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My Anxiety – Nature or Nurture?

Sigh…today’s New York Times article, “Understanding the Anxious Mind” by Robin Marantz Henig, has given my already troubled mind more anxious thoughts to mull over. It’s very timely for me, as I was just talking to my husband the other day about how far I’ve come in dealing with my anxiety since we met, but wondering aloud if I would ever be fully free from the looming dread that lurks in my mind like a hungry lion waiting to pounce. According to this article, I don’t stand a chance in chasing it away, but perhaps by arming myself with a chair and a whip could tame it enough to keep it in check.

The studies suggest I’ve most likely been wired this way since I was four months old, and probably since the day I was conceived with genes predisposed to a high-reactive temperament. No one would have described me as an “ebullient” child. I was always “behaviorally inhibited” as the article describes anxious babies, reacting to new stimuli with signs of distress. In most of my baby pictures I have pursed lips and a frown, already looking like a worried old lady. My mother wrote things in my baby book like, “Makes awful faces.” “Doesn’t like to be picked up by men unexpectedly. Only likes being on their laps when she instigates it.” “Plays better alone than with anyone.”  And just like the babies in these longitudinal studies, at thirty-two years old these behaviors hold true for me to this day. The article claims anxious people “cannot outrun their own natures. Consciously or unconsciously, they remain the same uneasy people they were when they were little.”

I always chalked up the way I am to a dysfunctional childhood – parents too young to ever give me the love and attention I needed, too poor to provide any social, economic or educational opportunities, too alcoholic and issue-ridden themselves to instill a sense of stability and safety in me. It’s difficult to compare how my three brothers turned out because they started self-medicating with drugs and alcohol at early ages and haven’t stopped since. I went the route of Mary in the article, my anxiety taking on the form of conscientiousness and self-control, over-achieving and worrying my way through school and life. The studies in the article found that two-thirds of people with high-reactive temperaments “learn to manage their anxiety, structuring their life to limit triggers”, are “obsessively well-prepared”, and operate with “caution, introspection, and the capacity to work alone.”  This certainly applies to me. I channel my anxiety by making lists and getting things done and find refuge from it in books, writing and art (solitary pursuits I’ve never found success in because I’m too afraid to put the work out there for fear of possible rejection). To make a living, I became a teacher, but quit after five years because the anxiety dreams about speaking in public and never feeling fully prepared or able to make a difference became too much to handle. I created the perfect job for myself. Dogwalker. Limited contact with people, hours alone with happy dogs on trails and in my car. I must be the most conscientious dogwalker there ever was. One of my clients told me I should be CEO of a large company the way I handle myself, but that would require unmanageable levels of anxiety for me.

Several times the anxiety has become unmanageable on my own. Not dealing with it directly worked for a long time. I found a decidedly non-anxious partner in life. My husband is about as happy-go-lucky as they come. I also managed to keep myself very very busy, but eventually all this running led to a panic attack and a deep depression when all the pain in the world, the “clamor of terror”described in the article, took me over. Again, I assumed these were normal reactions to experiencing loss – the death of two friends, one to suicide, another to a snowboarding accident in a matter of months seemed to be the trigger. But not wanting to live anymore was not a normal reaction, and hiding in bed was not an option, so I sought professional help. Being the daughter of a recovered alcoholic, I am overly wary of all possible habit-forming medications, so didn’t go the anti-depressant route. Instead, I saw a therapist regularly, one who seems to be of the nurture school of thought, and had me dredge up all my family crap in the hopes that in facing it, I could banish the demons and learn to fill my head with a more positive thought track than the one that’s been looping in my mind all my life. This has worked to an extent over the years I’ve been seeing her. I feel somewhat equipped with the measly tools I’ve cobbled together to keep the lion at bay, but the dread that if I let down my guard for an instant I will be devoured is ever present.

The article calls anxiety at this level a mental illness and claims 40 million Americans suffer from it, not counting “the far greater swath who are garden-variety worriers, people who fret when a child is late, who worry when they hear a siren headed toward home, who are sure that a phone call in the middle of the night means someone is dead.” Having now received several calls of that nature for healthy people I’ve loved who died suddenly, one of them my mother at age 50, I realize I will never be a “garden-variety worrier”. I am always waiting for the other shoe to drop, to lose everything in terrible events beyond my control.

Apparently, this is just how I’m wired. Whether it’s because my cerebral cortex is thick or thin, because my genes are faulty, or because my childhood was less than ideal doesn’t really matter, I guess. I just have to do the best I can with what I’ve been given, and try to see the positive. Like the article said, “Without inner-directed people who prefer solitude, where would we get the writers and artists and scientists and computer programmers who make society hum?” And I can pray that my son gets my husband’s genes and not mine. Since he’s three months old and is all smiles, I am hopeful that he doesn’t have any lions lurking in his future. Just an anxious mom.

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