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Born Anxious?

Updated: Jan 15, 2022

Ever wonder if you were just "born anxious?"

I often hear this from my clients who seem to have a core disposition towards anxiety and depression, and as we dig into their histories, I'm not convinced that there isn't a kernel of truth to this....

First, let's talk about the "nature" side of things

The wiring of our brains (and autonomic nervous systems) absolutely shapes who we are and how we act/engage with the world. We know that the first synapses of the fetus’s spinal cord (the foundation of the nervous system) begin forming at about weeks 5-6 after conception, and by the last trimester, fetuses are capable of simple forms of learning. All of this is absolutely influenced by the mother's experiences, thoughts, feelings, and stressors leading into conception, at conception and throughout the entire gestational process. It would make sense, then, that maternal moods and stress would directly influence a developing baby's autonomic nervous system. I mean heck, you spent around 40 weeks swimming around inside of your mom marinating in her hormones - including her stress hormones - wouldn't it make sense that this played a role in your current autonomic functioning?

What do you know about the circumstances surrounding your conception and your mom's pregnancy? Here are some great conversation starters to explore this with your mom. (If your mom is not available, are there any people who were in her life at that time who might fill in the blanks?)

  • Was she happy and excited?

  • Was she nervous or scared?

  • How old was she?

  • Was the pregnancy planned or unexpected, welcome or unwelcome?

  • What were the socio-economic, academic or vocational, and relational stressors in her life?

  • Was there abuse in her home or in important relationships?

  • Did she struggle with physical health, mental health or mood issues before or during pregnancy?

  • How did her support system look?

  • Did she have a partner, and were they supportive?

  • How supportive was her family about the pregnancy?

  • Was mom consuming alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, or other medications when you were conceived and/or while pregnant?

  • Were there other kids or family members for whom mom was responsible during her pregnancy?

  • How well was she able to nourish her body with good nutrition during pregnancy?

Pregnant blonde female sitting on kitchen floor. She is wearing white pants, a pink long-sleeved top, and has bare feet. She appears to be stressed, defeated or fatigued, holding her head with her hand while he eyes are closed. On the counter behind you there are tomatoes, and lettuce on a cutting board as if she was interrupted while making a meal.

Now, let's talk about the "nurture" component of things

Of all mammals, human babies are the most helpless for the longest periods of time. Other mammals are often able to walk and some can even find food shortly after birth, but human babies are for the most part unable to feed or protect themselves for years (you may argue that some adolescents and young adults still struggle to do these things independently, but that's another blog post entirely). This means we rely on our caregivers to keep us safe, feed us, and most importantly related to this discussion, be responsive to our needs and help us learn emotion regulation.

We as humans learn how to experience "safety" only within social constructs and we ideally have early-life caregivers who respond to our cries of hunger with food, respond to our cries of discomfort by bathing us and keeping us clean and clothed, respond to our cries of fatigue by helping rock or pat us to sleep, and generally use their calm-regulated bodies and autonomic nervous systems to teach our autonomic nervous systems how to calm and regulate. We call this process co-regulation and while the majority of our learning to regulate comes from co-regulation experiences in early life, we continue to learn how to regulate our own emotional selves throughout life within the construct of relationships with other people. We hope those people are themselves relatively well regulated - otherwise, we continue to struggle with self-regulation, and often learn that world is an "unsafe" place - gah - hello anxiety?!

Ok...back to early life... Not to blame to well intentioned parents, sometimes when we're infants or young kids, those parents or caregivers are not super regulated themselves! Consider a mother who is exhausted by the difficulty of childbirth, caring for other children, lacking support, is experiencing postpartum depression, or worse - who is under significant socio-economic pressures, in an abusive relationship, or has addiction issues - she may simply not have the bandwidth to keep herself regulated, much less show up consistently regulated for a baby. What if our caregivers are absent due to financial pressures or other distractions, are under the influence of substances, or due to mental health issues? Or, what if the caregiver(s) had poorly regulated caregivers as well... what if they never learned what healthy co-regulation looked or felt like?

The good news

While we certainly have innate predispositions towards certain patterns, behavior is not hard-wired. Genetic, gestational and early life interpersonal "wiring" provide a baseline for our behavior patterns, but we are also hard-wired to learn from experience. It is how we adapt to our particular circumstances and how our patterns of behavior emerge and change that matters, and due to neuroplasticity, change remains possible. We can learn to modify and control our behaviors and we can overrule and reshape our habits through self-awareness, discipline and effort.

How the heck do we do that?

We engage in social and romantic relationships with people who are regulated and we practice co-regulation with them. We engage in self-care, creating moments of calm and stillness in our daily lives through breath-work, meditation, yoga, or time in nature. We support ourselves with the nutrition our bodies (and nervous system!) need to perform optimally, as well as get enough rest, movement, and hydration. We learn about polyvagal tools we can use to shift our autonomic states. We avoid numbing and checking out behaviors (including substance abuse and other addictive patterns) and instead cultivate and reach out to social supports. We seek therapeutic support from qualified, compassionate mental health professionals who can help us re-wire old patterns and on-board new skills.

Are you ready to create a new pattern of centeredness in your life? I love working with folx to help them improve their lives and reduce their anxiety... I'd love to help you!

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