Anxiety? You may actually be a ‘born worrier’, hardwired at birth
Anxiety doesn’t mean you’re a hypochondriac. But many feel it’s “abnormal”, as well as extremely unpleasant. The good news is that studies have shown evidence that this unwanted ability to worry about everything has a physiological basis.
Lengthy studies of people from infancy to adolescence have given some remarkable insights into a condition/situation which affects tens of millions of people daily. It’s been found that some babies are “hyper-reactive” even at birth. That tendency persists, well into their later lives.
Jerome Kagan, who’s a professor of psychology at Harvard, has been operating a program for the last 20 years to investigate the fundamentals of anxiety. This is true pure research, in its most definitive form. The New York Times
has done an interesting piece on Kagan’s work, and in terms of pediatrics alone, it’s worth a look. Kagan’s work also involved figuring out how to get reliable indicators of brain functions in infants, no minor feat. In terms of finally pinning down one of the great missing links of human behavior, it’s heading into Nobel Prize territory for groundbreaking.
(One note for those with anxiety issues when reading this somewhat lengthy NYT article: For once, someone is talking about anxiety as what it is, a hideous experience.)
Everybody knows the chronic worrier, the person who’s looking for asteroid strikes at their wedding or evidence of recent biological warfare tests in their fries on principle. This apparently neurotic behavior, which on the face of it doesn’t seem to have much basis in fact or fiction, does have a cause.
There are many facets to the hyper reactive motherboard, and people with the hyper responses can respond very differently to situations. Kagan’s work has shown a big range of variables, but they’re all underpinned by the basic hardwiring:
Not every brain state sparks the same subjective experience; one person might describe a hyperaroused brain in a negative way, as feeling anxious or tense, while another might enjoy the sensation and instead uses a positive word like “alert.” Nor does every brain state spark the same behavior: some might repress the bad feelings and act normally; others might withdraw. But while the behavior and the subjective experience associated with an emotion like anxiety might be in a person’s conscious control, physiology usually is not.
If this sounds like physiological, self generated worrying is a possibility, that’s exactly what it means. The brain is literally configured like that. It’s not, however, a foregone conclusion that an actual disorder will develop, and from Kagan’s work, it’s not untreatable, either. Some findings indicate that a disorder may never develop. Studies also showed that like anyone with a predilection for a condition, early treatment, which for potential anxiety disorder sufferers, means a good environment when growing up, is an actual preventative.
That fact, combined with the observation that many Born Worriers are good academically, and in fact lead quite normal social lives, is at least a positive prognosis for the basic situation.
One semi-unsung point is made in passing, discussing Kagan’s basic approach. He threw out the old “blank slate” concept of infants, that everything has to be imprinted on babies. It’s a matter of opinion whether many parents have ever quite believed that, most seeing distinct individual traits in babies from early infancy. The blank slate concept has long been a sort of psychological benchmark, and a very inaccurate one, from the look of Kagan’s findings. He discovered definite statistical variations regarding reactivity in infants, which rather destroys the theory of babies as a collection of vacant mental spaces.
One of the more interesting findings of this study was neurological:
…This is a question the scientists struggle with, hampered as they are by peoples’ inability to report their own feelings accurately. Pine (Daniel Pine, child psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health) told me that his subjects often admit, after the fact, that they had been more afraid during the experiment than they said at the time — leaving him unsure what conclusions to draw. According to Kagan, the high-reactive temperament is characterized by a tendency to be supersensitive to your own body’s signals. Wouldn’t you expect, then, that anxiety-prone kids would have some insight into their own brains? Yet even in the high-risk subjects, objective brain state and subjective experience of anxiety still don’t always track.
(I can’t quite resist mentioning that a lot of this “reaction to oneself” is probably so hard to describe because
anxiety is such a tremendously subjective experience. People are rarely so self-aware as when suffering anxiety. Try describing yourself in any mental state, see how far you get before you wear out the adjectives.
We’ve got a situation here where variable conscious responses, physiology, neurology, and a conscious mind trying to handle all of them are being asked to produce a sort of conceptual pronoun. How easy could that possibly be? I’ve had my own version of anxiety, and I think the instant defensive state, wild animal in survival mode, is probably the best description of this intense, teeth baring, experience.)
If you’re an anxiety sufferer looking for useful insights, Kagan and his colleagues are in the process of finding them. He and other scientists have already found a lot of interesting and revealing materials which might make you feel a lot better.
One other point possibly of interest: It was recently discovered that people with intense phobias also have superior survival instincts. Can’t help wondering if anxiety isn’t the macro version.