Recently I was joking around with some friends about our anxiety disorders. Once you get diagnosed and treated for anxiety you suddenly realize that everyone you know has it, either because weirdos with brain disorders tend to find each other or because it’s 2019 and if you don’t have anxiety maybe that’s the real mental disorder.
Anyway, we were talking about the possible evolutionary advantages of anxiety. Note that this was mostly just joking around — I’ve made many videos about how not every human trait is adaptive. Sometimes shit just happens. But coming up with those “just-so” stories is fun, which is why evolutionary psychology exists in the first place. If it wasn’t fun, those guys would just quit and do real science. So we were joking about how maybe high anxiety was selected on the savannah because it saved our ancestors from random bear attacks and whatnot.
And because of that, in the inevitable zombie apocalypse, those of us with anxiety will not just survive, but thrive. For a start, we’re used to dealing with a constant feeling of dread that we’re about to die. People with properly functioning brains will have no idea how to deal with that. Secondly, we are always on edge. Twig snapped behind you? In the normal world, immediately freaking out over that is a silly waste of energy. In the zombie apocalypse, a well-timed freak-out will save your damned life. Yep, that will be our time to shine. The zombie apocalypse. Just like our anxiety-ridden foremothers shone 10,000 years ago during the bear apocalypse.
All of that was just good fun until this week when I discovered that actual scientists are studying this very hypothesis — that people with anxiety may actually have a slight advantage in life or death situations.
Neuroscientists at CalTech studied how people respond to two types of scary situations — one is “fear”-based, which is a fast-happening event. Like, you turn around and there’s a bear about to swipe your face off, so you just run away screaming. I’m not sure why I’m so focused on bears today but I’m just going to run with it. Probably because bears are fucking terrifying.
The other scary situation is “anxiety”-based, which is an event that takes a bit of time, allowing you to decide what you want to do about it. You hear the bear and turn around to see that it’s 20 meters away. Do you run? Hide? Scream? Play dead? Fight?
The neuroscientists tested this by having people climb inside a functional MRI machine and playing a video game in which a predator was trying to get them. The longer they escaped the predator, the more money they got. But if they got caught by the predator, they got an electric shock.
Let me just pause to congratulate these scientists for living their best lives. I WISH my job was electrically shocking people who were bad at video games.
They found that in fear-based, fast encounters, all subjects performed about the same. But in the slower, anxiety-based encounters, people who already had high anxiety were much faster at getting away from the predator. They didn’t make as much money as their less anxious friends but they survived more, and I think that’s maybe more important. At least, it will be in the zombie apocalypse, when the only money we will recognize is old bottlecaps and unexpired cans of beans or whatever.
Does this mean that anxiety was selected for on the savannah 10,000 years ago? No, don’t be stupid. All it means is that in this very specific laboratory environment, people with anxiety play a video game differently than people who don’t have anxiety. But it does suggest that there might be more out there to discover about the positive aspects of mental disorders, whether those positive aspects were actually adaptive or not. Hopefully we find out before the zombie apocalypse starts because I really need to know whether or not to start hoarding my anti-anxiety meds.