Anxiety as a Survival Mechanism

By Allie Lewin, LMSW

For many of us, the fall season marks a time for transition, and with transition can come anxiety. But is anxiety really such a bad thing? 

There’s no doubt that being consumed by anxiety can be extremely uncomfortable and debilitating — it can cause us to become preoccupied with our internal experiences, which can lead us to have difficulty engaging in our external lives.  But the reality is that anxiety itself is not entirely negative.  In fact, it is extremely important for our survival. Understanding the function of this emotional experience that has served humans for over hundreds of thousands of years can be helpful in learning the tools to accept and rise above anxiety.

So what function does anxiety serve? Anxiety aims to protect us. When our brains perceive threat or danger, it signals our body to respond effectively through the fight or flight response, which enables us to cope with the threat. Imagine you are alone walking through a forest and you spot a tiger.  As soon as your brain processes this danger, your autonomic nervous system signals neurological and hormonal changes to prepare your body to take action, whether that means to run away or in some cases, to fight. The physical sensations we associate with anxiety, such as heavy breathing, rapid heart rate, muscle tension, and sweating are all the result of your nervous system working to ensure your ability to escape the predator and find safety. You see, without anxiety, your body would do nothing in response to the sight of the tiger and you would surely get eaten!

We may not be fighting off tigers in NYC in the 21st century, but our brains respond the same way to that tiger as they do to the sight of a taxi speeding through a red light, and in fact to any instances of perceived threat. This perceived threat could be failing a test, getting fired from work, or even not getting asked on a second date.  Without anxiety, we may not have the motivation to study for that test, get out of bed in the morning in time for work, or filter what personal information we share on a first date. So not only does anxiety help us escape danger, but it also gives us the motivation and discretion to prepare for big occasions and risky endeavors that ultimately enhance our wellness and ensure our survival over the long run. 

By no means am I implying that being distressed by chronic anxiety is pleasant or a good thing, but spouts of anxiety are normal automatic human processes and should be looked upon as such.  Anxiety becomes an issue when our brains consistently misinterpret the extent of the threat, overestimating the danger actually involved, and underestimating our ability to handle the situation. When this is the case and we find ourselves in a state of constant hyper arousal, something needs to change.

Our anxiety can push us to seek help through communication with loved ones or a professional, as well as make other necessary adaptations to appropriately deal with stress.  By better understanding our anxiety, we can begin to change our relationship to this experience and appreciate our brain’s good intentioned, albeit often misguided, attempt to protect us.  Through this process we can become less critical of ourselves for dealing with these emotions and feel more confident in not only moving past the anxiety, but in tackling life’s many challenges. 

Allie Lewin is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you would like support with coping with anxiety, visit cobbpsychotherapy.com to learn more about how therapy can help.