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November 1 2012

Is there an upside to anxiety?


DEPRESSION and anxiety are easily two of the most commonly diagnosed psychiatric ailments. But if they are so prevalent across so many cultures and societies, where did they come from? Are we experiencing an epidemic? Or is it simply a case of mislabelling a common, though unpleasant, life experience as a disorder in order to medically whisk away the tough bits of what it means to be human?

In psychiatrist Jeffrey Kahn's new book, Angst, he examines the origins of depression and anxiety and, using current research in psychology and evolutionary biology, carefully applies a unique anthropological perspective for why these conditions exist.

He reasons, for example, that social anxiety - the fear of interactions with strangers - may have evolved to enable a natural social ranking system in which some people feel most comfortable towards the bottom of the totem pole. This natural shuffling would have made for a less aggressive, more survivable living situation and reduced fighting for leadership.

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