The History of Anxiety and the Importance of Living in the Here and Now

Our brains have developed through a process of evolution. In their current form our brains have been around for about 100,000 years; a mere drop in the evolutionary bucket. It is important to remember evolution as we consider our behaviours today. Why have certain behaviours evolved? How might those behaviours promote survival or reproduction?

The way we live today is very different to that of our evolutionary ancestors when there were no cities, no agriculture and no technology. We would have lived as foragers. There are still some (an extremely small number) of forager societies living in the world today.

Anthropologists who have studied these societies observe the immediacy of people’s lives, the extreme focus on the present. If your hunt has been successfully you return to camp to eat, if not you search for an alternative food source. People live by the motto “If it is not here and now what does it matter where (or when) it is?”

In foraging societies there is little if any gap between the efforts you make and the feedback you receive about your efforts. In our society there is often a long delay between the efforts we make and the payoff. By the time we do get feedback it may be too late for us to change what we are doing. Take for example farming. Farmers need to plough the fields, plant the seeds, water the fields, monitor for weeds and pests, harvest and store the crop. By the time it is done it will be months before the farmer knows if they have been successful. It is much harder to resort to a plan B if it has all gone wrong.

Some researchers suggest that it is the move 10,000 years ago from a foraging society that focused on immediacy to an agricultural society where there is more uncertainty and a greater delay before outcomes are known, that has led to us experiencing anxiety. We evolved to live in a foraging society where our actions had immediate consequences but modern life means that we are living very differently.

What does this mean for us now? Well, I am not suggesting that we move back to living in foraging societies, but there is a lot that we can learn from that way of life. We live a life now that is very focused on the future – we hurtle towards that future at great speed without taking the time to enjoy the here and now.

Being aware that our brains did not evolve for the way that we live today can give us new understanding and compassion for our feelings of anxiety.

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