. Therefore, social anxiety may serve to inhibit those behaviors that jeopardize our social standing.

All evolved adaptations, however, create their own risks, and all are susceptible to malfunction. Likewise, the protective function of anxiety may be neutralized, hacked, or subverted in various ways. Trauma, for example, can cause the evolved "alarm system" to remain constantly "on," resulting in hyper-vigilance, a form of malfunction that’s at the core of PTSD. Moreover, our current environment is different than the one in which our anxiety mechanisms have evolved. The mismatch can create problems, as when our fear of heights, evolved at a time when encountering heights meant mortal danger (a cliff; a tall tree, etc.), over-activates needlessly in a contemporary environment dominated by safe heights (office buildings, glass elevators, airplanes, etc.).

Contemporary evolutionary psychology is not alone in arguing that anxiety serves a purpose. Several other schools of thought in psychology have advanced their own ideas about the uses of anxiety.

For example, Freud recognized the protective function of anxiety in the form of what he called Reality Anxiety—the basic ego function of, well, dealing with reality and the dangers and threats it poses. Dreading the approaching train if you’re standing on the railroad is such anxiety. A second type, Moral Anxiety, refers to the fear of violating the moral standards that constitute the superego, and often manifests in feelings of guilt or shame that may motivate us to adhere to community norms.

For Freud, though, the main action involves the third type, Neurotic Anxiety: an internal experience that occurs when the destructive impulses of the id threaten to overwhelm the self-protective mechanisms of the ego.

Generally, when Freud talks about "neurosis," he refers to a pattern of reacting to situations in disproportionate and thus maladaptive ways. We react "neurotically" when our internal representation of a situation ill matches its objective characteristics—when we see the shadows of mountains as mountains, so to speak. Such distorted internal representation is usually due to some unconscious conflict or early trauma. For example, if a dog attacked me in childhood, then my representation of "dog" is as a menacing monster. When I see a dog now and recoil in fear, I am in effect reacting not to the dog in front of me, but to my internal representation of dogs as monsters. My reaction, therefore, is "neurotic."

Freud argued famously that the ego, once rattled, activates a series of unconscious Defense Mechanisms that work to reduce anxiety by (ironically) distorting reality. Thus, for example, if the little dog in the previous paragraph terrifies me, I may activate denial, telling everyone I am not in fact terrified. Or rationalization—explaining that even small dogs these days may be vicious and better safe than sorry. Or I may use projection—attributing uncomfortable feelings to others—by telling my friend not to be scared; or use reaction formation—act super friendly toward the dog to mask my fear. And so on.

Rollo May, the American existential psychologist who rose to prominence in the mid 20th century, had his own ideas. May saw anxiety as emerging from our awareness that we are alive and are going to die. This awareness, in May’s program, is one of the things that separate humans from other animals, who live and die without knowing about it.

In May’s system, anxiety has great value as a source of creativity: “You don’t paint a great picture lying on the couch having an afternoon nap. You paint a great picture by struggle… without anxiety, we would not be able to have the civilization we now have.”

Echoing Freud, May also delineated different types of anxiety. Normal Anxiety is proportionate to the objective threat; it can be confronted constructively and consciously and relieved by altering the objective situation. Neurotic Anxiety, on the other hand, denotes a failure to handle normal anxiety. It is, “the result of unfortunate learning in the respect that the individual was forced to deal with threatening situations at a period—usually in early childhood—when he was incapable of coping directly or constructively with such experiences." Neurotic Anxiety is disproportionate to the objective danger and is managed in part by avoidance, and through the inhibition of activity and awareness. Such avoidance and inhibition function to restrict individual freedom. A restriction of freedom prevents the person from living fully and authentically, and is thus a source of psychological malaise.

Learning theorists (behaviorists) have argued that our useful capacity for associative learning (classical conditioning) underlies the acquisition of anxiety. So, for example, if a bear attacked me in the forest, I may become afraid of forests. This is because I associate the (benign) forest with the fear provoked by the (dangerous) bear. Once I have been thus conditioned to fear the sight (or image) of a forest, I naturally will look for ways to eliminate the noxious fear sensation. Avoiding forests accomplishes that goal beautifully in the short term, and may in many cases actually protect me by reducing my chances of encountering a bear again.

By now, you may note, the presence of the bear is no longer relevant to my fear response. The mere thought of a possible future encounter with a forest is enough to activate my fear. A fear response that is future-oriented and active in the absence of direct immediate threat is what we call anxiety. Clearly, then, the ability to learn anxiety by association is a nifty, often useful trick. But it has a downside. My avoidance, in the long run, maintains and "feeds" my anxiety because it prevents me from learning new and benign forest-related associations. Thus my learned anxiety, ironically, inhibits my ability to learn.

Cognitive theorists have identified worry as the cognitive component of anxiety. Research suggests that worrying thoughts tend to focus on areas of potential threat and loss, such as relationships, social, work, financial, and world problems. Thus, worry functions as a cognitive alarm system. “In the same way that fear has been described as a biological alarm system preparing the organism for escape… so worry can be seen [as] a special state of the cognitive system, adapted to anticipate possible future danger.” Our experience of worry (cognitive anxiety) is enabled by the unique capacity of our minds to envision clearly a range of future events. Worry thus operates like a computer prediction model, positing aversive events or outcomes in order to search for solutions in advance, allowing us to prepare and avoid being taken by surprise.

Again here, the adaptive worry system can be hacked or subverted by various external and internal circumstances. For example, a highly worry-prone person may repeatedly envision catastrophic events that inevitably fail to materialize (because catastrophes are rare). Over time, the person may mistakenly come to believe that the worrying, in fact, prevents the catastrophes from happening—a common cognitive error whereby correlation is taken to imply causation. As a consequence, the person may then become increasingly more "committed" to constant worry. Chronic, heightened levels of worry over time may corrode mental and physical health.

To psychologists, then, anxiety is at the core of an adaptive, protective system. At the same time, the capacity for anxiety carries a price, a downside, as do all capacities and adaptations. Under certain conditions, the anxiety system may malfunction and produce highly debilitating and disruptive anxiety disorders. What we know about anxiety, though, means that even if we had a magic wand that could eliminate totally your ability to feel anxiety, we would not want to use it. An inability to feel anxiety would be akin to an inability to feel pain. Pain isn’t pleasant, but it provides us with information that is often essential for our physical survival and psychological integrity. As with pain, we are well-advised to listen to anxiety first, rather than seek to immediately deny, avoid, or eliminate it.

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