Saturday, January 14, 2012

Anxiety, you are a big jerk: Oct. 11, 2009

I have spent a sizable chunk of my life trying to wrestle my temperament into submission. My brain does not wreak quite enough havoc to justify meds, and I have found several ways of dealing with it that don't involve chemicals. I run a lot. I practice power yoga. I work out a bunch with my inspiring trainer friend. I write a lot and read even more and listen to music all the time. I try to spend a good bit of time alone to give my brain a chance to unclench and reset the server.

I just generally give myself permission to be a nutball, and then I try really hard to keep it from disrupting my life -- and the lives of the people who are kind enough to love me. (Thanks, you guys.)

For some of us, rough air is just a fact of life

    I have been waiting pretty much my entire adult life for my nerves to settle down on the topics of flying, public speaking and crowds.

    I am scared beyond all reason of all those things. It’s not rational, I know. I have long since accepted intellectually that flying is generally safer than driving, public speaking is only awkward if you surrender to nervousness, and large crowds are pretty much just people, only more of them.

    My brain knows all this. But the unbelievably sensitive panic button I have somewhere in the pit of my stomach will not listen to my brain. That panic button is still convinced that every time I get on a plane I am wearing the clothes I will die in; that any time I am speaking in public I am doomed to make some embarrassing gaffe from which I will never recover emotionally; and that crowds want only to trample me to death.

    There is no good reason for any of this – no event in my formative years that justifies the anxiety. I have always just tried my best to ignore the clamoring panic going on in my skull when, for example, I settle into an airplane seat and fasten that silver buckle with a menacingly final click.

    Earlier this week, a cheerful flight attendant strapped into her seat in the front of the plane that was carrying me to business meetings informed us, the helpless passengers, that the captain was going to ‘leave the fasten seatbelt sign on for the duration of the flight, as we are going to experience some rough air.’

    So we rode the rough air in our little plane, and I tried to remember to breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth while I mentally wrote my obituary. It was a good bit of imaginary prose, if I do say so myself. And then we landed, uneventfully.

    “I have survived 50 percent of my trip,” I told my husband over my cell phone as I walked to the rental car counter. “All I have to do now is get home.”

    Why this anxiety? I honestly don’t know. I’m a pretty sensible person in most ways. But I have always suspected this anxiety was somehow with me from birth, some inescapable element of my character that was hard-wired at the factory.

    Then I had children. And now I am convinced.

    Five years ago, when my oldest son was 4, we were reading the Lorax, a house favorite, and we were at the part where the Lorax tells how he “sat there and worried and worried away” after he destroyed his natural environment for the sake of a few bucks.

    My son had been listening intently, but interrupted at this point.

    “Mommy, what’s ‘worried?’”

    I considered for a minute.

    “Worried is when you spend a lot of time thinking about something that makes you feel bad,” I finally said.

    His eyes get round. “Mommy, I worry,” he said solemnly, relieved to have found a way to describe the churnings of his 4-year-old brain.

    And how.

    Jack used to worry that expressions like “Cough your head off” might actually happen. Also, “Cry your eyes out” caused him no end of stress.

    My husband once tried, innocently enough, to explain to Jack how he would one day lose his baby teeth and get a brand new set of big boy teeth. This news prompted hysteria and desperate wailing. We finally calmed Jack down by telling him Daddy had been joking.

    In the first six years of his life, we spent a fair amount of time calming Jack down. His fears ran the gamut, from dogs to strangers to vacuum cleaners. And now that he is a truly big and much braver kid – 9 and-a-half years old -- we still have regular visits from him in the small hours of the morning, when he stands next to our bed and informs us that he had seen a light, or heard a noise, and he is trembling and he wants to know what it was.

    I know where he is coming from. His brain knows there is really nothing to worry about; that panic button won’t stop blaring its alarm.

    One of the most emailed articles on the New York Times website last week was a long, detailed piece about a scientific study of temperament in infants as it relates to their tendency to be anxious, or not. It was a long study, and a long article. I read every single word, looking for some clean-cut explanation of my own neurosis, and my oldest son’s edgy tendencies.

    But I know there is no clear-cut explanation of such things, even if you read every word. Because you can chalk it up to genetics or to upbringing or to subconscious osmosis or all of the above or whatever. But I just don’t know how you explain some of this stuff.

    In particular, I don’t know how you explain this: My oldest son, the nervous one, absolutely loves to fly.

    I wish I could inherit some of that from him.

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