The Long Shadow of Temperament

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't need to 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 the amygdala, 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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sunny said...

Yes, I read the article too and feel anxiety is a huge part of my ED. I'm finding daily meditation is helping reduce overall anxiety and it seems to be speeding up recovery. I think there are ways to retrain our brains, to temper the temperament, if you will. And for me, finally accepting that anxiety and depression are like having a bum knee and I hope some day to have a fulfilling and despite these challenges, produces less distress than wishing them away.

FuguSushi said...

Funny. I'm one of those extremely easy to raise kids who never stepped out of the line. I always wondered how others were able to steal, ditch class, cheat, etc, etc. The fear of getting caught was too much for me to participate in any of them.

I never thought that's also considered "anxiety". No wonder my therapist diagnosed me with GAD when I felt I wasn't ever anxious towards anything.

Carrie Arnold said...


YES! That's another DBT skill I'm working on with my therapist: radical acceptance. There's no use fighting how I was wired, or the shape and size of my body. I don't always have to like it, but I do need to start accepting it.


I don't think most people would have classified me as particularly anxious when I was younger, for a variety of reasons: 1) anxiety runs in the family so I didn't stick out all that much, 2) I was quiet and kept a lot of it hidden, and also just assumed that everyone got so nervous they barfed before exams, and 3) I kept the anxiety under control by carefully controlling my environment. Which probably explains why my non-OCD anxiety skyrocketed when I got to college.

Karin said...

I absolutely agree with the others who commented. I have a major problem with anxiety and feel it almost as another person or force--it is often in my body; when I am at low levels, it feels like it hovers around my internal organs, in my belly. As it rises, it goes into my skin, until I feel that skin-crawling, horrible sense that I am going to fly apart!
This sounds like a dramatic account; I am constantly amazed at how a) physiological, b) sensational, and c) omnipresent my anxiety is. Laura Poppink has a great article on her website about how anxiety can function productively for someone in their 20's in recovery from anorexia (me). My anxiety disorder is a genetic factor, but it is also something that can and has served me. What a double-edged sword! I just want to send a lot of compassion to those who also feel these intense feelings. Meditation helps--no, actually, it removes me out from it sometimes, but does not necessarily help in a goal-oriented kind of way--exercise helps, and, naturally, eating helps. Especially fats==peanuts, boca burgers with avocado, etc. These are foods that make me feel more grounded and sane-- but also uncomfortable with THOSE feelings! I am working on walking this edge.

Jessie said...

I found this article and your post very interesting. I too never really associated my terror of breaking rules with anxiety, although I had severe anxiety with the type of physical symptoms Karin describes as well. I think the key really is management just as it with an eating disorder or any other health problem.

Kim said...

Great post! I think one of my big mistakes has been expecting that my anxiety will just go away when I recover. I'm starting to see that I'm naturally anxious, and that's OK. I can cope with it in healthy ways. Everything describing the anxious personality fits me. I remember when I was little, I got so upset with myself for misbehaving that I locked myself in a closet for a few hours as punishment. Um, yeah. My parents never had to tell me to follow rules. I LOVED rules. They tried to pay me to not get A's in school. It was that bad. Ha. I'm starting to accept anxiety as part of my make-up. I'm told I seemed anxious the day I was born -- looking around, very alert and aware. It's interesting how we're all so different. I've always envied non-anxious people, but now I see that it's just who I am and there's nothing wrong with it if I can cope in a healthy way.

FuguSushi said...

Kim... I want your parents. Heh. My parents asked me why I didn't get A when I get 89/100, and if I get 95/100, then why am I placed top 10 out of 40 instead of top 5? If I missed two points on math test because I was careless (mostly due to lack of sleep) then I was punished for missing 2 points. Bs are never good enough. B is average, and you don't want to be average. Being average is shameful.

... then a few days ago my mom told me all my classes were actually classes for gifted students. Thanks mom. Minor detail there. Totally not important enough to tell your kids when you're punishing them for failing.

Tiptoe said...

I haven't read this full article yet, but looking at anxiety slightly unconventionally is interesting.

I can relate a lot of what you said, Carrie--never a drinker, didn't break rules, get in trouble, etc but definitely had wanted to be allow myself to let go a bit. I really never thought of "behaviorally inhibited" as anxious though. My anxieties, or maybe the classic way of looking at it, didn't really show up until late teen/early 20 years.

Maybe, physiologically, it was always there. Anyway, interesting post and does make me wonder, though the best thing is just managing it now.

Anonymous said...

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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