What comes before anxiety?
Misunderstanding your temperament
Most anxiety sufferers share in common an inherited personality trait that makes them very highly aware, particularly of subtleties in the environment.
This trait of “High Sensitivity” has only recently been studied scientifically (since mid-1990s by Dr. Elaine Aron), implying that we are just about beginning to understand it, even if it’s been around forever.
The trait is found in 15-20% of the population and in ~100 species. This means it's too large a number to be a disorder but it’s still a minority.
High awareness – the key characteristic of this trait - is usually automatic and out of conscious control. The fact that this trait is inherited means you have been highly aware of your surroundings even before you can remember.
Not everyone with this trait becomes anxious. On the contrary, the trait benefits many HSPs because of its characteristics and advantages, not despite them. Such as creativity, intuition and empathy.
However, along with high awareness, the trait is also characterized by over-stimulation of the nervous system and the body, which is very likely to be mistaken for fear. Again, since the trait is inherited, over-stimulation has been a reality for you from the beginning.
If, growing up, you got the message that there is something wrong with you (for your sensitivity), then chances are high that you developed anxiety from early on. You may heard these adjectives being applied to you - shy, withdrawn, timid, weak, afraid, neurotic.
But the trait is not this. You can become these things after your experiences, but it's not a direct result of the trait.
The message that you are flawed was misguided given that the trait is now correctly understood as a trait and not a disorder. Nevertheless, the message is enough to create anxiety.
What can be more traumatizing than confronting a message that what you offer to the world (your actual self) is not aligned with what the world wants you to be (your perceived self). Anxiety comes about from this conflict.
Suggested Further Reading
The HSP Package
Universally, the majority recognizes that there are some events that are capable of causing some serious trauma and stress.
Death (especially if it’s sudden), domestic violence, sexual assault, bankruptcy, war, getting fired from a job, losing your home, divorce and poverty.
If these events come true for us, we get a big shock to our otherwise state of balance and equilibrium.
If you are an HSP, this can hit home even harder because we feel things more intensely than the majority.
If you are an HSP who grew up with the distorted message that you are too sensitive to cope with the realities of this world, these kinds of traumatic events can rock your boat. Because you probably feel like you have very little demonstrated proof of your own coping skills. Why? Maybe you bought into the popular verdict about your own perceived inferiority , internalized it and reflected that back into the world.
The result of stress, particularly cumulative and prolonged stress over the years, is an altered brain.
Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline alter the brain structure over time from normal to hyper-vigilant.
Parts of the brain (particularly the amygdala) react in quick, automatic and unconscious ways, pumping your body with chemicals and hormones to prepare you to fight-or-flight your problems.
Examples of these physiological reactions in the body are your heart rate accelerates; breathing becomes shallow, muscles tense.
This is nature preparing your body to fight or flee. Which can save your life if you're confronting a physical threat. I need my heart pumping like a maniac to run from an axe murderer.
BUT these symptoms are very uncomfortable when my dangers are more psychological. If I lose my job, I want my body to co-operate with me so I can calmly think about my options. An uncoordinated body and mind will only make it worse.
These symptoms are almost unbearable when my threats are unconscious (such as stuffed anger from staying in an unhappy marriage) or threats I cannot resolve (such as past unresolved trauma).
This is where the biological basis of anxiety comes into play.
Up to this point, what you are experiencing is biology. If correctly understood and interpreted, you can stop the downward spiral to anxiety.
But if biology is not correctly understood, these visceral bodily reactions can leave you terrified from “feeling” symptoms. The fear of the fear.
So did you understand your stress correctly? Who was around you to explain what was happening?
Infact, who were you generally role modelling? If those around you, particularly in childhood, had catastrophic styles, then a big part of your anxious response styles are learned from them.Research (1) shows that a child of an anxious parent is 2-7 times more likely to develop an anxiety condition. If left untreated and unchecked, the child is more likely to experience depression symptoms as well.
While you and I can sit here as adults and understand our parents and caretakers with objectivity and distance, appreciate that as children we could not. As a child, our parent IS our world. Automatically and unconsciously, how they experience the world is how we learned to experience it.
From the beginning, and until the end, we rely very heavily on our own mind to solve our problems. Mirroring in childhood may have meant that we learned distorted styles. But nevertheless they are ours now.
When our own rational, higher brain is not able to soothe and override our emotional brain, the spiral downwards can be quick and steep.
This is not a reflection of your emotional brain because the emotional brain is designed to operate subconsciously, that is, without conscious control.
But the higher brain (the prefrontal cortex) is supposed to interpret our experiences with rationality, objectivity and good sense.
In anxiety, the rational brain is not doing its job very well.
Because of Cognitive Thinking Distortions.
These are styles of thinking which are erroneous, even if the person has limited awareness of how exactly so.
Common thinking distortions that create or intensify anxiety symptoms are magical thinking, thought-action fusion, perfectionism & control, black and white thinking, catastrophic thinking, should-thinking, hyper vigilance, anger, over-generalizing.
And since behavior is closely linked with thinking, if we think distortedly, we are likely to behave distortedly.
In anxiety, the chosen behaviors tend to be such that they further perpetuate anxiety. These behaviors usually make us get into avoidance or excessive reassurance patterns. Does this happen overnight? No. It happens insidiously, slowly, making them harder to identify as leading into a downward spiral. When you start performing behaviors to soothe distorted thoughts, you give your thoughts a very strong message that they have power, authority and control over you.
With each such experience of distorted thoughts and distorted behaviors, you are conditioning yourself as someone who responds to triggers with obsessive, compulsive, anxious behaviors.
In time, you accept these labels for yourself:
Worrier. Neurotic. Type A. Crazy.
All of your experiences are captured in the brain as memory.
If you have too many experiences of yourself as struggling with anxiety, then those becomes your memories.
And since memory also triggers the amygdala, even when one faces no current threats, current conflicts or current dangers, one is still triggered with anxiety symptoms. Because of our past memories.
A triggered amygdala now relies on thinking and behavior for reassurance. Which are distorted.
So once again we go round the anxiety loop.
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