The Utility of Anxiety

Disclaimer time: I am not a doctor. I am not a psychologist/psychiatrist. If you have a mental illness/disorder/concerns, take them up with a trained professional who knows what they’re talking about. For the love of god, DO NOT make medical/mental health decisions based on my speculative babbling about what might have been useful to our ancestors.

Carrying on…

Americans are an anxious people.

According to the Kim Foundation (I don’t actually know who they are, but they are the first hit that comes up when you Google “Percent Americans with anxiety,”) about 18% of us have some form of anxiety disorder, such as, “panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and phobias.”

An additional 10% of us have mood disorders, eg, “major depressive disorder, dysthymic disorder, and bipolar disorder.”

(The Anxiety and Depression Association of America gives the same stat, citing the National Institute of Mental Health as their source.) The NIMH made some lovely graphs:


NCS-R_AnxietyDisorders-Chart2-360_147928_2 NCS-R_AnxietyDisorders-Chart1-360_147927_2

Also from the NIMH:


There’s a lot of interesting data in this graph. For simplicity’s sake, from here on out, when I say, “Women,” I am referring primarily to “white women,” but remember that no group is entirely lacking in crazy.

Also, the graphs for mood disorders:

NCS-R_MoodDisorders-Chart2-360_148105_1 NCS-R_MoodDisorders-Chart1-360_148104_1

Now, you’re probably thinking, “Wait a minute, those numbers don’t add up!”

They don’t have to add up. You can get diagnosed with two things at once. Or five. It just depends on how often you go pester the shrinks.

It’s no secret that women are kind of crazy, but I still find the numbers a little shocking. According to the Huffington Post, 25% of women are on psychiatric drugs of some sort. The article also claims that, “One in four women is on antidepressants,” so I guess 100% of women taking psychiatric drugs are on anti-depressants, or the math got fucked up somewhere.

Why do 22-25% of women feel so bad that they need psychiatric medication just to deal with their lives? (Not to mention 15% of men.)

Some quick possibilities:

1. Shrinks are handing out pills like crazy, whether patients are actually mentally ill or not, because who wouldn’t like to be happier and better-adjusted?

2. Something about modern life makes people (especially white women) very anxious.

3. Highly anxious people are a side effect of low infant mortality + the baby boom expanding the class of parents.

4. Anxiety/depression are actually adaptive, and so we are supposed to feel this way.

5. Some combination of all of the above.

Personally, I lean toward #5.

Now, a quick aside: I don’t really like feelings. Oh, sure, I’m okay with the good ones. Happiness, love, joy, enthusiasm, sure, I like those. But the rest of the feelings I could generally do without. I especially dislike other people’s emotions. “I am having a sad,” translates all too quickly into, “I am yelling at you.” So, as I stated at the beginning, if you think you need help handling your emotions, or the people around you think you do, please consider getting help. You don’t have to live in pain.

That said, I think anxiety is supposed to serve some purpose that modern conditions have gotten out of whack.

I have already posted about how depression, in small quantities, may help keep us out of trouble and sleep through the long European winters. In general, there are a lot of traits where I think a little bit may be beneficial, even though a lot is damaging.

So what purpose could anxiety serve?

According to WebMD, the most common causes of anxiety include:

  • Stress at work
  • Stress from school
  • Stress in a personal relationship such as marriage
  • Financial stress
  • Stress from an emotional trauma such as the death of a loved one
  • Stress from a serious medical illness
  • Side effect of drugs, legal or otherwise
  • Medical symptom, eg, low oxygen

The last three I consider perfectly rational biological responses–it’s very understandable that someone who can’t breathe feels anxious. But other than coffee, I doubt these are seriously affecting the overall anxiety rates.

That leaves us with “stress,” (which is basically a synonym for “anxiety”) from pretty much every part of life. Almost 20% of women cannot cope with work/school/relationships/finances without medication. It is tempting, therefore, to think that our entire modern lifestyle, from large, dense cities to two-income households could not exist without medicating women into not freaking out.

But why would they freak out in the first place?

Biochemically, “stress” is the feeling of your body responding to threatening or potentially threatening situations via your “fight or flight” response. In nature, fight or flight is very useful: it prepares you to run for your life or fight to the death. According to Wikipedia, Fight or Flight works like this:

The reaction begins in the amygdala, which triggers a neural response in the hypothalamus. The initial reaction is followed by activation of the pituitary gland and secretion of the hormone ACTH. The adrenal gland is activated almost simultaneously and releases the neurotransmitter epinephrine. The release of chemical messengers results in the production of the hormone cortisol, which increases blood pressure, blood sugar, and suppresses the immune system. The initial response and subsequent reactions are triggered in an effort to create a boost of energy. This boost of energy is activated by epinephrine binding to liver cells and the subsequent production of glucose. Additionally, the circulation of cortisol functions to turn fatty acids into available energy, which prepares muscles throughout the body for response. Catecholamine hormones, such as adrenaline (epinephrine) or noradrenaline (norepinephrine), facilitate immediate physical reactions associated with a preparation for violent muscular action.

Oh, look, it’s our old friend, the amygdala! (See also here, here and here.)

According to Neuropolitics,

The basolateral amygdala has been linked to conditioned fear and disgust learning, while the central amygdala has been linked to conditioned fear learning. … liberals had elevated amydalar responses to the viewing of a political commercial about nuclear war.

Hart et al. (2000) selected an equal number of blacks and whites, repeatedly showing them pictures of white and black faces while performing fMRI. They noted: “across all subjects, we observed significantly greater…BOLD signal in the amygdala to outgroup vs ingroup faces, but only during later stimulus presentations. …

Further, Phelps found that activation in the left amygdala and right amygdala (all the way to the insular cortex) were correlated with a negative bias towards black faces on the Implicit Association Test.”

Last time I took an implicit association test, it told me that I prefer fat people over skinny and blacks over whites. I don’t know why everyone else fails these things.

the only region that was activated in both the Implicit Association and Startle Eyeblink tests was the left-superior amygdala. … Phelps noted: “the region in the amygdala most strongly correlated with negative evaluation [of black faces] was the left-superior amygdala”.

Richeson et al. (2003) performed an fMRI investigation of the impact of interracial contact on executive function, and uncovered a critical findings with regards to racial prejudice: it is inhibited by right hemispheric neural networks such as the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate. Richeson’s findings of a right-hemispheric network that inhibits racial prejudice shows the push-pull mechanism of the amygdala and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, especially on the right side.

… Cunningham used two different exposure periods: an subconscious exposure of 30 milliseconds; and, a conscious exposure of 525 milliseconds. During the subconscious exposure, which was not long enough for most of the subjects to even be aware of the black and white face photos, Cunningham found the right amygdala to be activated in the black minus white condition, … Longer presentations of racial stimuli favor activation in the left amygdala, at least according to Phelps.

But with the 525 millisecond presentation, the amygdala’s racial responsiveness was inhibited, meaning it didn’t take very long for another area in the brain to assume control. And that region was located predominately in the right hemisphere, confirming the work of Richeson. Cunningham noted: “the regions Richeson et al. identified as underlying the control of prejudice were nearly identical to the regions identified in this study as being associated with modulation of automatic evaluations”.

Here is where I get speculative:

When we meet another human, we automatically assess whether they are a threat or not. If we know them well or they look like someone we know (and like), they go into the “not a threat” category. If they don’t look familiar, they go into the “might be a threat” box, and your body begins preparing to run/fight for your life.

Your brain makes this assessment subconsciously and begins preparing your fight or flight response before your conscious networks have even kicked in. Your conscious networks appear to be trying to override your unconscious ones–perhaps by just rationally evaluating potential threat, or perhaps by yelling at your amygdala to stop being so racist.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this mental push-pull between the amygdala and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex created more stress. 

Men seem to cope better than women with stress and aggression. They have a naturally higher aggression “set point” due to being descended from the men who killed all the other men. Aggression has historically been a winning strategy for men, but not women. Aggressive women, historically, were more likely to kill their own children or, if pregnant, get their children killed by someone else. Being the smallest, weakest person around makes aggression a losing strategy.

Personal anecdote time: In my younger, dumber days, I was a lot more aggressive than I am now. Not so much in real life, because men are bigger than me and I’m not dumb. But in the relative safety of the internet, certainly. Then I got pregnant. Suddenly, I couldn’t stand aggression. I remember watching a YouTube video of police aggression. My heart started racing. My palms were sweating. I was reacting as though the aggression were in the same room with me, not a recording on a little screen of something that happened hundreds of miles away. After that, I stopped watching TV News and stopped fighting with random strangers on the internet. I couldn’t take them anymore.

Aggression is useful for finding mates, because it gets people out of the house and helps them talk to each other. Sometimes it also results in punching.

Pregnant women have no need for aggression. They have already found a mate, and now they need to keep him. (Mates are very useful for bringing you food during that healing period after birth.) Further, pregnant women need to protect their fetuses (and later, babies.) The mother needs aggression only to save her own life or her child’s life.

School, work, corporations, and daily city life all involve being constantly around hundreds if not thousands of unrelated people. And as you probably already know, trust and diversity are negatively correlated. (Or just read the book.)

Corporations are stressful because they’re full of aggressive men, who interrupt more, take credit for other people’s accomplishments, are noisy, and use their physical size to intimidate each other. Women respond to this in a variety of ways you’re already familiar with, including the consumption of large quantities of Xanax to keep them from freaking out and having a meltdown every time a strange man gets into an elevator with them.

You know what? This… isn’t helping.

Neither are these:

Carmen Tarleton, white woman whose ex husband doused her with lye and beat her with a baseball bat
Carmen Tarleton, white woman whose ex husband doused her with lye and beat her with a baseball bat
Carmen Tarleton's ex husband, who will not be executed.
Carmen Tarleton’s ex husband, who will not be executed.
Still from Rhianna's music video about torturing a white woman for money
Still from Rhianna’s “empowering” music video about torturing a white woman

Anxiety exists because it helped our ancestors avoid dangerous situations, but modern life basically requires spending high amounts of time in anxiety-inducing situations. Some people eventually learn not to freak out and suppress their instincts, but for many people, repeated stimulus exposure only makes things worse.


But aside from preparing people to flee or fight,  I suspect that anxiety serves another purpose: it forces women to do whatever it takes to remain part of the group, the tribe, because the tribe is survival, and outside the tribe is nothing but the howling wind and empty, barren waste. Female survival and evolutionary success has not historically depended on dominating the tribe, but on not getting kicked out.

Anxiety does not manifest itself as a rational response. Someone else does something wrong, you tell them not to, and afterward, you feel anxious. Objectively, you are in the right. The other person did something wrong. But your emotions tell a different story. Your emotions say that you are wrong. This is because you are not at peace with your tribe, with your friend or family member.

Or let us suppose that you say something innocently, even helpfully to another person, and they take it the wrong way and become angry and yell at you. Afterwards, do you feel mad at them? Or do you just feel unhappy that they are feeling so unhappy?

Okay, maybe not you, my faithful reader. You probably aren’t female.

Anxiety is one of those things that I suspect is good in moderation. A bit of concern for safety makes people pay attention as they go about their business. Double-checking that the locks are locked and the stove is off before going to bed could save your life. Being willing to put aside hurt feelings and make amends with others makes life more pleasant, and is probably crucial to living in large communities. Taken in excess, any of these behaviors becomes debilitating–the person develops agoraphobia, OCD, or pathological unwillingness to stick up for themselves.

A small amount of anxiety may also be useful in getting people to pay attention to little details. It’s making sure that all of the is are dotted and ts are crossed that makes sure airplanes stay in the air, after all.

Peter Frost has laid out a series of posts on guilt, and by contrast, shame. Now, here I must make a confession: I lack an intuitive sense of the distinction he is drawing between guilt and shame, or perhaps just lack sufficient exposure to “shame cultures” to really get it. Regardless, I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to suspect that “guilt” and “anxiety” may be deeply linked.

Frost proposes that, “Pervasive feelings of guilt are part of a behavioral package that enabled Northwest Europeans to adapt to complex social environments where kinship is less important and where rules of correct behavior must be obeyed with a minimum of surveillance.” 

While most commentator posit the European guilt complex arose in response to specific events, eg, the Holocaust, Frost traces it back to a much earlier time, citing, for example, Aelfric of Eynsham, an English abbot born in 955:

He who cannot because of shame confess his faults to one man, then it must shame him before the heaven-dwellers and the earth-dwellers and the hell-dwellers, and the shame for him will be endless. (Bedingfield, 2002, p. 80)

And The Song of Beowulf:

That was sorrow to the good man’s soul, greatest of griefs to the heart. The wise man thought that, breaking established law, he had bitterly angered God, the Lord everlasting. His breast was troubled within by dark thoughts, as was not his wont.

(Personally, I’ve always thought Grendel was a metaphor for plague, and Beowulf plunging into the lake represents a human sacrifice by drowning/throwing the sacrificed victim into the lake to appease the gods, but I am really not an Anglo Saxon culture expert.)

Frost pushes back the potential beginnings of guilt culture even further, to the semi-sedentary Scandinavian/Baltic hunter-gatherer/fishing communities of 8,500 years ago. He suggests that in this environment, guilt made people cooperate, Prisoner’s Dilemma-style, and community sanctions against defectors ensured that they stayed a low enough percent of the population that they couldn’t take advantage of the folks who felt a lot of guilt. Quoting Frost:

What is to stop some individuals from exploiting the guilt proneness of others while feeling no guilt themselves? This free-rider dilemma may have been resolved in part by identifying such individuals and ostracizing them. It may also be that these semi-sedentary communities were conducive to evolution of altruistic behavior, as described by Maynard Smith’s haystack model (Wikipedia, 2013). According to this model, guilt-prone individuals are at a disadvantage within any one community and will thus become fewer and fewer with each generation. If, however, a community has a high proportion of guilt-prone individuals, it will have an advantage over other communities and thus expand in numbers at their expense. And if these communities disperse and regroup on a regular basis, the overall proportion of guilt-prone individuals will increase over time. …

There is an obvious issue that arises if a guilt-ridden society suddenly obtains a large number of individuals who don’t buy into the whole guilt complex.

… it was the hunter-fisher-gatherers of the North Sea and the Baltic who led the way to behavioral modernity, i.e., individualism, reduced emphasis on kinship, and the market as the main organizing principle of social and economic life. Their mode of subsistence was not wiped out by agriculture, unless one sees fishing as a kind of farming. They not only survived, but also went on to create what we now call the Western World. Not bad for a bunch of losers.

The guilt complex is obviously deep in Christianity. My researches so far have not revealed a similar guilt complex in other religions, though to be fair, Hinduism is vast and well beyond my understanding. IMO, some Christians take this guilt to an unhealthy level:

Self-flagellation, from the Wikipedia
Self-flagellation, from the Wikipedia

The Wikipedia further claims:

Some members of strict monastic orders, and some members of the Catholic lay organization Opus Dei, practice mild self-flagellation using an instrument called a “discipline”, a cattail whip usually made of knotted cords, which is flung over the shoulders repeatedly during private prayer. Pope John Paul II took the discipline regularly.

The Wikipedia page on Flagellantism, a Medieval Religious movement, deserves reading in its own right, but I will try to quote a representative bit here:

The 11th-century zealot Dominicus Loricatus repeated the entire Psalter twenty times in one week, accompanying each psalm with a hundred lash-strokes to his back. … The movement did not have a central doctrine or overall leaders, but a popular passion for the movement occurred all over Europe in separate outbreaks. … The prime cause of the Perugia episode is unclear, but it followed an outbreak of an epidemic and chroniclers report how the mania spread throughout almost all the people of the city. Thousands of citizens gathered in great processions, singing and with crosses and banners, they marched throughout the city whipping themselves. … The movement spread across Northern Italy, up to 10,000 strong groups processing in Modena, Bologna, Reggio and Parma …

The German and Low Countries movement … established their camps in fields near towns and held their rituals twice a day. The ritual began with the reading of a letter, claimed to have been delivered by an angel and justifying the Flagellants’ activities. Next the followers would fall to their knees and scourge themselves, gesturing with their free hands to indicate their sin and striking themselves rhythmically to songs, known as Geisslerlieder, until blood flowed. Sometimes the blood was soaked up in rags and treated as a holy relic. … some towns began to notice that sometimes Flagellants brought plague to towns where it had not yet surfaced. Therefore later they were denied entry. They responded with increased physical penance.

The anchorites were early hermits/monks who were literally walled into tiny rooms they never left for the rest of their lives:

The original Tiny House
Medieval illustration of anchorite cell

Maybe if Xanax had existed in Medieval Europe, people would have been less prone to walling themselves up in churches.

Note that self-flagellation and anchoritism are not rational responses to life in Medieval Europe–not only do they not solve problems like the Black Death, they may have exacerbated them. They are extreme emotional responses to overwhelming feelings of guilt and anxiety.

Properly balanced, guilt and anxiety can prompt people to treat each other fairly and be attentive in their work. Unbalanced, the individual (or society,) becomes unhinged. They start demanding that their own societies be destroyed because they they must have done something wrong to have more advanced tech than other societies, or groveling for forgiveness for things they didn’t even do:

white woman begs forgiveness

White woman begs forgiveness for slavery

Anxiety and guilt have their good sides. Society probably couldn’t exist without them. But they have to be in balance.


12 thoughts on “The Utility of Anxiety

  1. “Women respond to this in a variety of ways you’re already familiar with, including the consumption of large quantities of Xanax to keep them from freaking out and having a meltdown every time a strange man gets into an elevator with them.” Reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, “Our society tends to regard as a sickness any mode of thought or behavior that is inconvenient for the system and this is plausible because when an individual doesn’t fit into the system it causes pain to the individual as well as problems for the system. Thus the manipulation of an individual to adjust him to the system is seen as a cure for a sickness and therefore as good.”

    A lot of good insights on men and women and broader societies. I see myself in this: “Afterwards, do you feel mad at them? Or do you just feel unhappy that they are feeling so unhappy?”


    • If society is a meta-organism, then any piece that doesn’t work properly toward the ends of the meta-organism is, from society’s perspective, diseased, just as a liver that doesn’t work toward the ends of the body is diseased. If an organization like Facebook functions like a meta-brain, then the individuals in it are cells, relaying the signals that come through their node to facilitate the closer integration of all brains in the FB network. A node that does not work properly, say, by failing to re-post and “like” the same posts as the other nodes, is a cell that is not firing in conjunction within the meta-brain; from the meta-brain’s perspective, that cell is broken and must be fixed/replaced.

      This is why I am skeptical of meta-organizations; they are useful, but I do not like the idea of heir interests superceding those of the people in them, which I suspect is all too easy. Then the individual must be changed to fit the organization, rather than the organization fixed to better suit the individual.

      (Obviously there is no organization that can fit everyone; some people are criminals, for example, and society is more functional where their activities are curtailed. But this is rather different than, say, medicating ourselves because we’re not getting enough sleep or around too many strangers.)


      • I agree completely. I hear endless pontificating about “what’s good for the economy.” Whether the economy and its continual growth is good for people is never questioned.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I figure “economy” is a proxy for “economic well-being of the people,” but even the economy gets proxied into “the stock market”, unemployment, etc. And once you’re looking at specific numbers, it gets easier to find ways to change the numbers without changing anything else–to cheat, in other words.

        Data is great, but it’s never the complete picture.


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