Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the US and an estimated one-third of the North American adult population struggles with anxiety at one point in their lives. This is an increasingly problematic epidemic that could have a very simple answer. The origins of the emotion tie back to the earliest days of humanity when the approach of predators and life-threatening dangers were common occurrences. When faced with these potentially harmful triggers, physical alarms like a raised heartbeat, sweating, a boost in adrenaline and increased sensitivity to surroundings were set off in the body and ignited evasive action. The feelings and resulting actions of anxiety were not only normal but necessary for survival. Today, life-threatening danger is a less pressing concern than it was for early humans, yet we still regularly experience this emotion that evolution fought to keep around due to its track record for saving lives. Anxieties now revolve around work, money, relationships, health, and other issues that demand our attention without necessarily needing the anxious fight-or-flight reaction. If we were periodically reintroduced to the original and valid sources of anxiety, would this prevent its unwanted occurrence in non-threatening situations? Some of us already seek these out.
Why do people love burning man? Why do successful, wealthy individuals who can afford to live in a San Francisco penthouse and pay help to do every menial task specifically love burning man? Why do they put aside their envy-inducing luxuries for a week in the desert with scarce water, canned food, and handheld showers? The same reason Crossfit spread like wildfire and why something called the Death Race not only exists but people opt to partake. We crave getting back to our primal nature, crave a version of the hardships our hunter-gatherer ancestors were forced to endure for millennia. Civilization, organized cities and societies, didn’t become ubiquitous until a few thousand years ago. Evolution moves a hell of a lot slower than that. Our environments are near opposite to the environments hunter-gatherers faced, yet all we really are underneath the contrived layers of social acceptability are primal homo sapiens who crave food, shelter, and connection. Today, we have an abundance of options for food and shelter and we have a poverty of connection. There are two problems there, 1. we no longer have to strain to fulfill our basic needs and 2. we’re lacking a vital piece needed to thrive, quality connection. As the structure and security of civilization grows, these primal deprivations deepen and become more taxing, more attempts are made to fulfill them. We address the two problems by
- Seeking strained state situations. We use things like cryotherapy, cold plunges, extended sauna sessions, near-impossible races, remote escapes, and fasting to force a strained state that our privileged, abundant lives have no need to face unless we choose to. When in a strained state, the banal struggles (how you’ll double your salary, when you’ll get into that private club) that cloud our awareness are forced to dissipate because we’re brought to the core of being human, it ignites our instincts in a way that scrolling Instagram, ordering from Instacart, or sitting in an Uber does not. Why do we crave igniting our instincts? See above, evolution is slow as hell. Our innate selves are basically equal to our ancestors 30,000 years ago whose days were spent carving stones, foraging berries, hunting animals, and communing around a campfire. Our innate instincts support that sort of lifestyle, crave that sort of lifestyle, we’ve deviated worlds away from that sort of lifestyle so we’ve started finding other ways to get a dose of it.
- Social media. We connect with friends and family through the lens of social media. We live in overpopulated cities, surrounded with people on the streets on the bus in the uber pool and we look shyly at our phones because we’ve gotten used to the technology layer not the naked layer-less human human interaction.
Both solutions are flawed. The first is intermittent and infrequent, it’s hard to stay in a strained state for long unless we’re physically forced or we’re enlightened Stoics. The second replaces quality with quantity. We increase our quantity of social media friends and followers, hoping to fulfill the lacking quality.
So what’s an unflawed solution?
We can start by dissecting the experiences that satisfy these urges and finding the common threads. These are:
- Being surrounded by a tight-knit tribe that has common goals/drives
- Collaborating repeatedly with the tribe towards those goals/drives in a way that is open, supportive, and trust-filled
- A feeling of complete self-acceptance and embraced vulnerability
- Physical effort not simply for exercise/being healthy but for the sake of a productive outcome or purpose (e.g. climbing/biking/running towards or away from something, boxing/wrestling/jiu-jitsu, hunting, climbing, competitive sports, sex)
- Experiencing physical strain due to a forced deprivation (e.g. lack of food, water, warmth, shelter)