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The Long Shadow of Temperament

Posted Oct 03 2009 10:00pm
Anxiety is not fear, exactly, because fear is focused on something right in front of you, a real and objective danger. It is instead a kind of fear gone wild, a generalized sense of dread about something out there that seems menacing — but that in truth is not menacing, and may not even be out there. If you’re anxious, you find it difficult to talk yourself out of this foreboding; you become trapped in an endless loop of what-ifs.

This is a quote from one of the best articles on anxiety that I've ever read:Understanding the Anxious Mind. The article discusses not so much the subjective experience of anxiety (which varies from person to person and would be fairly difficult to discuss), but the physiological correlates and the behavioral responses to anxiety. Researchers have found that an anxious temperament--one that I possess--can be detected even at birth. Babies with this temperament are highly reactive, responding to all the stimuli in their environment, but not always in a good way. These babies are fussy, they cry a lot, they're unsettled.

And as these children were followed through childhood and adolescence, researchers found that their anxious temperament stayed with them. These kids were called "behaviorally inhibited": they didn't break rules, they didn't step out of line, they didn't experiment with drugs, alcohol, and sex, and they didn't get in trouble. More than that, perhaps, is that they didn'tneedto be told to be careful and not break the rules. It came naturally.

In college, my apartment one year was right across from a skateboard park. Aside from the fact that watching 12-year-old boys show off in a mating ritual as old as time was usually far more interesting than memorizing the crystalline structures of various salts, I couldn't help but cringe as I watched them. In fact, I couldn't ever imagine doing such a thing. I sat on my brother's skateboard and rode it down the driveway, but standing up? No, thank you. My parents didn't need to tell me not to do it, or wear a helmet or whatever. I just did these things. When pressured to do something against the rules, I would freeze in fear, overwhelmed with two horrible sensations: being thought a wuss and getting in trouble. The latter usually won out.

Perhaps what was more interesting about this longitudinal research was how the expression of the anxious temperament changed over time. Many children outgrew their severely inhibited behaviors and managed to cope with life reasonably well. Were they a little more high-strung than their peers? Usually, but their anxiety didn't interfere with their life and their happiness. But their physiological responses to fear and anxiety--as measured by activation in theamygdala, which is involved in the instinctual processing of emotion--remained elevated compared to their never-anxious peers.

What happened?These kids learned to cope.

And maybe that is the task for me, and others like me who struggle with significant and severe anxiety. It doesn't go away, and that's not the goal. The goal is to learn how to manage those feelings that inevitably crop up. Biological temperament casts a long shadow, but it's up to us to make that shadow as small as possible.
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