Friday, 22 January 2010

The anxious mind and me

It may come as a surprise to people who know me, but I am a very anxious guy. Always have been, since I was a toddler, but I think I've learned to cope with it over the years. Still, I'm the person who is up at night thanks to a revolving door of worry: Is my daughter going to do okay in Grade 1? Is my son's cough more than just a cough? Will I meet that deadline at work? Am I writing enough freelance articles? Am I worrying too much? (That last one always makes me laugh.)

I try my best to talk myself out of these worry cycles, but I've just come to accept that there are days (or weeks) where I'll lose sleep and fret the night away. I've never really given this much thought until I picked up a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine and spied the cover story by Robin Marants Henig called "Understanding the Anxious Mind."

Henig's lenghty yet thoroughly engaging article explores the research done into the neuorological and biological roots of people with "high-reactive temperaments"; essentially those who have over-active amygdalas, the tiny part of the brain that oversees our reaction to fear and novelty.

There's so much in this piece that rings true for me, but the section about the purpose of high-anxiety was pretty swell:

In the modern world, the anxious temperament does offer certain benefits: caution, introspection, the capacity to work alone. These can be adaptive qualities. Kagan has observed that the high-reactives in his sample tend to avoid the traditional hazards of adolescence. Because they are more restrained than their wilder peers, he says, high-reactive kids are less likely to experiment with drugs, to get pregnant or to drive recklessly. They grow up to be the Felix Ungers of the world, he says, clearing a safe, neat path for the Oscar Madisons.

People with a high-reactive temperament — as long as it doesn’t show itself as a clinical disorder — are generally conscientious and almost obsessively well-prepared. Worriers are likely to be the most thorough workers and the most attentive friends. Someone who worries about being late will plan to get to places early. Someone anxious about giving a public lecture will work harder to prepare for it. Test-taking anxiety can lead to better studying; fear of traveling can lead to careful mapping of transit routes.

That is 100% me, btw. He continues:

An anxious temperament might serve a more exalted function too. “Our culture has this illusion that anxiety is toxic,” Kagan said. But without inner-directed people who prefer solitude, where would we get the writers and artists and scientists and computer programmers who make society hum? Kagan likes to point out that T. S. Eliot suffered from anxiety, and that biographies indicate that he was a typical high-reactive baby. “That line ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’ — he couldn’t have written that without feeling the tension and dysphoria he did,” Kagan said.

If you have any of these characteristics, or live with someone who does, i strongly recommend that you read the piece all the way through. That's right: don't skip over anything, or skim it -- all the way through!!!