Originally published on August 7, 2020
Anxiety and Presence and Fight-Or-Flight — Oh My!
Our brains and bodies are vigilant, survival-promoting machines. When we’re home alone and hear a loud, unknown noise come from upstairs, our bodies, almost instantaneously, kick into high gear. Our hearts race, our palms sweat, and adrenaline and cortisol surge through our veins.
These immediate bodily reactions in the face of perceived threats are features of our fight-or-flight response system. I’m sure you’ve heard of such a system before. In essence, it’s the part of our autonomic nervous system that readies us to fight with or run from danger. Thus, when we hear such frightening noises resounding through our empty houses, our bodies prep us to deal with whatever may be causing such a noise — be it a burglar, kidnapper, criminal, or something different altogether.
There’s a reason such responses are ingrained in us, and it has everything to do with evolutionary psychology. What I mean by that is, daily life used to be a lot more dangerous than it is now. While most of us (thankfully) don’t experience true danger all that often, our ancestors used to come face-to-face with it on a regular basis. Lions, tigers, bears, opposing tribe members — you name it. All were par for the course before modern civilization.
If you’ve heard of the concept survival of the fittest, then you’re probably also familiar with the notion that, evolutionarily speaking, humans with more survival-promoting traits tend to outlast their less well-endowed counterparts.
What this means, in the context of this post, is that the better one is at escaping dangerous situations, the more likely he or she is to live long enough to pass his or her genes onto offspring. More often than not, those passed traits include the same, vigilant ones that promoted such gene passing in the first place.
Over the course of human history, survival of the fittest led to large swaths of the population having quite a strong stress-response. While such a response was once incredibly useful (in the case of outrunning predators in the wild), it isn’t nearly as helpful as it used to be.
The main reason for this is that we don’t face nearly as much danger, on a regular basis, as we used to. Unfortunately, however, our brains and bodies are still operating as if that’s the case; hence, why we jump in response to loud noises in our homes, even when such noises are actually innocuous (like a book falling from a bookshelf).
So, what’s all this fight-or-flight nonsense got to do with presence? That’s a great question. While it certainly helps set the stage, it’s only the first part of the “anxiety and presence” equation. Thus, if it sounds like I’m dancing around the punchline, just stick with me for a moment. There’s a method to the madness, and we’re almost there.
What’s the Connection Between Anxiety and Presence?
There’s a reason I had to give such a long-winded introduction to the fight-or-flight response system. That reason is the fact that, without such a system, we’d pretty much never experience anxiety at all. That is, in the face of physical danger, we’d simply go about life as normal. Not exactly a great survival strategy, I know.
But, of course, such is not the case; if you’re reading this post, my guess is you have a pretty well-oiled fight-or-flight system — one that regularly sweeps you up into anxiety. Since such is likely the case, and since we’ve covered many of the underpinnings of such a system already, we can finally dive into the details behind why anxiety and a lack of presence are so tightly linked. So, with that in mind, let’s keep rolling.
While our fight-or-flight systems likely once only responded to physical threats, they eventually grew to react to all sorts of negative stimuli, including our thoughts. I’m sure you’ve experienced this phenomenon before. If you’ve ever worried about the fate of a loved one or the outcome of an important, upcoming event in your life, then you probably know just how terrible such negative thoughts can make you feel.
This is both a hallmark of anxiety as well as one of the most confusing parts of it. And, so, it begs the question, how can thoughts about something that hasn’t even yet come to pass make us feel as though we’re staring into the eyes of a hungry bear? The answer lies within how the fight-or-flight response system works.
At its core, our fight-or-flight system is a forward-looking one. It’s constantly on the lookout for things that could harm or even kill us. Hence what I meant when I said our brains and bodies are vigilant machines. Such is the case even when we actually come face-to-face with true danger; the fight-or-flight system is still looking ahead, asking, “What is this hungry bear going to do to me?!”
While such forward-looking questions and such a forward-looking system often help keep us safe, they’re not without their flaws. Case in point the fact that we can make ourselves feel like we’re in a true life-or-death situation when we’re merely questioning how some upcoming and important, albeit harmless, event will transpire.
One of the biggest problems with such a forward-looking survival system is that it can be quite one-dimensional. What I mean by that is that it evaluates any and all possible negative outcomes in the same “is this a threat?” fashion, regardless of whether they’re real or just products of our minds. This is also the most dangerous thing about such a system, and here’s why:
The fight-or-flight system is trained to respond to any potentially negative outcome — real or just perceived to be real. Thus, assuming we’re not actually standing in the presence of true danger, any time we live, mentally, outside of the present moment, we run the risk of activating this system, and thus, making ourselves feel like we’re in the midst of a life-or-death situation, even when we’re not.
Or, in other words, since our fight-or-flight response precipitates many of the symptoms we associate with anxiety, then any time we look ahead with doubt, fear, or uncertainty, we trigger that anxiety in some fashion.
Thus, while there is of course some nuance to what I’m saying, the only real solution to such a conundrum is to stay locked in on the here and now. For the mind often can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s perceived, or between what’s here today and what merely looks like it’s here simply because it’s in our minds.
Knowing our minds and fight-or-flight systems operate in this fashion, it behooves us to stay focused on what’s currently unfolding around us. Doing anything else puts us at risk of firing up our survival responses, even when they aren’t actually needed.
When you really stop and think about it, all instances of anxiety revolve around us worrying about something that could happen, but that hasn’t happened yet. And it makes sense as to why: when we ruminate on undesirable outcomes and worst-case scenarios, we focus our mind’s eye on what we don’t want. In turn, our minds see these outcomes as the “bears” we’re making them out to be and act accordingly.
Even though some undesirable outcomes are more likely to occur than others, and even though many of them may be almost certain to transpire, none of them are actually real until they finally come to pass in our lives. Though it’s obviously easier said than done, we’d do ourselves a huge favor if we at least waited until those things actually did transpire before we let them cause us such mental anguish.
The way we do that is by living in the here and now, by stepping back, taking a breath, and focusing on what’s unfolding around us right this moment. For when the mind can focus on the present and put all other potential “what ifs” to the side, it can finally take the body out of its revved-up, angst-filled state and move back to the equilibrium that both we and it know and love.
Thanks for Reading! Want Even More Anxiety-Relieving Strategies?
Then head on over to some of my previous articles on managing anxiety. Here are some of my most recent ones, if you’re interested:
Notes / Sources:
- Hall, Brian K. “Before Darwin.” Strickberger’s Evolution, edited by Benedikt Hallgrímsson, 4th ed., Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2007, pp. 4–5.
- Langley, John N. The Autonomic Nervous System. Cambridge: Heffer, 1921, pp. 10.
- Walker, H. Kenneth. “Cranial Nerve XI: The Spinal Accessory Nerve.” NCBI Bookshelf, 1999.