As many of you know, and experience regularly, the downsides of mental illness can be exhausting and extremely detrimental to well-being. Many of you have regularly experienced the impossible tasks of arising from bed on a dreary morning, having no escape from an overwhelmingly anxious situation, or containing a dangerous manic state. Obviously, these are not easy occurrences to handle or control. Obviously, mental health issues have plagued enough people where they are worthy of careful observation.
To gain more knowledge of mental health and its discrepancies, we must ask two questions- “How?” and “Why?”. When we look into modern psychological pathology, the former question seems to dominate the latter. Chemicals, and a lack thereof, have been most abundantly accepted as the main reason why mental health issues physically exist. When we have an abundance or scarcity of certain chemicals in our system, we experience maladaptive mental symptoms. However, when we ignore the “Why?”, we avoid some of the most important information behind mental health.
I was first introduced to this concept in my studies on evolutionary psychology. This field is rapidly becoming entangled within other psychological fields, such as cognitive, developmental, and social. This is simply because the concept of evolution does play a role in everything we experience, as it has essentially shaped us into everything that we are.
This is relevant because unlike many modern treatments to mental health problems, evolutionary approaches answer the long-term, overhanging “Why?” question. Medications and therapies can help change chemicals and cognitive distortions, but why do these problems exist in the first place? Even though the research is still not abundantly available in this rapidly developing field, there are hypotheses that exist for most mental health problems.
Let’s start with anxiety.
Anxiety-related disorders, ranging anywhere from generalized anxiety disorder to very specific phobias, are some of the most common mental health issues that affect us today. Almost 30% of the American population will experience symptoms associated with anxiety at some point in their lives. Anxiety has been proven to stem from a lack of the chemical GABA within us, environmental stressors anywhere from a procrastinated assignment to divorce or bankruptcy, substance abuse, genetics, and more. There are myriad ways in which anxiety can begin and can present itself. But why did this develop in us if it is so detrimental to our sense of well-being?
Many of you have probably heard of a phenomenon within us and other species referred to as the “fight or flight” response. This is a catchy way phrasing of one of the main functions of our sympathetic nervous system, which is to determine the level of threat presented to us. Is the stimulus we are faced with threatening? If so, is it something worth standing up against, or running from? When this system is activated, we prepare for possible danger; our heart rates increase, our cortisol levels increase, we sweat more, and we experience more anxious symptoms.
This response is activated by a really tiny part of our brain called the amygdala. Once activated, all of the aforementioned systems will react in sort of a domino fashion. When the amygdala detects a “threat”, it will quickly flick the first domino and set off a profound chain reaction. This naturally brings us back to our original question of “Why?”, or to be more specific, what constitutes a threat, and an activation of fight or flight?
The answer is not surprisingly different for everyone. Everyone has a different “signal detection threshold”, a term stemming from the evolutionary concept of signal detection theory. To summarize a theory that has a bit of length to it, this concept essentially tells us that everyone has a different threshold in which the amygdala will activate our fight or flight response. Those with lower thresholds will experience more sympathetic nervous system activations, and thus, will be on guard more frequently. Those with these lower thresholds will theoretically be at a much higher risk for maladaptive anxiety, often in the form of pathological disorders.
Those familiar with evolution know that traits adapt over time because certain genes are spread more frequently through generations due to higher reproductive success. By this principle, we have to conclude that despite the negative consequences of high anxiety levels, there must be some benefit that caused individuals with lower thresholds to reproduce more over time.
Cue Randolph Nesse’s “Smoke Detector Principle”.
All of us have been the victim of false alarms via our smoke detectors. Whether it be a fire drill at school or a roommate innocently boiling Ramen, there has almost certainly been a situation in all of our lives where the smoke detector went off when there was no plausible threat of a lethal fire. The result? Our ears hurting, almost inevitably followed by some swearing or complaining. The immediate sensory effects are annoying and perceptually negative. However, when we think of the ultimate purpose of a smoke detector, it makes sense to have some false alarms rather than the other end of the spectrum. What if there was an actual fire and the alarm was not triggered? We’d have a lot higher probability of becoming ash.
Now think of our amygdala as a smoke detector. Those with overactive sympathetic nervous systems will certainly be the victims of more frequent false alarms, but what about situations in which there is an actual threat? We have to assume that our ancestors who were a bit more anxious were more prepared for a predator or an adversary fighting for food or land. This, of course, is extremely valuable in terms of survival. All of the anxiety caused by false alarms seems to be worth it for the situations in which we need the somatic effects of our sympathetic nervous systems to stay safe and in some cases, stay alive.
To wrap this all together, anxiety is a trait present within us for some reason. Many of us struggling with anxiety disorders often wonder why something so invasive and often crippling exists. The evolutionary answer is that this hypersensitivity to possible threats has actually kept our ancestors more safe over time.
The next time you find your palms drenching with sweat, your breath shortening, and the room quickly closing in on you, remember that you theoretically have a higher chance of adequately preparing yourself for a threat as opposed to a friend who has a much higher signal detection threshold. This isn’t exactly something that would prevent a panic attack for many, including myself, but when you think about it, it’s a pretty sweet silver lining, isn’t it?
Bateson, M., Brilote, B., & Nettle, D. (2011). Anxiety: An Evolutionary Approach. Can J Psychiatry Vol 56 (12), 707–715.
Hesse, R (2001). Smoke Detector Principle. Annal’s New York Academy of Sciences. Retrieved from: http://www.personal.umich.edu/~nesse/Articles/SmokeDetectorPrin-Nesse-NYAS-2000.pdf