Fear and fitness: An evolutionary analysis of anxiety disorders

Isaac f.M. Marks, Randolph M. Nesse

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

424 Scopus citations


This article reviews the evolutionary origins and functions of the capacity for anxiety, and relevant clinical and research issues. Normal anxiety is an emotion that helps organisms defend against a wide variety of threats. There is a general capacity for normal defensive arousal, and subtypes of normal anxiety protect against particular kinds of threats. These normal subtypes correspond somewhat to mild forms of various anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders arise from dysregulation of normal defensive responses, raising the possibility of a hypophobic disorder (too little anxiety). If a drug were discovered that abolished all defensive anxiety, it could do harm as well as good. Factors that have shaped anxiety-regulation mechanisms can explain prepotent and prepared tendencies to associate anxiety more quickly with certain cues than with others. These tendencies lead to excess fear of largely archaic dangers, like snakes, and too little fear of new threats, like cars. An understanding of the evolutionary origins, functions, and mechanisms of anxiety suggests new questions about anxiety disorders.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)247-261
Number of pages15
JournalEthology and Sociobiology
Issue number5-6
StatePublished - 1994
Externally publishedYes


  • Fear
  • agoraphobia
  • anxiety disorders
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • phobias
  • preparedness
  • prepotency
  • social phobia

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • General Environmental Science
  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


Dive into the research topics of 'Fear and fitness: An evolutionary analysis of anxiety disorders'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this