A study published this month in Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience suggests that anxiety has “co-evolved” with intelligence as a key survival trait in humans. The study looked at 26 people generalized anxiety disorder and 18 without it. By measuring levels of choline in the white matter of the brain, they discovered that both high intelligence and worrying were associated with brain activity.
The conclusion? “While excessive worry is generally seen as a negative trait and high intelligence as a positive one, worry may cause our species to avoid dangerous situations, regardless of how remote a possibility they may be,” said Dr. Jeremy Coplan, a professor of psychiatry at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in New York City, in a center news release. “In essence, worry may make people ‘take no chances,’ and such people may have higher survival rates. Thus, like intelligence, worry may confer a benefit upon the species,” he added.
Okay, so it’s a small study. So let’s not jump to any conclusions. That wouldn’t be prudent. On second thought, let’s. This study reminds me that some of the most anxious people I’ve ever known are new moms.
I remember being really anxious, too. And too many times people tell us that we’re freaking out or being uptight or being worry warts and we should just try to relax. But perhaps there’s good reason for all our angst? Perhaps worrying goes hand-in-hand with being smart and aware about what’s happening.
In early motherhood, the brain actually gets rewired a little bit to make a mother more vigilant and observant. She’s got to be! This can topple over into a kind of intense, overwhelming worry–it’s not the same as generalized anxiety disorder but it may be postpartum anxiety disorder (the lesser-known but equally potent sister of postpartum depression). But for most new moms, worry is just a normal part of the day with a much loved and completely helpless infant.
But what’s cool about all of us, when we are anxious new moms, is that we obsess over some things but we also can become tougher and braver. While worrying does cause us to take fewer chances (recheck that car seat belt! no soft bedding!), we also become more resourceful and courageous. In a recent study, lactating moms were shown to be more aggressive than non-breastfeeding moms. In animal studies, it’s clear that mothers become very clever about protecting and providing for their offspring. Rat moms figured out a maze that female rats without offspring could not navigate. This kind of stuff does make me very aware of the evolutionary purpose of anxiety. And how mothers (and their loved ones) might recognize their anxiety as highly intelligent behavior
If you’re moving through pregnancy or early motherhood, how has anxiety been going for you? Has your worrying increased, decreased, or do you just worry about totally different things?