The Function of Anxiety


When we consider such reactions as anxiety, inhibition, blanking out, fainting, it is not at all clear what useful function they serve. However, when we regard these symptoms as having served a function in the evolution of our species, their presence begins to make sense. Terms such as teleonomic and adaptational are used to refer to behaviours that have had survival value in an evolutionary sense (Lorenz 1980). In the same regard, the term adaptational may also be applied to behavior that promotes the major goals of the organism–survival, growth, reproduction, maintenance, mas tery.

Since there is continuous pressure to engage in self-enhancing behavior, the organism with its overall systems of checks and balances depends on the “fear reaction” as a check on overly expansive or careless patterns. Aggressive behavior relevant to exploration or competitiveness, for exam ple, could, if unchecked, lead to injury or death. The individual has a set of such automatic regulators that deter him from advancing too far. An example of such an inhibitor is the “visual cliff reflex” (Marks 1969). It has been observed that many infant mammals, including humans, show an immobility response when they come to the edge of a ledge. This inhibi tion then serves as a restraint on further advance into the danger zone. Such a “regulator” often persists into adulthood and is manifested by a sense of dizziness and physical inhibition as one approaches the edge of a cliff.

When we consider the common fears of childhood-falling, being in jured, drowning, suffocating, the dark, deep water, and so on—we can see that some of these at least may serve to deter the child from venturing into unfamiliar or dangerous places before he has the requisite abilities and skills (for example, depth perception, ability to swim). The interpersonal fears, such as fear of strangers or of separation from a caretaker, may be conceived of in similar terms. The growing child experiences gratification as he develops self-sufficiency. But, if unchecked, the child may wander into unknown areas that have as-yet-undefined potential dangers. Thus, most children have a set of engrained fears of being abandoned or of getting lost that are triggered before a child has traveled too far from the caretaker.

Theoretical and Clinical Aspects

How are those teleonomic mechanisms expressed in stage fright, inter personal anxiety, agoraphobia? The fear of negative evaluation seems to serve as a deterrent to behavior that will alienate other people. Ultimately, alienation of others could produce abandonment by the kin group or overt disapproval by others. Thus, the individual with stage fright is mobilized, on the one hand, to obtain gratification from being approved by the audi ence but, on the other, is apprehensive about the possibility of experienc ing the pain of disapproval. The anticipated pain of disapproval is suffi cient to trigger the “vulnerability mode,” which—by its mechanisms of inhibition of speech and action is designed to prevent “reckless” behav ior (chapter 4). The person with agoraphobia, in contrast, has a complex set of fears revolving around the notion of an internal catastrophe, such as a heart attack, loss of control, or mental derangement. Because the individ ual believes he cannot cope with these dangers without the help of key figures, he feels more frightened when he is away from a potential care taker.

In a sense, the fears operate as a warning of the individual’s vulnerability to social sanctions (stage fright, social anxiety) and to physical dangers (panic attacks). It should be noted, however, that fears go in both direc tions: they serve to discourage not only hazardous, unduly aggressive behavior but also regressive, childish behavior. Thus, the individual who avoids situations of risk is fearful of being subjected to the taunts of his peers. The full play of the system of counterbalances is seen in stage fright, when a person is simultaneously inhibited from self-expression for fear of “appearing foolish” and frightened by the prospect of appearing inhibited and immature because of his fears.


Anxiety is a dramatic experience that generally overshadows other com ponents of the threat response. Human beings are so designed as to experi ence an intensely unpleasant emotion (anxiety) in response to present danger and are strongly moved by the experience to take steps to reduce it and to prevent its recurrence. Furthermore, patients, clinicians, and theoreticians are inclined to highlight the unpleasant experience of anxiety as the central overriding element in pathological conditions such as panic attack. Anxiety, however, is not the pathological process in so-called anxi ety disorders any more than pain or fever constitute the pathological process in an infection or injury. We should not allow nature’s mechanism for dramatizing the feeling of anxiety to mislead us into believing that this most salient subjective experience plays the central role in the so-called anxiety disorders.

Turning Anxiety on Its Head: An Overview 

Anxiety acts as an attention getter. It draws attention away from other  concerns or preoccupations and onto this unpleasant subjective experience. The experience is generally sufficiently unpleasant that the individual wants to reduce it. He does this by adopting a shift in strategy: for example, from advancing into an unsafe area to skirting around it; from standing in the path of an advancing vehicle to jumping out of the way. Also, by alerting the individual to the notion that he can be hurt, anxiety induces him to put the brakes on “imprudent” action or to initiate defensive behavior. Measures that are successful in reducing the danger will gener ally reduce the anxiety. If these measures do not reduce the danger, the anxiety generally persists.

The function of anxiety may be likened to that of pain. The experience of pain impels a person to do something in order to terminate or reduce the pain—by stopping whatever activity is producing an injury, by taking measures to repair the injury, and so on. Pain, however, is not the disease (it is not, say, appendicitis but may be a sign of it): and similarly, anxiety is not the cause of psychological disturbance. In the anxiety disorders, the unremitting generation of anxiety represents a persistent, ineffective mechanism designed to impel the organism to reduce the supposed danger that is activating the anxiety response. When, however, the problem is not an actual danger but a misperception or exaggeration of the danger, the experience of anxiety is inappropriate for initiating remedial action. If the danger is nonexistent or exaggerated, the individual has no way to head it off.

Thus, the main problem in the anxiety disorders is not in the generation of anxiety but in the overactive cognitive patterns (schemas) relevant to danger that are continually structuring external and/or internal experi ences as a sign of danger (Beck 1971).

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