Most of us will understand the concepts of evolutionary biology:
The theory that all species have developed from earlier species, and have continuously adapted to the environment through a process of natural selection.
Evolution has been instrumental to developments in our understanding of science and medicine, but it has also led to developments in ‘life sciences’, such as psychology.
And although evolutionary psychology has its skeptics, it can provide a foundation for understanding why we think, feel and behave the way we do.
These explanations can be particularly useful in creating self-awareness and acceptance in children.
Especially when it comes to anxiety.
But to start off small, it can be helpful to think of simple connections between our ancient ancestors and behaviours that we see so often in modern society today.
For example, why do so many of us crave unhealthy foods over nutritionally complete foods, or over eat far past the point of being full?
Evolutionary psychology would suggest that this is because our ancestors experienced frequent famine, and when food was available, they would eat as much as possible while it was.
And high-fat and high-sugar foods would help ancient peoples to put on needed fat to survive without food for longer.
For those of you reading this blog, you likely have the privilege of no longer needing to anticipate a long period without food.
But the drive to eat for the sake of eating is still there for many of us (as well as a lust for sugary treats, for kids especially!).
This is what psychologists call an evolutionary mismatch — when modern conditions don’t necessitate the patterns of behaviour that we have adapted to and evolved to do.
And this idea is hugely helpful and comforting in explaining anxiety to children.
Let’s break this concept down…
Anxiety can be described as a type of fear.
For kids experiencing anxiety, this can be a fear about being alone, about school, about socialising…
But for our ancient ancestors, this fear was mostly concerned with survival — anxiety was a form of self-preservation.
If there was a snake on their path, the fearful person would go into ‘fight or flight’ mode, anticipating the dangers of the snake, and preparing for them.
The non-fearful person would not react to the snake, and the snake may go away, or, it may go on the attack and bite.
So in this instance, anxiety was a useful emotion — preparing for the worst-case scenario, when the worst-case scenario was a high possibility.
The fearful feelings would be accompanied by physical symptoms — increased heart rate, tensing muscles, rising blood pressure…
All part of an adrenaline rush to prepare the person for immediate action.
So while this anxiety benefited our ancient ancestors, in most situations that our children or ourselves will face, it is not a productive or pleasant experience.
Our anxiety is most commonly triggered by stressors that will not cause us physical harm or threaten our livelihood.
Again, it is important to note the difference between having anxiety, and having an anxiety disorder.
Most people will experience some anxiety at some point in their lives.
But when it manifests itself in extremes, is based on largely irrational fears, and occurs along with the aforementioned physical symptoms, this is when it is a problem that will need to be addressed.
It is not black and white why some people — including children — experience more severe forms of anxiety than others.
It may be a simple predisposition to excessive worrying, it may be a result of environmental or circumstantial triggers, or in the most serious of cases, it may be the result of a chemical imbalance.
At any rate, looking at anxiety from an evolutionary perspective can help kids to understand why they experience these symptoms of anxiety and why.
And importantly, that they’re not alone in feeling them, nor do they have to continue suffering from them.
That’s part of the reason early intervention in anxiety is so important — so kids can become aware of their own anxiety early on, and learn life long coping skills to keep on top of it.
Click the links below for more information on childhood anxiety, and call us for a consultation if you believe you or your child needs help managing their anxiety.