Sunday, October 9, 2011

Fearfully Made . . . Celebrating the Gift of Terror Part VIII

I’ve written a lot about the basic biology of anxiety but now I want to move into the realm of how it is manifest and how we should approach dealing with it in a more healthy way.  I will say right up front that I believe most of what we are taught in Christian settings is very wrong.

So we can be born with structural/chemical problems in the cognitive processing center or in the emotional response (limbic) system of the brain causing us to be anxious or we can have bad experiences in life to cause it.  Sometimes I wonder if that being born with it is my problem because my mother was very anxious and I had symptoms of it at a very young (3 years old) age.

We can also have our brain modified through bad experiences that cause us to be more anxious. PTSD, is a good example of this.  In my story, B seemed to fit in this category.  I will add too, that the younger our brains are when they are exposed to these horrible experiences, the more damage is done.  The brain is more malleable the younger we are.

So, I think there is evidence I was born the way I was, however, I’ve also had some traumatic experiences that made it much worse.  I went though such a one 15 years ago and my anxiety level greatly increased for many years afterwards.  I think this is a common pattern, where someone was biologically prone to anxiety, then had a very severe personal trauma and it became much worse.

But before I start talking about our response to anxiety, I want to talk a bit about the “software” of the problem.  Up until now I’ve focused on the “hardware.”

There are different types of anxiety.  Generalized anxiety, what I suffer from, is where we are anxious, as the name suggest, in a generalized way. Then some people have focused anxiety, such as social anxiety.  In the case of the latter, they feel fine taking great physical risks, parachuting, hang gliding, running with the bulls, but are fearful of people only.

I think most people who suffer from anxiety do so in a general way, suggesting that they were either born with a defect in their limbic system or, through trauma, their limbic system changed and now processes anxiety at a higher intensity.

Social anxiety is one of the most common and disabling so I want to focus on it.  It is more disabling because it deeply affects the way we live.  If we just had acrophobia, most people would never know. We would simply avoid being in high places.

A couple of posts ago, I made the comment that there are two types of fear, bodily harm and being devalued.  I also suggested that the later was the most intense.

It is my personal opinion that virtually all human behavior pivots on an insatiable desire to feel that we have value.  Speaking theologically, God created us with infinite value, because He made us in His image. However, through the Fall of Adam, guilt covered all of humanity.  Guilt is the fear or feeling of being devalued.  The rational process is that I have no value because I’m not perfect.  It, as an echo of Adam, haunts the most inward chambers of our being.  It is comprehensive and suffocating. 

I’ve also said before that the purpose of the Gospel was to eradicate the influence of this guilt, however, even the greatest Christian on earth never—in this life—fully recognizes the benefits of the Gospel.  The journey of life is trying harder and harder to know that we are perfect and completely restored to an infinite value in God’s eyes.

So by nature all of us are obsessed with trying to restore our own value.  Most of our behaviors are defined by those motives.  I write on this bog hoping that someone reads it, thus telling me that I have value.  We go to work every day to earn money to help us know that we have value. We raise families, hoping to do a good job so that we can convince ourselves that we have value.

Social anxieties are deeply entangled in the intense fear that, rather than being torn apart by a lion, someone will judge us, and that judgment will be that we are of low value.

I have a fear of talking to people at times because I fear that I will say the wrong thing and they will judge me to be inferior, thus taking away my value.  My brain’s cognitive interpretative center, is so fearful of this devaluation, that is misreads signals from other people as proof that they have devalued me.  When people devalue us, we actually take it as actually having less value, not just their opinions.

Public speaking is considered one of the most frightful things people can do.  Once again, it is this intense fear that you will not come across well then, rather than one person, hundreds of people will conclude that you are 1) not smart, 2) not cool and if your voice trembles, 3) not sane.

Fifteen years ago I had just gone through this terrible experience and I knew my anxiety disorder had been shaken awake and was at a much higher level. Then one Sunday, the pastor walked up to me minutes before the church service started and asked me to read scripture from the pulpit.

As I sat down near the front and watched the 500 people come in and take their seats, I felt a full panic attack ensue.  I didn’t know what to do.  I waked up to the pulpit and tried to speak but my voice was so shaky. It was shaky because my hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis was activated and I had a huge amount of adrenalin in my bloodstream.

When I came back to my seat, I felt a huge embarrassment.  Embarrassment is the acute manifestation of the fear that we have lost value.  I felt that 500 people now saw me as 1) sissy or fearful, 2) stupid, 3) very unspiritual because a true man of God is bold, confident and cleaver and lastly 4) untalented as a speaker.

So, is there hope?  More later.


solarblogger said...

"So we can be born with structural/chemical problems in the cognitive processing center or in the emotional response (limbic) system of the brain causing us to be anxious or we can have bad experiences in life to cause it."

I think there is a third possibility. I ran into this in reading on the topic. We can learn anxiety from parents. This has been observed in animals. Young monkeys who are introduced to an experience by anxious older monkeys will be anxious. Those introduced to the experience by calm older monkeys will be calm. This doesn't contradict either of the other two causes you mentioned above, and I see all three functioning in my own life.

My own GAD has an odd shape to it. Some have perceived me as being anxious, but others have seen me as being cool in stressful situations. I think I've had to develop coping skills that work well. I think sometimes the disorder doesn't mean that anxiety is always high. It just isn't always proportional to the situation. It might at times be low for the situation. Or it might be at a level where good skills can make me highly functional. I'll move from being unusually good in one stressful situation to being halted by something someone else would find easy.

kg said...

"It is my personal opinion that virtually all human behavior pivots on an insatiable desire to feel that we have value"

It helps me greatly to understand and remember this. I can treat myself and others more gently when I keep this in mind.

jmj said...

solarbloggger, I totally agree. I wonder in my own case if that was not true. I remember my mother getting me to hide under the bed every time a plane flew over because she told me that we were going to be bombed (by the Soviets or the Vietnamese).

jmj said...

Kg, I think that often when I'm hard on others, it is because I want to leverage against them to make myself look and feel better. So I certainly agree.

Jaimie said...

Just wanted to let you know, I am reading and enjoying this.

Taylor said...

Just caught up on this series. I'm so glad you're writing more on this issue. I don't struggle with anxiety to an unusual level, but I know people that do, and your writings (blog and book) have been very helpful to me (and them, as I've shared your blog with them).

It's funny, as I encourage you, I want you to feel pleasure over the goodness of your writing without allowing it to influence your sense of value. I reminds me of CSLewis' The Great Divorce, where in one of the "Solid Person/Ghost" conversations, heaven is described as the place where one can enjoy their own works (visual art, in this case - the Ghost is an artist) the same way everyone else enjoys their works: "without pride and without modesty" is I think how Lewis puts it.