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  • Ninay Desai

About Anxiety

Have you ever broken into a sweat at the thought of attending a meeting or even going to work, had hands that trembled as they reached for a bottle of water, experienced a sense of isolation and loneliness or just been enveloped in a cloud of dread that sucks the joy out of any situation, painting it the drab colours of pessimism? You could be suffering from anxiety or the effects of exposure to long term stress. It changes you in ways that you didn’t imagine possible or logical. And everything seems tougher to deal with. But I’m not here to tell you how it feels or how to deal with it because frankly, I don’t have the requisite knowledge or expertise. I just want to talk about anxiety, why it exists and how it impacts us.

Anxious and giving up


What is the purpose of anxiety? To answer that, you’ll need to reach back into our evolution as creatures on this planet. Stress and anxiety were essential to our survival. Imagine an ancestor from long ago, when early humans still roamed the land in search of sustenance. Let’s say we’ve travelled back to thirteen thousand years ago when Homo Sapiens were still hunters and gatherers. Now imagine, the said ancestor falling asleep under the stars. It’s a cool evening with a gentle breeze sweeping across, the sound of distant crickets acts as a lullaby. A twig snaps and dry leaves rustle rousing your ancestor. She spots some movement in the shadows. Here’s my guess, she ran away as fast as she could from the scene of danger, real or imagined. After all, you’re here, aren’t you? You wouldn’t be, if she hadn’t run. And not just once, but every time. Better to run from a moving shadow once too often than be eaten by a predator. The stakes, you see, couldn’t have been higher. Therefore, it is obvious that stress and its consequent fight or flight response have been a boon, evolutionarily. It’s kept us worried enough to stay alive.


Human beings aren’t the only animals that suffer bouts of stress. Most animals do, whether it’s the chimpanzees, sparrows, or zebras. Who knows, maybe touch-me-nots are also anxious little things! Why else would they shrink from contact? Setting aside my lame plant jokes, let’s return to zebras.


Robert Sapolsky, a biologist from Stanford University asked an important question about why zebras don’t get ulcers. His book, in a coup of book titles, is called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Come to think of it, zebras probably find it extremely stressful to have to look for food and water while also trying to not get eaten by a lion who is also looking for food and water. Why then do zebras not suffer from anxiety as we do? Sapolsky states,

“Zebras and lions may see trouble coming in the next minute and mobilise a stress response in anticipation, but they can’t get stressed about events far into the future.”

The point Sapolsky makes is that zebras don’t get ulcers from the anxiety of getting eaten because they don’t anticipate stress like humans do. The anxiety caused by a stressful event is bad enough, but the anticipation and trepidation make it much worse. Zebras, unlike humans, don’t suffer from this.


Another complication is that the biological responses of human beings haven’t evolved that much in the last twelve thousand years even though our circumstances have changed dramatically compared to say, a zebra. We have many more things to stress over than we did in our hunter-gatherer days. Sadly, our biological and hormonal responses remain the same even if the stressor in question is now a foul-mouthed boss instead of a sabre-toothed tiger. And while jobs are important, it’s not exactly life-or-death making our levels of anxiety disproportionate to the danger we face. Yet the stress caused by impending mortgage payments, irregular daily routines, rush hour traffic, over-stimulation caused by information overload that is modern media and fretting over signifiers of social status still cause our brains to release adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones, in turn, increase heart rate, respiration and blood pressure putting more physical stress on our organs. Long-term stress can be a contributing factor in heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and other illnesses.

Going back to the zebras, they probably deal with such stress once a day. Most people today, deal with mini-stressors hundreds of times a day. Top this with the additional misery of being an overthinker. The only perk for someone given to constant catastrophizing and overthinking is that they’re literally imagining more than half their problems. Most of them will never come to pass or even if they do, they won’t be nearly as terrible as imagined. It’s like Mark Twain said,

“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them have never happened.”


All this worry, even about stuff that will never happen will still give you ulcers. Perhaps Mr Twain had them too. If you think I’m being unnecessarily alarmist while I take a dig at overthinkers, I have two things to say to you. One, that I sympathise with overthinkers being one myself. The second is an example of a study conducted on sparrows.


As part of their experiment, Canadian researchers decided to block off with nets a whole area of a forest that was the sparrows’ habitat, shutting out their natural predators - racoons, owls and falcons. With this intervention, the sparrows were obviously safer. The researchers then hid loudspeakers in various parts of the forest. In one area of the woods, they played sounds made by predators while in the

other region, unthreatening forest sounds. The sparrows exposed to ‘dangerous’ noises laid 40% fewer eggs. Even the eggs they did lay were smaller and fewer of them hatched. Many of the baby sparrows starved to death because their parents were too frightened to fly out in search of food. The chicks that survived were weaker.

The experiment shows that it doesn’t take a real threat to mar the lives of sparrows and their young. Fear, and the anxiety caused by it, is enough. The same holds true for humans but we can choose to reduce our exposure to our stressors in certain cases and also adopt healthy practices to act as antidotes to deal with those that we can’t avoid. And most importantly, live in the present, like zebras do.

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4 commentaires

05 févr.

Great piece of article... a different approach to an old issue. Really liked the post ...

Ninay Desai
Ninay Desai
07 févr.
En réponse à

I'm glad you found some value in the post. Thanks for your comment.


03 sept. 2023

Thank you for shedding light on the often silent struggle of anxiety, Ninay. Your post beautifully captures the essence of what so many of us go through. Let's continue this important conversation and support one another on this journey. 💙 #AnxietyAwareness

Ninay Desai
Ninay Desai
04 sept. 2023
En réponse à

Absolutely, Portia! Anxiety and depression can be severely debilitating. Talking about it can help all of us. #AnxietyAwareness #MentalHealthMatters

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