3 - The Role of the
Survival Instinct in Anxiety

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Why did Nature feel the need to give us each a personal alarm, a survival instinct?

Collins Dictionary defines the 'survival instinct' as, "the instinct in humans and animals to do things in a dangerous situation that will prevent them from dying"

From the moment of birth our senses - sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste - are picking up information from our environment. If we were fully consciously aware of all this information, we'd have brain overload!

How we avoid brain overload

man closing eyes to focus on music

Think for a moment how often we deliberately cut off some of the information our senses are picking up so as to focus on one sort of input specifically.

For instance, we may close our eyes in order to concentrate on sound while listening to music.

When eating something special we may close our eyes in order to focus on the taste.

We often have to deliberately cut off some of the information that's being picked up so that we can concentrate on the bits we want.

At other times we may find we are unable to focus on the sensations we want to focus on because there is too much other information competing for our attention. A prime example of this is when we find ourselves unable to concentrate on what we are reading because there is too much background noise.

To the Survival Instinct everything is relevant

But, as far as nature is concerned, it could be dangerous for us to cut off certain bits of information in this way because we might miss some danger that's approaching. So nature built into each of us an alarm system.

To the alarm system the world is a big, potentially dangerous, place. It works a bit like the intruder alarm monitors in some homes.

domestic alarm movement monitor

It watches what's going on so as to spot danger even before we become consciously aware of it. It then alert us to it before it gets us. That's its job. And it works really well, albeit too well in many cases. But how does it know what's dangerous?

To the alarm system everything is dangerous until proved otherwise

Therefore anything that has caused us to feel negative arousal in the past, anything that previously made us feel pain, afraid, embarrassed, or anxious sets the alarm off and it butts in to whatever we're doing and draws our attention to what it believes is the danger.

Imagine you are sitting in a lecture when a window cleaner walking by the window drops his ladders. 

window cleaner walking by
window cleaner dropping ladders

The ladders make a loud clattering sound as they fall.

Everyone in that class will most probably be startled and turn to look where the noise came from, to see what made it. They don't choose to do that consciously - it's an automatic response. That's the work of the survival instinct.

There are two categories of things that will usually trigger this alarm system.

1. Anything to which we've had a negative response in the past

That is, anything which caused us fear, pain, sadness etc. Because, by definition, if it caused us to feel negative then to the survival instinct, it could kill us. 

There are major situations where this is obvious. For example if you've been bitten by a stray dog you might expect to feel a bit anxious if you are out for a walk and a dog approaches you.

Less obvious is a situation such as this. Suppose someone has just served you a plate of food containing something which you absolutely hate. You will experience raised arousal as the survival instinct recalls your dislike and sets off the warning to be careful.

2. Anything new or different which the survival instinct hasn't encountered before.

The survival instinct bases its warnings on its stored knowledge of how such things turned out previously. If they didn't provoke a negative response from you then it labels them as 'safe' and doesn't issue a warning. If they provoked a negative reaction then it warns you. 

But if it has never come across this particular situation before it doesn't know how to rate it. So it errs on the side of caution issues a slight warning, just raising your awareness enough so that, if it does prove dangerous you're ready to run.

But first it is best to understand the mechanism which nature gave us to escape from real life and death situations, the fight or flight response. 

  1. Overcoming Anxiety
  2. Anxiety Causes
  3. Survival Instinct