Anxiety: An evolutionary approach

Melissa Bateson, Ben Brilot, Daniel Nettle

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal Articlepeer-review

135 Citations (Scopus)


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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)707-715
Number of pages9
JournalCanadian Journal of Psychiatry
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Anxiety
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Behavioural ecology
  • Emotions
  • Evolutionary medicine
  • Signal detection theory


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