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Anxiety: An Evolutionary Approach

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Melissa BatesonORCiD, Dr Ben Brilot, Professor Daniel Nettle


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Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental illnesses, with huge attendant suffering. Current treatments are not universally effective, suggesting that a deeper understanding of the causes of anxiety is needed. To understand anxiety disorders better, it is first necessary to understand the normal anxiety response. This entails considering its evolutionary function as well as the mechanisms underlying it. We argue that the function of the human anxiety response, and homologues in other species, is to prepare the individual to detect and deal with threats. We use a signal detection framework to show that the threshold for expressing the anxiety response ought to vary with the probability of threats occurring, and the individual's vulnerability to them if they do occur. These predictions are consistent with major patterns in the epidemiology of anxiety. Implications for research and treatment are discussed.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Bateson M, Brilot B, Nettle D

Publication type: Editorial

Publication status: Published

Journal: Canadian Journal of Psychiatry

Year: 2011

Volume: 56

Issue: 12

Pages: 707-715

Print publication date: 01/12/2011

ISSN (print): 0706-7437

ISSN (electronic): 1497-0015

Publisher: Canadian Psychiatric Association