Don't Feel Bad About Your Anxiety. Why Your Suffering Is An Evolutionary Response

October 30, 2019

There is no one reading this who doesn’t suffer. Our overproduction economy, and indeed materialism itself, stems from a fundamental restlessness that each of us have; that if we can just buy this thing, get that job, find this person, reach that goal, we’ll finally be happy. We’ll have arrived. We’ll stop suffering. 

I probably don’t need to tell you that reality never quite matches up to the hopeful story in our heads. When we achieve that one thing we thought would really resolve things, whether it’s a dream job or a partner or that perfect apartment, it’s never enough to completely stifle our suffering. We may feel a temporary rush of dopamine, but it’s not going to stay. And then we’ll be on to the next wish, the next hope, the next goal…and the process begins again. 

I know for a fact that every single person reading this has had a similar experience of suffering. How do I know this? Because it’s literally hardwired into our DNA. 

Why Suffering is an evolutionary response

Evolutionary psychology is a burgeoning field that seeks to explain psychological tendencies using an evolutionary perspective. The modern homo sapien is a product of traits that have helped our ancestors survive and reproduce over millions of years. We normally think of these traits as physical (at least I have) but psychological traits that helped us survive have been passed down as well. 

Psychologists and neuroscientists continue to discover more about our psychological tendencies and how they correlate to different brain structures. Meanwhile, anthropologists are busy giving us a more complete picture of the varied lives of early humans. Certain tendencies correspond well with our understanding of early human lives, making evolutionary psychology an apt discipline to explain some of the origins of suffering inherent to the human condition. 

Here are a few of the ways our evolved brains cause us to suffer:

1. Pain and pleasure are both fleeting.

One main source of suffering discussed above stems from the delusion that pleasure will have any lasting effects; we think that once we buy this or that, get that job, etc. etc. we will be happy forever, or at least for a little longer than we end up being in reality. 

The capacity to seek pleasure and avoid pain runs very deeply within the evolutionary tree. All sentient beings seek pleasure and avoid pain, it’s not just us. (The capacity of other beings to feel suffering is, of course, the reason Peaceful Dumpling is a vegan publication!) It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective that pleasure should be fleeting so that we should seek it out again and again. The most basic and universal pleasurable activities—eating and having sex—are literally the driving activities of the survival and reproduction of our species. Of course we should be programmed to seek them out again and again. 

The temporary nature of pleasure and pain is applied to any activity that can bring us those sensations. It’s the hamster wheel of seeking pleasure while avoiding pain that brings us so much suffering, yet this same drive has led to the survival of life on earth. 

2. Humans are fundamentally social animals.

Aristotle had it right. Social interactions dominate much of our mental headspace. The “default network” i.e. where the mind wanders when it isn’t focused on a particular task, activates the parts of our brain associated with social interaction and worrying about our place in the past and future.

I know from personal experience that much of my suffering stems from a social anxiety. I’ve often found myself replaying conversations in my head, thinking of things I should have said instead, dissecting the tone of someone’s voice in my memory, stressing over the politics of friend, family, co-worker, etc. relationships. I’m also quite sure I’m not alone in this. 

Humans are wired to be hyper-attuned to social situations. This makes perfect sense, since we spent most of our evolutionary history living in tribes of less than five hundred people. People depended on one another in their tribes, and a social faux pas could literally mean less food, worse sleeping conditions, more grueling labor, etc. Our brains evolved to pay close attention to social interactions for our survival. Modern humans are literally the descendants of the people who were most neurotic about social encounters, because this stress paid off in an increased capacity to survive and reproduce. 

3. Our minds create a powerful sense of “self.”

Building on the previous point, our unique social abilities as a species owe their success in part to our strong conceptualization of being a separate self. Our relation to others is dominated by our experience of ourselves as separate beings; abilities like empathy and theory of mind (the ability to understand the mental headspace of others) that have helped us relate socially also stem from the basic understanding that we are individuals fundamentally separate from the rest of the world. 

Buddhists have been saying for thousands of years that the self is an illusion. If it is an illusion, it is the most powerful and pervasive one we have. Since I (and probably most people reading this) am far from enlightened, the self seems to be an experience we’re stuck with. I find it comforting to know that our attachment to our sense of self has a neurological basis. 

I mentioned the default network before—the place our mind goes with no explicit task to occupy it—as a social network. The default network is also involved with creating our self-conceptualizations, and it turns out that this is closely linked with social relations. 

A 2015 study found the three core components of the default network to be “social cognitive processes, such as mentalizing…memory-related processes, such as autobiographical recollection, and imagination…and self-referential processes.” In short, our minds automatically make us imagine the experiences of others (mentalizing) and build up a conceptualization of who we are through memory and imagination. 

Ruminating on the past, worrying about the future, thinking about other people…this is where our minds go when there is nothing else to occupy them. It’s these thoughts that create such a strong sense of “I am,” and these thoughts that can cause us to suffer so immensely. 

Now, knowing the psychological bases of our suffering is unfortunately not enough to stop our suffering (if only it were that simple!). But I do find a sense of comfort in knowing that my attachment to my ego, social stress, and pursuit of pleasure do stem from evolution. That suffering for these reasons isn’t necessarily due to my failure as a person, that I’m hard-wired to think and act in certain ways. 

We do, of course, have a certain amount of agency and control. I challenge you next time you find yourself falling into one of these traps to just stop and look at it for what it is. You don’t even necessarily need to overcome it, just stop and recognize the suffering for what it is and why it’s happening. You can bring more truth and clarity to a situation by trying to understand the suffering and having compassion with yourself for not being able to overcome it every time it occurs. 

I have found that meditation has helped immensely with recognizing the sources of my suffering. Over time, meditation has even been found to decrease activity in the default network. I highly recommend starting a daily practice—even for just ten minutes a day!  

For more reading on this topic, I’d highly recommend the books Why Buddhism is True and Siddhartha’s Brain. This article was inspired by topics discussed throughout both books, and the authors expound in much more detail upon the points above. For anyone who, like me, is very interested in the science behind mindfulness, these books are a must-read. 

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Photo: Skye Shannon

Maille is the founder of Green and Growing, a conscious lifestyle blog focusing on vegan tips and recipes. She is also a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor, avid yogi, and Environmental Science and Policy student at the University of Maryland. Connect with Maille via Instagram @greenandgrowingblog and her website.


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