It’s a given that we’re all wired differently, that we each have different ways of thinking and perceiving our world and that our behavior is directly influenced by our strengths, weaknesses, limitations, talents and intelligence. What’s not a given is what circumstances we are born into, what our family stressors may or may not be and the degree of safety and security we feel inside our homes and concurrently inside ourselves.
I, for example, can’t possibly know what it might have been like living in a family with a mother who was not mentally ill. I can’t know how many of my personal anxieties may or may not have ever influenced my life to the degree that they have if I hadn’t been forced to be vigilant as a child, fearful of what each day would bring. I do know, though (and I hope that those of you who have read my memoir understand) what allowed me to succeed and move beyond the very real traumas I experienced during childhood. For me, it was the fact that I had a protective older brother, a father who never abandoned us, and a mother who, when she was not enveloped by one of her major depressive episodes, was compassionate and loving. Also, once I entered adolescence and adulthood, I sought the help of a variety of talk-therapists. The best of them gave me the tools I needed to move through and beyond all that I had endured. Each one helped me to lessen the degree of my anxiety.
However, after reading the cover story – ANXIETY: IS IT THE ECONOMY OR TERRORISM OR WHERE YOUR CHILDREN ARE? OR WHETHER YOU’VE GOT A BRAIN HARD-WIRED TO WORRY? – in today’s New York Times, I understand now why so many people have dubbed so much of what has been studied, researched, argued, supported and disputed about the brain and human behavior as mere psycho-babble.
The reason may not be dissimilar to all the research done in the area of nutrition, where one day we’re told to eat a lot of protein, another day a lot of complex carbohydrates, another no sugar supplements, another some sugar supplements, another no caffeine, another some caffeine, good chocolates, not-so-good chocolates … the list goes on.
Despite the fact that scientific studies must be allowed to change their hypotheses and previously held beliefs often need to be re-examined, there’s another truth that cannot be ignored: We have but a short time on this earth, and if we read or listen to all that’s being studied to help us better understand human behavior, how can we draw the line between what we should know and what is simply too much data feeding our already over-stuffed brains? Then, as we do learn more about the effects of genetic predispositions as well as what the environment does to help or hinder our quest to remain healthy, are we assisted in feeling healthier or does it accomplish just the opposite when we are given too much contradictory information which then overwhelms and confuses us?
In citing just this one article devoted to ANXIETY, I have to admit that it left me, given my “wiring,” feeling totally anxious.
That being said, I nevertheless agree that it’s important to address the psychological implications of a child’s behavior when it concerns us or is disruptive to his life, the lives of his family members or school mates. In such instances, awareness and understanding informs us that we, as a society, would benefit from educating ourselves better.
In short: The question, as I see it, is not whether we are wired differently. We are! Certain infants who are studied will respond in ways that lead some to believe that they carry the so-called “worry gene.” So what? What do we do next? Especially when we’re then told that those who tend to worry have both admirable characteristics as well as detrimental ones.
In the end, here’s the irony: As a psychotherapist, I devote my days to better understanding human behavior and helping myself and my patients to change destructive patterns in order to live healthier, more productive lives. Yet, articles such as these force me to question the variables which affect each of us and, in turn, help to determine why some of us act as we do. Whether we have very real genetic predispositions (or, put another way, our brains are, indeed, wired in ways that are evident almost from the moment of birth or not), there’s a very important question that must be asked. That is: if genetic wiring can be re-wired by a family’s unconditional love or a therapeutic intervention which can offer positive tools to help re-frame a worrier’s propensity to worry, then shouldn’t our focus be on educating parents, teachers and therapists how to better understand and assist those whose worrying causes them to suffer?
For if it is true that environmental and societal effects on the brain may be as potent as one’s genetic loading, then isn’t what matters most not why but how anyone studied from birth through adulthood grows and changes and ultimately becomes or doesn’t become a contributing member of society?
Bottom line: If we agree from the outset that being a worrier has both benefits and risks, what difference does it make if we note that some babies appear to be jumpier and more easily excitable than others? What that information adds to our well-being individually or collectively only matters if we can then track the development of such children and determine what would best help them navigate their lives in productive ways.
I think Robin Marantz Henig’s most valuable contribution in writing this piece is her statement: “For children who need help grappling with their fears, some psychologists try to intervene early, with programs that give worried children tools for quieting the scary thoughts in their heads. Kids are often taught the same skills that anxious adults are, a variation on cognitive behavior therapy, designed to stop the endless recursive loop of rumination, replacing it with a smart, rational interior voice. In a way, it’s teaching anxious people to do what non-anxious people do naturally.”
Forgive me if I sound skeptical. The truth is that while I do believe that studies and advances in medicine can be extraordinarily helpful, I am not in favor of receiving information which, for the most part, is inconclusive, drawing attention to the fact that our anxiety may be due to the “economy or terrorism or where our children are or whether we’ve got a brain hard wired to worry” without offering us coping skills, especially after listing all the very real reasons why any of us might worry these days.
As always, I welcome any and all comments regarding my views and opinions.
With best wishes for a peaceful, anxiety-free week.