Facing these common emotions I was at a café the other day getting some work done (read, watching puppy videos) and minding my own business (read, over-hearing other people’s conversations).

  • PublishedDecember 6, 2011

Facing these common emotions

I was at a café the other day getting some work done (read, watching puppy videos) and minding my own business (read, over-hearing other people’s conversations). Two young females were sitting at the table next to me talking about their different work situations. Female A was confessing to female B that she was afraid of asking her boss for a raise because her boss, who may or may not like her, might flatly declare her job performance unworthy. Female B laughed it off, stating that there was nothing to be scared of, that she should just suck it up and do it if she really wanted the raise. Female A let out a very audible sigh of exasperation.

As it just so happened I came across a new puppy video soon after the ladies left. Titled: ‘My Extreme Animal Phobia: Puppy Scares Man To Tears’, the video was exactly that – a tiny pit bull puppy terrifying a large, motorcycle driving, gold chain wearing man. Did I mention he was covered in tattoos, including some adorning his face and neck? Yeah, that too! At the sight of the puppy approaching on a leash, the man starts to have a near panic attack. When guided by a therapist towards actually touching the puppy the man breaks down into tears, sobbing: ‘I am such a coward!’

Apparently the man had a traumatic incident with a pit bull as a child, and I found it heartbreaking. Though looking at the comments viewers had made, people clearly focused on the startling sight of a grown, intimidating man crippled by the fear of a small, harmless animal: “Yes, you are so a coward”, “I wish the puppy would have started barking at him. That would have been hilarious”, “I feel guilty laughing at this man’s crippling phobia, but I was totally laughing at this man’s crippling phobia”. (Go to www.parentsafrica.com to watch the video.)

We may not be able to understand other people’s fears, and when that cruel streak within us emerges we clearly go as far as ridiculing what we perceive to be an irrational or purely silly fear. But be it puppies, butterflies, rabbits, snakes, heights, or more intangible elements such as abandonment, loss, or rejection, there is nothing funny about being scared and we are all petrified of something.

There is however a distinction to be made between experiencing fear and experiencing anxiety, and when many of us refer to feeling scared we’re actually referring to feeling anxious. Fear is an emotion that is experienced when we are actually in a dangerous situation; Anxiety is an emotion that occurs when we expect or anticipate that something unpleasant may happen. Whereas fear is an emotional response to a known or direct threat, anxiety can occur without an identifiable triggering stimulus, i.e. when there is no apparent risk or cause for physical harm.

With the woman scared of asking for a raise, the threat of judgment from her boss is clearly perceived, not real. And if it does become real she won’t be feeling anxious, more likely disappointed/angry/sad. But so long as there is the threat of these negative outcomes, the fact that they might occur can be understood to be very real.

As for the man with a phobia of pit bulls, he suffers from a more extreme version of anxiety, in so far as his reaction is disproportional to the actual danger posed. Though the basis of his fear is very real, as experienced during the trauma he suffered as a child, danger occurring from the face of a docile puppy is unlikely. But, were it say a full grown raging pit bull charging at him full speed then not only would he be experiencing the most terrifying amount of fear, but he should be running for his life and/or wetting his pants.

Both fear and anxiety are interrelated and the physical symptoms – a racing heart, churning stomach, and trembling fingers – are often the same. Yet fear is evolutionary beneficial. It is a basic instinct that keeps us alive. That sense of doom and fight or flight reaction when faced by a robber is nature’s way of aiding self-preservation. But anxiety has questionable evolutionary benefits. For the species as a whole, it is most likely an advantage to have individuals who see everything as a threat, always ready to sound an alarm and leap into action. But for the individual, the emotional burden of hyper vigilance brings no apparent benefit; what good does it do to be constantly expecting or anticipating being robbed? How does one live a normal life with so much mental stress?

Four significant long-term longitudinal physiological studies have been under way to attempt to understand the anxious mind, two initiated by Jerome Kagan, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, and two by Nathan Fox at the University of Maryland. By studying groups of individuals, from infant to adulthood, these studies have reached similar conclusions: that babies differ according to inborn temperament; that 15 to 20 percent of them will react strongly to novel people or situations; and that strongly reactive babies are more likely to grow up to be anxious individuals.

Indeed there is biology at work here. High-reactive children are ‘born with a lower threshold’ for arousal of various brain regions. In other words, the areas of the brain that respond to stress, such as the hypothalamus and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, the circuit responsible for the stress hormone cortisol, are stimulated more easily in high-reactive children.

However, while temperament persists, the behavior associated with it doesn’t always. Kagan further describes “the long shadow of temperament” – while the behavior and the subjective experience associated with an emotion like anxiety might be in a person’s conscious control, physiology usually is not. Anxious people may manage to avoid looking, and acting anxious on the surface, but their subconscious brain is still hyper-vigilant, still unable to shift attention away from perceived threats that aren’t really there.

I can openly admit to being an anxious person. I believe I was a highly sensitive child (ask my mother) and as an adult being hypersensitive to my environment. Living on constant high alert and always questioning the what-ifs of any given situation is simply part of my nature. But as I continue to learn, it is all about context and interpretation, the ability to understand the difference between perception, feelings and actions. If anxiety occurs at three levels: brain, behavior and subjective experience, then the first (brain) I have to accept, the second (behavior) I can fully control and the third (subjective experience) is a matter of, well, life and how I understand and live it. However, it is the constantly dynamic and evolving interaction between the three levels that makes dealing with anxiety so difficult for many.

For example, I have no problem eating in a restaurant or going to the movies all by my lonesome self. Actually I often quite enjoy it. But when I walk into a crowded space to meet someone, be it a restaurant or bar, a slight sense of unease kicks in. What if the said person isn’t there and I have to search around? Are people looking at me? Do they think I’m a lonely, desperate person? Are they judging me?

I also happen to be an adept public speaker, good at presenting myself, easily able to turn on the charm and talk to anyone, whether it’s large groups, or schmoozing with individuals at events or parties. But anyone who knows me well enough is aware that on a one-to-one basis I often tend to speak very timidly and can be a very reserved person. You can call it social anxiety in reverse; I’m fine at a distance but if you get too close my anxiety kicks in.

But the more aware of certain traits, triggers, feelings, thoughts and reactions I have, the easier it is for me to counteract the naturally occurring jitters with productive behaviors and thoughts. One of my biggest fears used to be telling a story, or God forbid a joke, in front of a group of friends. Yes, friends not strangers. The anxiety surrounding the possibility of not being listened to, of not telling an engaging tale, of not being funny (that awfully loud silence when a joke hits the ground dead) compelled me to silence. Though I still do fear the silence/fake laughter after a particularly unfunny story, I try not to care so much as to what people may think. If I find my story worth telling then you have no choice but to hear it! And if I find it funny and you don’t, then clearly your sense of humor is seriously lacking.

So I really do hope Female A was able to find the confidence within her to eventually ask for a raise. And I salute the face-tattooed man who was finally able to touch the puppy; that takes true courage. So now, who is ready to go forth and hold a snake in an enclosed, tiny closet? Anyone?

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