Are You Wired to Worry?

Marcelle Pick


“People become attached to their burdens sometimes more than the burdens are attached to them.”
—George Bernard Shaw


There is no shortage of anxious, worried people. Of course, we all worry — at least, from time to time. Some worrying is okay — it helps keep you attentive and alert, and ready to tackle life’s little surprises. But if you worry obsessively and are plagued by fears and anxious feelings, everyday life can turn into a real struggle. It may even end up damaging your physical health.

Some compelling research suggests that certain people may even be “wired to worry” from birth, with a predisposition toward anxiety. While this is a fascinating hypothesis, what’s really exciting to me is that many people overcome this predisposition and transform their tendency to fret into a valuable asset. So let’s look at what happens in an anxious mind, and talk about ways you can calm — or re-channel — your worry.

The physiology of anxiety

All intense emotions can be hard for us to contain sometimes, and new evidence is revealing how emotions have real, physiochemical manifestations in our bodies. Fear and anxiety are central to a complex biochemical cascade known as the stress response. It starts simply enough: your brain registers a stimulus as a threat to your survival. That triggers your adrenal glands to release powerful stress hormones such as cortisol. These hormones then stimulate broad physical and psychological effects.

All this is only natural, and adaptive, too, as long as whatever stimulates us is resolved peacefully. But when your stress response is activated non-stop for long periods, your body will continue pumping out cortisol until it eventually spins into adrenal imbalance.

Where do worry and anxiety begin?

Does our fear cause anxiety, or is it the other way around? The answer is hard to pin down because for many people these feelings create a self-perpetuating loop. We do know that both are traceable to the unknown or unfamiliar — we can have a range of responses to new or unexpected situations. A change of events that creates stress for me may never even register a blip on your worry scale. Biologists believe this variability is part of what allows populations to survive when the going gets rough. So again, the stress response is completely normal and fluctuates according to the seriousness and context of a threat.

We all know what it feels like to be frightened to death, and welcome the relief we experience as the perception of danger passes. For the chronic worrier, however, the menacing possibilities never take a holiday. By repeatedly triggering the adrenals to release stress hormones, an anxious mind keeps the body braced for peril — no matter how remote the possibility of real danger.

Some anxious people can push through their fears, though they still feel brittle, nervous, and unsettled. Other worriers find they can barely function, and are nearly paralyzed by their anxious thought patterns. When fear becomes so constant, the stress response remains stuck in the “on” position indefinitely.

Why some of us can’t “just relax!”

Friends and family may be tempted to tell a worrier to “calm down” or to “just get over it.” But a series of longitudinal studies — ones that follow people for years — imply that some people have brains that are wired to worry from birth. They experience life as a relentless stream of “fear gone wild,” with their minds pulsing out signals to the body to respond with the physical expressions of fear. They’d probably like to stop feeling anxious, but feel as if they can’t escape the tendency.

Research that surprised even the scientists

Years ago, a noted developmental psychologist, Jerome Kagan, was intrigued by the idea that some babies seemed jumpier and more fretful than others from the minute they were born. So he set out to identify, measure, and chart the physical signs of anxiety in infants and children. Then his team followed these children into early adulthood, drawing links between the early findings and the participants’ grown-up behaviors and emotional quality of life.

Kagan hypothesized that those who were “highly reactive” as babies might have come into the world with exaggerated physiological responses to stress, caused partly by genetic influence or perhaps by exposures to large amounts of stress chemicals while in utero. These children could be born with lower thresholds for arousal in several areas of the brain, including the amygdala, the hypothalamus, and the cortisol-producing hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Significantly, the amygdala is often called the “nut of worry” because it’s the processing center for worry and fear, two of our most primitive emotions.

Studying babies and preschoolers, Kagan and his colleagues found that 40% were on one end of the scale: calm and low-reactive in response to new things. Another 40% fell somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, but 20% of the study subjects were “highly reactive” when presented with new stimuli. This group cried and fretted more, and had increased heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure.

Anxious temperament persists as subjects get older

Kagan kept checking in with the study participants until they were 15, and found that their original temperament patterns persisted as the kids got older. Other scientific studies had similar results. When Kagan’s study subjects turned 18, his research successor, Carl Schwartz, conducted MRI scans, which uncovered some interesting characteristics in the brains of the participants.

The “high reactors” had brains with prefrontal cortices that were significantly thicker than those of the “low reactors.” The prefrontal cortex has inhibitory qualities and also regulates emotion, so researchers thought these differences were important.

They theorized that the prefrontal cortex may have thickened as a result of, or in response to, hyperactive signaling from the amygdala. Or, perhaps the thicker cortex might be a sign of a tendency toward anxiety. But in the end, Schwartz proposed that the thicker prefrontal cortex might instead be a protective mechanism — an adaptation that helps some high reactors function better than others by blocking anxious emotional input.

When jittery babies grow up

Can early exposure to stress hormones shape your behavior and personality as an adult? Well, yes and no. There is a subset of people who grow up to have life-altering problems with anxiety. They may develop mental and physical health concerns such as addiction to alcohol, food or drugs; or engage in negative behaviors like denial and procrastination; or be inclined to blame others or “play the victim.” Other people gravitate toward stressful occupations or perilous pastimes because crisis has become the norm for them. They may be “hooked on adrenaline,” and only feel truly alive when their stress hormone levels are sky-high.

But a predisposition to hair-trigger adrenal glands doesn’t predestine a little girl to have an anxiety disorder when she grows up. Yes, early stress may “mark” our genes, programming us to release more stress hormones more easily. But fortunately, even the “born worrier” is influenced and shaped by a whole host of factors apart from genetics and hormones. The whole of your life experience — the hills and valleys you climb and cross — will act upon your temperament and shape your resilience. Some researchers believe “emotional intelligence” has tremendous influence as well.

Did you grow up in a stress factory?

Family environment can temper — or exacerbate — a child’s anxiety. Studies of children who have experienced neglect and high stress before adoption show the power of a positive relationship between a child and the adoptive parent. Calm, nurturing parents can make a worrier feel safe at home, and this may help offset a child’s worrying traits, behavior, and emotional health throughout life. But sometimes a patient will assure me that she had a happy childhood, while her obvious symptoms of anxiety suggest a different story.

Even loving parents may overdo it by fretting about every mundane detail of their children’s lives. Being overprotective or generally fearful of the world transfers any parental anxiety directly onto the child, which just magnifies the inborn tendency to worry. It also can over stimulate the stress response.

It may also color the child’s relationship with a parent by setting in motion unhealthy “negative love” patterns. In my experience, every anxious patient I have treated has had a childhood issue that needed to be resolved. So I encourage all women struggling with the tendency to worry to cast a long look into their upbringing, to acknowledge and heal any old wounds from childhood.

Feeling better, feeling balanced

Even if you are wired to worry, you can learn not just how to cope, but how to make the most of your behaviors and traits. Appropriate emotional and physical support can help relieve the anxious feelings, perceived stress, and other symptoms of adrenal imbalance that can make it hard to complete everyday tasks.

Once a person steps onto the path toward reducing anxious feelings, their body will respond in kind. Over time, as they learn to manage anxiety, stress, and worry, their adrenal glands won’t need to produce sustained, high levels of stress hormones, and biochemistry will eventually return to a more balanced state. Because the body and mind are forever linked, physical wellness helps provide a firm foundation for emotional health.

Nurturing an anxious mind, body and spirit

Some tried and true tips for “born worriers”

Maintain supportive friendships— even if it’s just one or two.

Find your niche. When you discover that one thing at which you excel, it’s incredibly satisfying and will do wonders to build your confidence. Feeling comfortable about what you do can help banish anxiety, fretting, and fear of failure.

Your anxiety may be tangled up in old beliefs and feelings. Consider undertaking emotional work to help you identify and let go of any thoughts and perceptions left over from earlier days.

Practice deep breathing to calm your nervous system, especially when you first notice anxiety. Simply taking “five deep breaths” will help bring you back to center.

I often recommend short, timed periods of meditation to help restore peaceful balance to the nervous system.

Take up regular exercise. Physical activity relieves tension and nervous energy and, regularly practiced over time, can lessen your tendency to be anxious. It can also ameliorate insomnia caused by adrenal imbalance and a good night’s rest acts as an effective tonic for worriers.

Remember, even if you are someone who’s “wired to worry,” you’re not predestined to a life of high anxiety. Becoming more aware of situations and issues that cause you worry can help you head off stress and unpleasant symptoms of adrenal imbalance. Appreciating that your anxious mind might even be an asset could be your first step toward creating a calmer, more fulfilling life.

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