Approximately 40,000 years ago, there were two Neanderthal men living in a cave. Their names were Worry and Carefree. It had been days since they had eaten.
From a distance, they saw an object that they hoped to be a source of food. Worry stayed back, but Carefree went for it. As Carefree got closer to the object, he realized that the object was actually a group of lions feeding on a zebra’s carcass. Carefree began to run. His heart rate increased as adrenaline, blood, and cortisol all flowed in an effort to evade the predator. But alas, he couldn’t escape. Worry had been worried that his friend hadn’t returned. However, he was relieved that he was still alive. He ended up sharing this “worry” gene from generation to generation.
Worry is evolutionary
Worry is what has kept us alive for all these years. It is also what is killing us at a methodical pace. According to neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, chronic stress kills.
For Carefree, his stress reaction served a purpose: to mobilize him. Worry continued to live in a state of hypervigilance, waiting for the next predator. With this mindset, his blood pressure gradually rose, his heart became weaker from all of its pumping, and the excess cortisol caused his body to become inflamed. Worry was likely to die from “natural causes.”
So, it is natural to worry. This acknowledgment redefines what is “normal.”
Those who do not worry are the “crazy ones.” It also explains why wellness is such an effort.
The danger of excessive worry
Excessive worry can lead to anxiety. Our existence was once predicated on our ability to anticipate the dangers that await us. While no longer necessary, worry still lives on. Now, social media has replaced the Lion.
While we sometimes can outrun the lion, we seem to have difficulty shutting off social media. No longer is our existence threatened; instead, it is our self-concept that we feel is under attack. How many likes or followers we get is now tied to our survival. If we feel we are under attack, all vestigial resources of the flight, fight, or freeze awaken. While the bodily sensations experienced are the same as being chased on the savanna, they serve no purpose. Quite the opposite, they slowly kill us.
I am calling for a paradigm shift within our culture where we acknowledge that we are all predisposed to anxiety and depression. This is not the “new normal” but the original normal that has never been accepted.
We ostracize and stigmatize those who acknowledge the worst-kept secret. Once we accept that we all struggle, then we can understand that resilience and wellness strategies do not come naturally. Raising a resilient culture involves making the effort to teach everyone wellness strategies within the schools, employment, and in the home.
Sapolsky, Robert M. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: A Guide to Stress, Stress Related Diseases, and Coping. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1994.