I wanna know if cavepeople got anxiety. I’m sure they felt fear: lions…or bad hair days. But did they have anxiety? Did they awkwardly enter a busy cave and be all, “Omigod I can’t handle this!” Did they fret and toss and turn on their little bed o’ rocks? Did they struggle to sleep because they felt like everything was just wrong? Did they have panic attacks?
What I’m getting at (in a rather rambling way) is: is anxiety a new thang? Is it human? Or is it acquired? Does it stem from nature – a flight-fight response that’s simply out of whack, or is it a modern by-product of our fast-paced lives and always-on technology?
Is it new?
Will it be around forever? Will people 12,000 years from now look back at us with curiosity:
“What was this anxiety they all spoke of? We only know calmness and pastel pantsuits and puppies and cupcakes. With our AI minds, we are content 100% of the time meep morp pass me a cookie.”
Yes. That’s what the humans of the future will say. Robots with downloaded, engineered minds. Sans anxiety.
Anxiety disorders were only ‘discovered’ (i.e. diagnosed) in 1980. Of course, that doesn’t mean people didn’t have anxiety. It was simply called something else: stress or nerves.
Let’s look further back. According to one scientific paper, “Greek and Latin physicians and philosophers distinguished anxiety from other types of negative affect, and identified it as a medical disorder.”
Those Greeks. They knew what was up.
In fact, the Hippocratic Corpus (a collection of ancient Greek medical texts) describes a man with a phobia. He couldn’t go to parties, because he was terrified of the flute player. “Whenever he heard the voice of the flute begin to play at a symposium, masses of terrors rose up. He said that he could hardly bear it when it was night, but if he heard it in the daytime he was not affected. Such symptoms persisted over a long period of time.”
Flute players. Terrifying.
The paper continues: “Ancient Epicurean and Stoic philosophers suggested techniques to reach an anxiety-free state of mind that are reminiscent of modern cognitive psychology.”
But can we look even deeper into the past? (If this topic interests you, check out this post by Calm Clinic. It has some fascinating insights into anxiety throughout history).
Where are the anxious cavepeople at?
One thing we do know about anxiety is that it’s part of evolution. It’s the fight or flight (or freeze) response that helps us respond to danger and stay safe. So we can assume early humans got anxiety. Their bodies activated the fight or flight response when they faced a scary tiger or bear in their cave communities.
But what happens when we feel anxious in the absence of fear? When we are on high alert even when there’s nothing to flee or fight? That, my friends, is an anxiety disorder.
And that’s what I want to know: when did humans first develop an anxiety disorder? When did the fight or flight response start malfunctioning?
We have to assume anxious cavepeople came out on top. Kept our species alive. Their anxiety kept them super-sensitive to danger. They survived, and passed on their anxiety genes to the next generation.
The dudes who spent all day meditating and eating mung beans? Probably eaten by a lion. So their genes weren’t passed on.
So we could say anxiety is a thread that connects us with our most ancient ancestors.
Only problem is: we’re not exactly fending off lions or having to hunt for our next meal.
We’re comfortable. We have everything we need. There’s no chase, no hunt. There’s Netflix. And a fridge full of food.
And yet the fight or flight response lingers.
Will it always?
Or will it die out as it becomes less and less useless?
This philosophical post doesn’t have the answers. It’s just something I’ve been pondering this week…
And I can thank my evolved brain for being able to do that. Think. Question. Ponder. Worry.