July 6, 2011
Ever wonder why you jump at the slightest noise and your spouse, friend, or colleague barely registers it? Why you might worry or feel anxious a lot of the time while others seem so carefree, even when facing challenges? I’ve always attributed it to some real threat—I feel this way because there are potential dangers out there in the world that could strike at any moment.
But what if the threats not out there, but in our brains? Powerful longitudinal studies by Jerome Kagan at Harvard and others demonstrate that just as babies are born with unique physical characteristics such as hair and eye color, they also come in with natural ways of reacting to people, places and things. And that 15-20% of us has an inborn bias toward reactivity, meaning we’re distressed by novelty from day one and tend to grow up to be more anxious.
This may be sound silly, but until I read this research, I’ve never thought of myself as anxious. I might have said I was more fearful than others, perhaps. But according to psychologists, fear is about something specific—the test results you’re getting tomorrow, for instance, while anxiety is “a kind of fear gone wild, a generalized sense of dread about something out there that seems menacing, “writes Robin Marantz Henig in a great New York Times article. For folks not hardwired to reactivity, they may worry about the test results, but they go back to a generalized feeling of well-being once the tests come back negative. For those of us in the 15-20%, we may feel temporary relief, but we’ve soon found something else to worry about.
I’ll be synthesizing more of the Times article in my next posting, as well as reflecting on what it might mean if this is starting to resonant for you. If you’d like to read the article in its entirety, here’s the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/04/magazine/04anxiety-t.html.