From PsychEvos Wiki


Anxiety is a natural emotion and physiological response to situations perceived as threatening, uncertain, or stressful. In evolutionary terms, anxiety has developed as a protective mechanism to help individuals respond to and cope with potential dangers in their environment. The emotion is often characterized by feelings of apprehension, fear, and worry, accompanied by physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, shallow breathing, and muscle tension.

Evolutionary Purpose

The evolutionary purpose of anxiety can be traced back to the need for survival and reproduction in ancestral environments. Anxiety served several adaptive functions, including:

  • Promoting vigilance and alertness, which prepared individuals to readily detect and respond to environmental threats [1].
  • Facilitating risk assessment and decision-making processes during uncertain or potentially dangerous situations [2].
  • Enhancing the ability to learn from previous experiences and to avoid similar threats in the future, leading to better adaptability [3].

Mechanisms Underlying Anxiety

Various brain mechanisms and genetic factors are involved in the development and expression of anxiety. One of the key neurotransmitters associated with anxiety is serotonin, which is involved in mood regulation and the stress response [4]. The production, release, and uptake of serotonin are regulated by the VMAT1 gene. Research has shown that the Ile-type variant of the VMAT1 gene, which evolved through natural selection, is associated with a lower predisposition to anxiety and depression [5].

Immediate Return Environment and Anxiety

During human evolution, anxiety was primarily adaptive in an Immediate Return Environment, which refers to situations where individuals receive feedback or experience the consequences of their actions quickly. In such environments, anxiety had a short-term, acute focus, as it was used to solve immediate problems and avoid immediate threats [6]. For example, in the face of an approaching predator, anxiety would drive an individual to flee or fight to ensure survival. Chronic stress and anxiety were relatively rare in such settings.

Today's modern environments often involve delayed feedback and chronic stressors, which can potentially lead to maladaptive expressions of anxiety, such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder [7].


Anxiety has evolved as a protective mechanism that enabled humans to detect, assess, and respond to potential threats in their environment. Although originally adaptive in immediate return environments, the emotion can sometimes manifest maladaptively in the context of modern, complex situations with delayed feedback and chronic stressors. An understanding of the evolutionary basis of anxiety can offer valuable insights into the development of treatment strategies and help individuals cope with anxiety more effectively.