Thursday, February 11, 2010

Survival Mode Gone Wrong

Here's an interesting theory that I came upon at a seminar this past weekend. The reason for the widespread incidence of stress and anxiety in our culture may be rooted in the change our ancestors made from being hunter-gatherers to becoming farmers. 

Apparently, in hunter-gatherer societies, there are very few of the kinds of problems that we usually associate with stress, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders. One possible reason is that when a hunter-gatherer experiences fear, there is a legitimate reason for it: their life is probably in danger. This makes the survival mechanism a functional and useful component in their life.

In our culture, we go into survival mode if someone forgets to signal a left turn in front of us at the traffic light. This would indicate that our fight or flight stress response is set at a very high and sensitive level. Therefore, what used to be a functional system is now dysfunctional, and there is often no legitimate reason for much of our stress and anxiety activation.

The switch from hunter-gatherer to a predominantly agrarian culture some 12,000 years ago, meant that we now lived in one place much of the time instead of living a nomadic lifestyle. This led to the development of permanent housing and settlements, the concepts of property possession and money, and the social positions that came along with these items. Thus status-through-accumulation became synonymous with survival.

In the hunter-gatherer societies, one of the greatest fears is being abandoned by the group, which would lead to real issues of survival. In the agrarian society, losing one's status or property would bring up similar survival issues. It does not always follow that losing the farm means that we will be abandoned and die in the forest. It feels that way, however, because that's the way the human brain evolved over the 2.5 to 3 million years before agriculture was introduced.

So when the economy goes bad or our bank account dwindles, we revert to survival mode, even though there is no direct, life-threatening danger. Therefore, the fight or flight response in these cases serves no functional role. The old part of our brains that evolved during hunter-gathering is still in there telling us that a bear is chasing us through the forest. Maybe this is why, in the language of Wall Street, a prolonged period of investment loss is called a "bear market" and is accompanied by widespread pessimism and perhaps even panic.


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