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Anxious Times – Evolution And Threat

by Edwin Alan Salter(more info)

listed in anxiety, originally published in issue 263 - June 2020

Problem

It seems fair to characterise contemporary life by rapid change and high uncertainty that result in stress (the WHO refers to an epidemic) and ineffective action.  Much threat is of remote origin and unfamiliar type, yet it presents very intrusively: response seems necessary but appropriate action  is unclear and sometimes near impossible.

Almost all generations of modern humans (over perhaps 200,000 years) experienced life very differently.  Without writing, their knowledge span was confined to living memory and proximity.  They lived in small groups amidst nature, familiar with their local environment both human and physical; immediate perils were known and what actions were possible.  This is not to paint an idyllic picture, the comforts and principles of civilisation were far off, but the adaptations achieved by evolution enabled them to succeed in these circumstances.

 

blaze-study-1962

Bridget Riley Blaze Study 1962 Courtesy  WikiArt Visual Art Encyclopedia

 

Some of those adaptations are now irrelevant or even misdirecting biases.  For example, the wariness of strangers can turn to hostility especially if we are forced together with a different, possibly competing group.  We also incline to attribute events to deliberate intention (for the most puzzling, gods are nominated) rather than to systems and situations or to sheer chance: consequently we target praise or blame inappropriately.  Our tendency to trusting assent is vulnerable to enlistment by unfamiliar others, fraudsters, mobs and tyrants.

The plainly evident perils of our ancestors were well met by the action of fight or flight, but continuing stress brings physiological and mental costs. A little anxiety can help by raising vigilance, a little depression may suit reduced efforts until there is hope of success.  But enduring threat with no clear counteraction prompts desperate escalations: obsessive compulsive behaviours or extreme avoidances, helplessness or panic, bring disaster to individuals and societies.

Evolutionary health, at its simplest, reminds us of how we are by nature.  Radical departures from those circumstances need to be considered with caution and with due compensation.  Indoor sedentary life attentive to screens and ingesting peculiar substances, not knowing neighbours and communicating remotely, is not what suits.  In our present culture how we may plan our lives, establish our identity and relationships, our work and what we will do, have all become  more uncertain, though expectations and demands abound.  Directly into the home come bad news of distant places, personally directed scams and unsettling social media.

The great historic remote threat of eternity in Hell was at least balanced by impressive ritual and the countervailing promise of heaven for the faithful if finally judged obedient. A brief listing of global turmoil in current awareness would include: the divisive Brexit process; highly personalized leaderships (Putin, Trump, Johnson…); the increasing polarizations of wealth, faith and nationalism; the climate crisis; and many accelerating change processes.  The costs of change are often underestimated (‘externalities’ ignored) as known methods and resources are abandoned and we have to try to learn anew: people too are made obsolete, perhaps unemployed or marginalised. 

The Corona virus pandemic is reported with much fear, and the astonishing response prescribed makes us further isolated and disempowered.  The infection, a bizarre product of a far-off urban market contriving to bustle together people and an alarming mix of animal species, was like other recent epidemics swiftly propagated by our teeming and far travelling population.  We wonder how our lives will be changed by eventual outcomes for politics and beliefs, commerce and industry.

Coping

Simple coping skills are always relevant.  They range from physical relaxation and common-sense planning to finding social support and comforting pleasures.  Others may be less obvious or more difficult to achieve, perhaps needing psychological input.  This is particularly true if your personal history includes episodes of depression or anxiety, frightening incidents, or experiences of being forced into a victim role.  But for the basic unease of our times – whether exogenous anxiety or existential angst – useful suggestions are possible.

If feeling overwhelmed by news, simply filter.  There is no need to know everything about troubles especially if one cannot possibly alter things.  ‘Must keep up with…’ does not apply, so define an appropriate minimum and stick to it.  Some forms of meditation develop the ability to clear the mind or to focus on calm.

If anxiety seeps into the gaps, then find distraction.  Deliberately add novelty to life (what doesn’t suit will be discarded), change the daily round, be helpfully involved with family and others.  At the simplest go out, preferably somewhere green and open, walk briskly with good posture, and look about you alertly (re-enacting a triumph of Homo sapiens evolution!).  You won’t always have the privilege of spare time, so enjoy it.

If you can take this further, begin to change yourself, your abilities and ideas.  Improve how you look, move, speak, develop a concern for a new issue that will itself lead into new experiences.  Almost all of us are born able to succeed in many ways and with varied self-expression; and what seem outer changes have inner effects.  You may find one major focus for activity that, without getting out of hand, achieves a pleasingly worthy usefulness.

If thoughts become extreme, as if by hyperbole or meiosis, first identify the alarm.  A repeated “What then…?” for consequences or “That’s because…?” for reasons may reveal faults in thinking or arrive at statements easily challenged by logic or evidence.  Choose ‘self-talk’ statements to repeat for reassurance of coping (especially avoid the clutter of worry at bedtime).  Telling oneself may seem silly but it works, as do smiling and decisive exertion.

If there is doubt about a risk, try to calculate rationally.  We can be vastly over affected by strange perils (mass shootings, shark attacks, lightning …), even those which can be quantified as tiny compared to the commonplace mishaps of life.  Sometimes we switch instead to denying a well evidenced and substantial risk because saying ‘all okay’ comforts and evades difficulty; and so come the absurdities trotted out to justify ignoring the climate crisis, thereby worsened.

If you can contrive any positive action to match with a threat, that will be an effective natural pairing.  Bracket off all beyond reach and decide on one troubling aspect you can tackle in however miniscule a way to benefit yourself or others.  Everyone can, for example, do something about climate change: a little basic information is a start, for that knowledge will reach others; and merely living more frugally is interesting and brings new perceptions.

Life as Experiment

Evolution is itself  continuously experimental.  The environment changes, a mutation occurs, and natural selection favours the advantaged over the impaired.  It is a process that cannot look forward and take a direction to a distant goal.  We self-conscious humans can plan, though not very well.

All novelty brings risks even if seeming to please: consider our adoption of sugar, the cigarette and fast-food, and the staunch commercial defence against blaming these.  For many thousands of years our use of fire was hugely beneficial (cooking for nutritious food, heat and light extending our space and time, manufacture) until the last 200 years when the carbon dioxide by-product has stealthily created a daunting threat.

Our immense population transforms, both by deliberate industry and by mere side-effect, the natural to which we are inescapably linked.  The changes and losses affecting our appreciated world of origin, from species to entire environments, are enormous with some already irretrievable.  The  pandemic warns, and brings response and recovery that are immense but uncertain efforts.

We have only one personal try at life and even within its progress our alternatives vanish.  We are always subject to luck and circumstances, so prudence would advise against major untested choices.  Individually and collectively we should prefer carefully researched change that is gradual, measurable in effect, and reversible in outcome, but these criteria are hard to meet. 

We cannot avoid compromise for we must get on with our own time-limited experiment, trying to be sensible amidst the threats and with hope for better.  It would be a waste to pursue a monotonous or selfish life, but seeking safety may lead that to such restrictions.  And if we have no personal achievements to  support our sense of identity we may find other and toxic props, perhaps viciously asserting the givens of our lives (race, gender, faith, nationality, class…) as though righteous guarantees of superiority.

To return to the theme, it is useful to consider just how weirdly dubious something is by comparison with our origin.  (An earlier article on Evolutionary Health in this publication, January 2018, introduces this discussion and how to adjust for well-being.)  Our ancestors’ adaptations for survival progressed to mutual understanding and empathy, an inclination to be curious and, if safe, to cooperate.  From these subtle aids have emerged science and ethics, an admiration of the true, the good, the beautiful.  Something to celebrate in a humanist spirit, a source of hope.

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About Edwin Alan Salter

Edwin Alan Salter MA MSc PhD now lives in King’s Lynn and has worked in diverse fields including dance and psychotherapy, biochemistry and education, with recent writings on language, humanism and climate. He may be contacted via kl.humanfactors@talktalk.net.

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