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Taking Control of Evolution Using CBT

Not one of us is immune to experiencing anxiety and you wouldn't want to be without it either. Without anxiety, humans would not have survived through the ages as they have. An evolutionary psychology explanation is that early animals had to react to threats quickly and did not have time to psychologically and physically prepare themselves. The fight or flight response provided them with the mechanisms to rapidly respond to threats against survival. Survival of the fittest is only ever achieved through the protection that anxiety provides us from life-threatening events.

Our “fight or flight” response might be our best expression of our survival instinct. The autonomic nervous system is a control system that regulates heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response, urination, and sexual arousal. When we perceive a situation as threatening in some way, our sympathetic nervous system, a division of the autonomic nervous system, activates emotional, psychological and physical changes rapidly in order to prepare us to fight or flee. We feel frightened, anxious or angry. Psychologically our senses are heightened, thoughts race and we make faster decisions.

Vision and hearing become sharper to see and hear the danger more clearly. The digestive system shuts down as energy is diverted towards the muscles, leaving us with a dry mouth, nausea and butterflies in the tummy. Increased blood flow to the muscles and muscle tension provide the body with extra speed and strength to fight or run away. Breathing becomes quicker and more shallow, allowing more oxygen in to power up your muscles. If we don't use this extra oxygen up by fighting or running away we can feel dizzy and lightheaded. Increased blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugars, and fats are activated in order to supply the body with extra energy and stamina. Muscles in the bladder relax, leaving us needing to urinate in times of extreme stress. Sweating increases in order to coll the body, a cool machine is an efficient one. The blood clotting function of the body speeds up in order to prevent excessive blood loss in the event of an injury.

Pretty amazing stuff, eh? All of these automatic changes increase our chances of survival. How fantastic is that?

Unfortunately though, what worked as cave people doesn’t necessarily work for us in the 21st century. For most of us, life isn't about fighting or escaping predators anymore. The Fight or Flight response was designed to deal with feeling fear for our survival but it is much more likely to be triggered by more subtle concerns such as internal threats in the form of our worries. For example, when we feel anxious or fearful about a presentation, job interview, exam, or social situation the Fight or Flight response is triggered to enable a rapid physical response in the event of real danger and yet this isn't really needed. Let's take a spider phobia for another example, your fight or flight response kicks in and you either: a) stamp on the spider or suck it up with a hoover (fight) or b) leave the room waiting for someone else to get rid of it (avoidance/flight). Neither of these responses will promote your long-term survival, yet they have been hard-wired into us for eons.

In a few hundred thousand years to come, our fight or flight response will likely evolve to better meet the threats we now face (although the threats by then will likely have changed again!).

Evolution can begin right now, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has helped millions of people across the world to learn to control and redirect their primitive fight or flight response by changing the way they think about and perceive threats and through changing their behavioural response to situations perceived to be dangerous in some way. You don't have to have a life riddled with anxiety and worry and put up with a fight of flight response that isn't functional for you. People who have used CBT to gain control over their anxieties will pass on genes that march on towards a new and more adaptive response to today's threats. Now that is the really fantastic thing!

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