The Calm Clinic

Contemporary rendering of a poster from the Un...
Contemporary rendering of a poster from the United Kingdom reading “Keep Calm and Carry On”, created during World War II. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As you all know by now, I love to visit “What If” land.  Well, not love, but just somehow, in some way, every now and then, I find myself in What If land.  It’s awful.  It fills me with fear and anxiety and haunts almost all my thoughts.  Not so nice.  And I have known, for a while, that my thought life is unhealthy and that not only do I o overanalyze absolutely everything, I hone into the negative – and then overanalyze that as well.

No wonder fear and anxiety follow me wherever I go.

And then one day, hubby made a comment about my negativity and aggression, and all of a sudden I started on this journey – the whole journey of which you can read on my blog.  So, after that small reintroduction into my anxiety, I came across this article by Rachel Ramos.  I have no idea who she is, or how she fits into society, but what she says here makes so much sense.  And I agree with it completely.  With my comments in bold below…

 Do you know what are the two most common questions people who suffer from anxiety ask me?  It’s either “Why me?” or “What has happened to me?”  In fact, these two questions were the very ones that almost got me carted off to the loony bin when I was suffering.

Both hubby and I have often asked this…

So how about if today I show you exactly WHY you feel the way you do and THEN explain how to save yourself from nerve-shattering horror by bull charging your anxiety problems with easy to implement strategies immediately?  Sounds good?  Then let’s get started… First of all, you have to understand that some women are simply born with a predisposition for generalized anxiety and panic disorders that may or may not develop … depending on what life throws at them.  In other words, a natural worrywart may get along just fine until she is diagnosed with breast cancer.  A shy teenager may only develop full blown social anxiety in response to a humiliating school event or a bully’s constant teasing.  The ANSWER, then, is that your anxiety disorder developed for biological AND psychological reasons.

I know, and have mentioned many times, how anxiety has always crossed my path many times in my life.  And I think (no, I KNOW) that all this anxiety after Baby Girl‘s arrival was triggered by the huge life changing event that becoming a mommy is, and add to that the fact that I lost my job, didn’t sleep and my own mother played huge mind games with me that I’m not sure if she won or if I did…

But what’s even more important here is that when anxiety starts shaking up your life, what you put in your body and how you use your mind can make it BETTER …or WORSE.  So what I’m about to tell you now might actually help you to crack the anxiety code.  Ready?  78% of the time anxiety and panic is a learned behaviour.  How can this be?

This is also so true – and hubby and I have discussed quite extensively how we both feel that my panic and anxiety is a learned behaviour from my mother, because she needed someone else who battled the same to affirm her own fears.  It was not something given to me – it was something taught to me.  Knowing this, however, has not taught me to overcome these fears or how to deal with them appropriately.  

Let me illustrate this with one famous, yet pretty unethical, experiment.  Social scientist John Watson intentionally induced a phobia in an 11-month-old boy by pairing a loud noise with a little white rat.  Every time little Albert reached for the rat, Watson clanged away.  Not only did Albert begin to associate the white rat and the noise, becoming anxious around the rat, he also began to GENERALIZE.  He became anxious around other white, furry objects, including a rabbit, a fur coat, and a Santa Claus beard.  But this doesn’t have to happen in laboratory.

Let’s say that when you were a little girl you used to visit Grandma in Tucson, Arizona, an area famous for thunderstorms with lots of lightning and plenty of loud, scary thunder.  But all you associated was the reflex (flinching, heart pounding) with a neutral stimulus (Grandma).  You might grow anxious even if Grandma came to visit you in your home state, where there was almost never thunder and lightning!

Like having a panic attack when eating and then spending the rest of your life fearing eating – and so now eat all the time “just in case”…

But let’s not stop here…

We also learn to do things we’re rewarded for and we stop doing things that lead to painful or negative consequences.  Although this risk/reward strategy works well most of the time, it can backfire when our avoidance interferes with doing what we love or when short-term rewards lead to long-term problems.  For example, most of us tend to stay away from things we fear.  This avoidance behaviour tends to be reinforced because when we avoid (or escape) unpleasant situations, we feel better.  An unfortunate side effect, though, is that this strategy reduces opportunities for us to unlearn our fears.  An attempt to avoid unpleasant feelings can have life-altering even life-threatening-consequences.  One bad encounter with an inexperienced nurse and a needle could lead us to avoid seeking much-needed medical care for years.  Fears of driving after a car accident could adversely impact our careers and our relationships.  And finally, we can also “learn” fears by watching, imitating and modeling other people.

What that means is if mom is terrified of snakes, we may decide snakes are scary without ever coming near one.  (If Mom is unlucky, of course, we turn out to be the kid who finds a snake every other week and brings it home, begging, “Can I keep it?”)  If everyone in the family is anxious about the same thing, we’re even more likely to jump on the bandwagon.  So is all anxiety learned?

Like I already mention 78% of the time this is true, but there are still those 22%…

For instance, one study found that more than three quarters of people with a needle phobia had had a bad experience with an injection or blood draw.  That sounds like LEARNING at work.  On the other hand, a study of children who were terrified of water showed that more than half of them exhibited the fear at their very first aquatic encounter!

Obviously, not all anxiety can be associated directly with learning.

Then what about biology?

Every time we face a threat our brain activates survival responses, which in extreme instances is known as fight or flight.   Your body is preparing you to either run away or do battle.  This was great for our caveman ancestors.  You see that mammoth approaching, and it’s time to run like heck or get ready to try to put it on the dinner table.

But it’s no help with modern stressors.

So what happens in the brain during fight or flight?

Every of your perception is analyzed and interpreted with powerful processing tools in your frontal cortex.  But this processing takes precious time, so there is another route – sometimes called a blind alley or a dirty back road, because it can often lead us to false conclusions.  On this route, the perception is rapidly matched by the almond-shaped part of your brain called Amygdala.  Its job is to immediately trigger response to danger.  If there is a close enough match, the amygdala will hit the emergency button, raising the heartbeat, changing breathing, and revving up the engines for action.  However, because the amygdala’s focus is on survival, it tends to err on the side of caution.  Accuracy takes a backseat to speed and innocuous situations can be misperceived as dangerous.  Right or wrong, the amygdala takes a stand long before the rational mind has processed the incoming data.  And even when the rational mind catches up and concludes there is no threat, it takes a while to calm down the systems that have been alerted.  All the physical symptoms of fear – the shortness of breath, the nausea, the need to use the bathroom, the speeding pulse, the restlessness – are caused by the amygdala’s response to a perceived threat.

In the case of an anxiety disorder, this blind alley becomes a well-trodden path, a default pattern of response that becomes all too familiar — and we can’t stop following it.  But here’s where things get really interesting…

We know that biology affects psychology: if your body is pumping adrenaline into your bloodstream, you’re unlikely to stay in a calm, peaceful frame of mind.

But psychology can also affect biology.

Let’s do a little exercise to PROVE this.  Think about the last vivid dream you had.  Was it scary, thrilling, funny, or plain weird?

Dreams are perhaps the most dramatic and challenging type of thought we have — and despite the frankly bizarre imagery, we usually completely believe dreams while we’re having them.  This is because the analytical, fact-checking part of your brain is largely shut down while we dream.  So when we wake up, we are often charged with all the emotions of the dream.  The brain and body are responding as if it is real.  In other words, your body is responding to nothing but your state of mind.  In a sense, our brain chemistry changes with every thought.  So our state of mind can clearly affect the biology of our brains.


The simple answer is that it’s mostly a mix of both.  But even if the genetic makeup we inherit from our parents sets a precedent for how we behave – this DOES NOT mean we are genetically doomed.

Simply by learning few simple exercises (that I specifically designed for women who suffer from anxiety) to manage emotions and stop irrational thinking from taking hold is a POWERFUL way to alter what nature and nurture have given us.  So is it possible to change, or should we accept who we are and live with the consequences?  And if we are to change, how do we keep up the motivation when the going gets tough?

Trust me, we will talk about these issues and more this week. 🙂

I’ll talk to you again in a few days…

Your Friend,



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