A model that is used within biology to describe how things evolve can be used to explain the evolution of anxiety within a child or young person. Using this model, I’m going to share four different ways that we can tackle anxiety.
This comes from Tinbergen, who created these four questions that are used to define how something evolves in the biological world. These are relevant because they help us to define and explain certain elements of animal’s behaviour and of course, human beings.
We’re going to be looking at human beings from an animalistic perspective, because these responses and reactions that we have to things like anxiety, are ultimately in part caused by the fact that we are just animals.
We all have innated, natural genetic, prehistoric tendencies within our systems that we cannot consciously overcome and require us to work in an unconscious way. With some behavioural modifications it is possible to avoid unwanted inbuilt tendencies.
When I heard these four questions and their definition, straight away, I thought about how anxiety evolves and develops within an individual.
The four questions relating to evolution in biology is in relation to function, ontogeny, logic and finally we have mechanism.
With function, the question we ask is ‘how does it help me to survive?’
When we think about anxiety, it’s easy for us to consider it to be a negative experience that doesn’t have anything positive to offer. But remember that when we look at problems, certainly from an NLP perspective, we’re always considering that a behaviour has a positive intention. Even if it doesn’t appear to be the case on the surface, at some level, it will be meeting a need.
When it comes to the question, how does this help me to survive? Having anxiety might help a young person to avoid things that they perceive as being harmful or dangerous or troubling to them in some way.
In fact, having a full-blown anxiety attack about something, even though that appears to be painful and uncomfortable and horrible, may still be a better experience than the thing that the anxiety has led them to avoid. For example, a social scenario or going into school that day. The anxiety serves a positive purpose that has helped them to avoid something that for them feels like it could have been harmful or dangerous to them in some way. Even though, logically, we know that is not the case at all.
Ontogeny looks at the individual development.
A good example here is something like a bird learning to sing. How is this useful to the bird and how did it develop for them on an individual basis?
When a baby bird hears the mother bird singing, it starts to learn the pattern of how to deliver a tune. Based on how successful the mother is at singing, it’s going to have an impact on how successful their baby bird is at singing.
There’s a window of opportunity for this baby bird to learn those skills of being able to sing tunefully.
With our children, there are windows of opportunity for them to learn certain skills as part of their overall development. For example, there’s a window of opportunity for walking, talking, reading and many more.
We might also notice that if, for some reason, those windows of development are missed, or they don’t develop within those areas quite as well as they otherwise could have done.
What if there are windows for developing resilience, confidence and other anxiety fixing skills that get missed?
The reasons why those developmental windows work so well for us is because when we develop that particular skill, within that certain window, we often get rewarded for it. Whether that is praise or connection, or love, or any other kind of reward, that tells us that that was a good thing to do. Sometimes we see with anxiety, that there are rewards that happen for someone, because of displaying that anxiety.
Let’s take the example of a young person who skipped school one day because they were feeling socially anxious about going in. As a result, a parent ends up taking the day off and spending the day with them.
If they’re having lots of engagement and interaction from their parent because of taking that day off from school for anxiety, that can feel like a reward for them, even though it was never meant to be that way.
This is when we start to see that, there’s an individual learning that happens for that young person that tells them if I behave in this way, I will be rewarded for it.
It might seem counterintuitive, to think of anxiety as a skill or to think of it as being something related to development. But again, if we see that that behaviour is in some way, perceived as being rewarded, then the reason why that becomes something that our young person might gravitate towards, is because of noticing this behaviour in the outside world (maybe they’ve seen somebody else who’s behaving anxiously) they mirror the skill so that they start to develop those skills within themselves.
They also notice that in some way, they get rewarded for having that behaviour. It could be love, it could be comfort, it could even be negative attention.
It could be a parent or a carer who says, this is terrible behaviour, don’t do this. It’s annoying, but that’s still attention. They still might then be inclined to gravitate towards it in the future.
Our third question relates to Phylogeny. This is where something develops within a species over the course of several generations, and that is something that we might see happening with anxiety.
Have you ever noticed that a child that you work with who was super anxious has a super anxious Mum or Dad as well? Then it turns out that there’s also a super anxious grandparent too! Well, that’s because we don’t just learn generationally how we should act and behave, but there’s also some genetic predisposition towards those particular behaviours.
It could be the case that there is a greater chance of a young person being anxious, because they’re carrying a little bit of genetic code, which with the right environmental factors can easily get turned on.
Their anxiety radar is already in operation for whenever something that looks like an anxiety provoking stimulus shows up in their world for them.
We can’t entirely blame anxiety on the environmental stuff that’s going on, or even on situations that might show up on an individual level. But there may be something to the idea of there being some genetic predisposition to this. It takes us back to that age old nature/nurture debate. Which one is really affecting who we end up becoming in the world?
The answer, as is often the case, is a little bit of both nature and nurture. The tendency to become an anxious individual does at least in part, come from the genetics that they have inherited from other people who are likely anxious people. But there is also the chance that certain things that happen in their life might then cause them to become more anxious or to become more confident and less anxious, depending on what sorts of stimuli they are interacting with in the world.
Our final question is around Mechanism, and this pertains to ‘how does it work?’
When it comes to anxiety, we’ve touched on this a little in question number three, in terms of the internal processes and internal functions.
What is this person’s neurology set up like? What are their hormone levels like? How do they behave and communicate with themselves internally? All of those internal processes have an influence in how anxious we may or may not be. So, for a young person, what this tells us is that there may be a disposition towards them behaving more anxiously. If they have a neural network already set up and functioning in their brain that kicks in very quickly whenever there is an anxious trigger, it releases the hormones that cause them to get more stressed out super-quickly.
This is all because they have in effect practiced and rehearsed in their minds that all of what might go horribly wrong in life, so that they can very quickly behave and react to a negative anxiety inducing stimuli.
As a result of looking at these four questions, it does give us four reasons why anxiety evolves, even though it, isn’t a biological organism.
To recap, regarding function: anxiety helps me to avoid bad things, therefore, it keeps me safe, it could relate to individual development, so I get rewarded when I’m anxious. I get more love, connection, and praise from it,
With ontogeny: If there is a missed window of opportunity for developing anti-anxiety skills? Or could we be rewarding anxious behaviours inadvertently at key learning milestones?
It could be down to phylogeny: Anxiety came down through generations and generations, I’ve inherited this skill set and I’ve modelled it from my mother, my grandma, my great grandma over the decades.
It could also relate to mechanism: What is going on in the setup of that person’s brain and their biochemistry? They may have a more natural tendency and inclination towards reacting and behaving anxiously.
Here’s the good news, in all of that, whilst there are four reasons why we may be inclined to become anxious or end up dealing with an anxious young person, it also tells us that there’s four different ways there that we can start to tackle the issues around anxiety.
If we go back to function, we can look at some of these cognitive behavioural interventions, to start changing that fundamental thinking that’s going on there.
There are other ways of being able to think about life, overcome traumatic anxiety inducing triggers and we’ve had some help that we can put in place, possibly for the people around the anxious young person.
Perhaps parents and careers can be encouraged to behave and react differently towards the anxious individual, so that whilst they can still be encouraging and supportive, they’re not actually investing as much into the anxiety.
Looking at the behaviours over generations, I would revert again to something along the NLP, CBT type approach, because sometimes we need that help to be able to break the trends of generations.
Sometimes stuff gets passed down through the generations that is no longer relevant for us. By leaning on some of those cognitive behavioural NLP type techniques that we have at our disposal, we’re able to start interrupting limiting patterns, that would be relevant.
We know that when we get people behaving and practising in different ways, our brains have neuroplasticity, and can change their physical form, so that they support us in thinking and behaving in new ways going forward.
It takes a little bit of rehearsal and therefore we can work with our clients and the young people that we are engaged with, to help them to carve out new ways of holding their posture, new ways of calming their emotions down so that they have a bit more control over those wild hormones that might be raging through them otherwise.
As a result of doing these things, they start to change the form of their brain, so that later when they’re exposed to those same old anxious inducing stimulations, they are prewired to behave and react differently. We can use the techniques that we have at our disposal to essentially change the way human beings have evolved to be anxious, and to prevent the anxiety passing down through further generations.
The good thing is, is that all four of those mechanisms have an antidote, so that we’re able to encourage our young people to be the best versions of themselves without anxiety, getting in the way quite so much.
By Gemma Bailey