Why feeling 'hunted' is a paleolithic inheritance, and what you can do to ease anxiety symptoms today
You're being hunted. It's 20,000 years ago. The terrible truth filters into your prehistoric brain: you've become separated from your tribe and are alone in a land packed with predators.
You wrestle down panic, but instantly silence is replaced with the sickening howl of an angry wolf. Fear squeezes the breath from you. You feel something is close.
The hairs on the back of your neck stand upright. You tremble as you gasp for air like you're sprinting hard, even though you're still crouched, hiding. Sweat drenches your forehead. Now your senses are on such high alert, you start with fear when the gentle breeze rustles the treetops. You're young and strong, but timeless fear stalks you as fixedly as the wolves now tracking you cross-country.
The beasts bide their time. As night casts its shadow, the last thing you can do is sleep, because if you did drop off, it just might be the last thing you do. You need wakefulness, need to be ready.
You feel nauseated, imagining the feeling of hot predatory breath on your skin. Every moment you expect disaster. As the hours pass, panic is replaced by anxiety - a continual sense of foreboding and agitation.
A few days of being stalked across the land, and then the savage moment arrives. As a new dawn breaks, you see them in the open...surrounding you....moving in.
You can't think. You feel hopeless, weak with fear and exhaustion. You prepare for the worst...
But then, like a dream, the best sound ever: human vocalizations as muscled men from your tribe approach, waving fire. The wolves scatter, morphing in a moment from hunters to hunted. All you know is you were being hunted and now you're safe. You've never heard nor ever will hear the words 'Generalized Anxiety Disorder'.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder: An ancient legacy
Generalized Anxiety Disorder or GAD basically means feeling tense and anxious much of the time over things that wouldn't normally bother you - or not so much, anyway (1). Feeling like this every day can quickly suck a sense of meaning from life. Every day feels like survival.
This can happen because structurally, the brain and body of the 'you 20,000 years ago' are no different from today (okay, the 'you' back then may have been a little more buff...). My point here is that the natural responses that kept us alert and alive back then still work within us.
So what hunts you now?
Modern life has replaced ancient wolves with relationships gone bad, financial worries, unresolved traumas, bad bosses, fears of not fulfilling expectations adequately, bad diet, and excessive consumption of stimulants. Unless we learn to fend off and master the inner 'wolves' as we did the outer ones, we'll fall prey to all the fear and anxiety reactions we evolved to feel.
It's strange that this most ancient of responses is seen as pathological or even as a medical condition or 'disease'.
Psychiatric labelling: The double-edged sword
Being diagnosed by an 'expert' seems to do one of two things to people:
- Make them feel relieved: "Ah, now at least what I've been feeling has a name!" You can tell yourself and others that your suffering is now 'official'. You can feel you are not alone with it - there are others like you. As I say, this can help people feel reassured to an extent, because it can be hard to live with uncertainty.
- Put the fear of God into people: "My God! I have a syndrome. I'm faulty!" This might make them feel that they are their condition; it's who they are and the best they can do is live with it or treat it with medicine (2).
It's vital to remember when we 'medicalize' emotional distress, we're using the metaphor of illness. Professionals as well as patients tend to forget this (3).
So what exactly is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?
GAD: An ancient response in a modern world
People with GAD commonly report:
- Feeling by turns restless and agitated, but also exhausted and unable to cope.
- Unable to 'switch off' and relax.
- Always being 'on high alert'.
- Difficulty sleeping.
- Difficulty eating, digestive problems.
- Other physical symptoms of stress such as raised blood pressure, palpitations, sweating, rapid shallow breathing.
- Anxiety about everyday routines and circumstances, health worries, finances.
- Worries seem to be out of proportion, meaning other people may be at a loss to understand just what is bothering you.
- Worry seems to switch from one thing to another.
All of the above would fit the condition of a primitive person negotiating the savageries of pre-civilization. All of the above are natural adaptations we evolved to experience.
Experiencing GAD can be likened to driving a car in top gear in a 10 MPH speed limit zone. Adaptations need to be made so that you don't waste 'fuel' in your daily life.
If you have been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, then try the following:
1) Remember it's normal
Remind yourself that whatever scary GAD symptoms you've been experiencing are all part of the normal range of what we're all supposed to feel sometimes. Forget the clinical formality of psychiatric diagnoses. Basically, you have been feeling like a pack of wolves has been on your trail. This is normal after a build-up of stress; you are normal.
2) Think about what stresses you and seek to minimize it
One wolf might be scary, but many together can be terrifying. Lots of little life stresses build up into a pretty intimidating pack of stresses. Ask yourself: when did this GAD start? What was happening in your life at the time? Was there more stress than usual? Even a few nights of poor sleep can be enough to make some people feel very anxious.
- Have you been worrying about something in particular?
- Is your diet full of stimulants such as sugar and caffeine?
- Have you learnt how to relax the mind and body?
Take all the tips in the 'Relieve Tension in Your Mind and Body' article and follow these tips.
3) Remember you are safe
The level of anxiety, trepidation, and foreboding so often seen in people suffering Generalized Anxiety Disorder is appropriate, even useful, in ongoing physically dangerous circumstances. If you are not physically safe in your life right now, then you need to take immediate steps to ensure you are.
But as I've said, we all still respond to modern threats as if they were ancient physical ones. You need to remind yourself that, luckily, you're not being pursued by threatening wolves bent on eating you. Next time you respond physically (nerves in stomach, rapid breathing, and increased pulse rate) when there is no physical threat, remind yourself:
"Right now, in this moment, I am safe!"
4) Don't worry about worry
One commonly reported symptom of GAD is worry about stuff that shouldn't really be worrying at all. This happens because when you have strong feelings, your mind will seek ways to try to justify that emotion. It's as if your mind has to make a container for the feelings - something to worry about.
Sound strange? Well, consider this: If you're already, say, seething with anger about something, you can go out in the street still feeling angry and find yourself angry about the way strangers look, the little slow elderly woman taking too much time in front of you in line, the way someone speaks to you...anything. This will happen until you calm down again, at which point the things you were using to justify those angry feelings will no longer be bothersome.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder drives us to find stuff to feel worried about. It's important you remember this so you can start to put worries into their true perspective.
Always ask yourself:
"Is what I am worrying about now the kind of thing I would worry about when I'm calm?"
If you decide that it isn't, then remind yourself that it is not a 'real' worry (any more than rustling leaves were really an attacking wolf 20,000 years ago).
5) Deal with the physical symptoms of fear
When you feel physically safe and calm, you breathe nice and evenly, your blood pressure normalizes, and your immune system works better. The more relaxed you feel, the more 'normal' other physical processes like sleep and digestion become. Insomnia was supposed to happen when we were being tracked by wolves. When your body and mind start to feel safe again, then restful sleep can return.
When you relax, you also find it easier to think clearly; anxiety has a way of clouding the brain. Relaxation also improves your mood, including your optimism and level of self-confidence. Suddenly, the wolves have gone or you have mastered them. This is very different from the constant worry and foreboding of Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
Read '7 Steps to Stop a Panic Attack' for more ways to control the physical aspects of anxiety. I also recommend you get into the habit of relaxing daily. I have co-produced a relaxing hypnotic download specifically for GAD; this will help you relax daily, letting your mind and body feel safe.
Alternatively, use any method to relax that best suits you, but avoid misusing alcohol or prescription drugs, as the side effects of using these can increase the stresses in your life. You need to overcome GAD naturally.
We all need to be able to have the hyper-alertness and physicality that extreme threat produces within us, and because we evolved in a simple, threat-filled world, we can respond in this 'over the top' way to situations that really don't call for such physical responses. In truth, we need these responses very occasionally. Overcoming Generalized Anxiety Disorder requires that you develop calm responses to the world around you so that you can enjoy life and feel empowered. This is your true legacy.
Get daily anxiety-busters in your inbox
Mark's daily email tips on how to overcome fear, anxiety and stress will help you reduce your worries and calm your fears. Click here to subscribe and feel calmer day by day.