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Racing heart. Knots in the stomach. Trouble focusing. Sweaty palms. Regardless of the cause, these symptoms of anxiety are a nearly universal part of life. Almost everyone can relate to feeling this way at some point, but why? What is the purpose of anxiety, aside from making us uncomfortable?

Like all parts of human anatomy and behavior, the experience of anxiety is a product of evolution. Imagine our ancient ancestors, hunter-gatherers living in small tribes and family groups. They lived their lives almost exclusively outdoors without the protection of walls, doors, or modern weapons. If a larger, stronger predator attacked, the risk was high that a human caught off guard would not win the fight.

In this vulnerable setting, a keen sense of awareness of surroundings was crucial for survival. If someone heard rustling in the leaves, it could be a wolf or a mountain lion hunting for prey, or it could be a harmless squirrel. Those who survived were the ones who assumed it was a fierce predator and responded accordingly. Humans have been bred to be anxious.

Our bodies still hold the genetic predisposition toward anxiety despite the threats having changed drastically over the years. Unless you are an outdoorsman, you are unlikely to have anxiety about being hunted by a mountain lion, but you may become anxious when you get a phone call from a certain person, or if you have to drive during rush hour. When we look closely at the reasons why certain things make us anxious, we can usually trace it back to some type of fear for our safety. It may be perfectly reasonable to be anxious if we get a phone call from someone who has hurt us in the past. The alertness that we experience with anxiety might help keep us safe from other drivers.

If we can see anxiety as friend and protector, we can work toward making peace with the discomfort that anxiety causes. Granted, there are times when anxiety is unreasonable and can cause more harm than good. In a future post, we will explore how to tell the difference and what to do when anxiety gets the best of us.