Born To Rue: Why Some People May Be Hard-Wired For AnxietyAnna North10/01/09 2:00pmFiled to: The panic wombThe influences of anxietyanxietyAnxiety researchHigh-reactive infantsamygdalaPsychologyBrainJerome kaganRobin marantz henigTop1552EditPromoteShare to KinjaToggle Conversation toolsGo to permalinkIn a fascinating New York Times Magazine piece on the causes of anxiety, Robin Marantz Henig writes that some people "are just born worriers, their brains forever anticipating the dropping of some dreaded other shoe." People, that is, like me.AdvertisementThe article focuses on several longitudinal studies by psychologist Jerome Kagan and his colleagues. Kagan has found that some babies (about 20% of his simple) are "high-reactive," meaning they kick, writhe, or fuss in response to new stimuli. These babies are more likely to grow into anxious, inhibited, or shy children, and as teens and young adults exhibit differences in brain structure and function. The differences include hypersensitivity in the amygdala, a part of the brain responsible for dealing with danger and new situations. Kagan's research suggests that some people are wired from birth to be more anxious than others.Henig mentions one subject, known as Baby 19, who in a 1989 experiment "was distressed by novelty - new sounds, new voices, new toys, new smells - and showed it by flailing her legs, arching her back and crying." In a 2004 interview, when she was 15, Baby 19 enumerated in her worries thus:AdvertisementWhen I don't quite know what to do and it's really frustrating and I feel really uncomfortable, especially if other people around me know what they're doing. I'm always thinking, Should I go here? Should I go there? Am I in someone's way? ... I worry about things like getting projects done... I think, Will I get it done? How am I going to do it? ... If I'm going to be in a big crowd, it makes me nervous about what I'm going to do and say and what other people are going to do and say. How I'm going to deal with the world when I'm grown. Or if I'm going to sort of do anything that really means anything.Not all of Kagan's "high-reactive" subjects were this visibly agitated. By adolescence, most of the kids who had feared new things were "getting good grades, going to parties, making friends." But, Henig writes,There exists a kind of sub-rosa anxiety, a secret stash of worries that continue to plague a subset of high-reactive people no matter how well they function outwardly. They cannot quite outrun their own natures: consciously or unconsciously, they remain the same uneasy people they were when they were little.At this point, she seems like she's writing from inside my brain. I'm not sure if I was a "high-reactive" baby, though the way my parents shudder when they talk about my infancy makes me think something was off. I wasn't a conventionally shy child either, but I was terrified of things like death, ghosts, lizards in the bedroom (don't ask), and being disliked. By thirteen, I was convinced I had a mysterious illness that was making my hair fall out (I didn't), and my separation anxiety was so severe that I once spent an entire visit to a friend's house pacing, waiting for my parents to come pick me up. But by high school, I kind of had a handle on things. Therapy helped my separation anxiety, and though I still pretty much thought I was dying all the time, I was able to go out, make friends, and have fun. Which is basically where I am today.As I've said before, people who've just met me tend to describe me as calm. I don't freak out about work, and being with friends usually makes me forget my anxieties, so I rarely seem outwardly upset. But like Baby 19, I have a laundry list of worries coursing through my head on any given day: Do I have swine flu? Could I be pregnant (this one actually started long before I was sexually active — if I had an immaculate conception, I would not only have to raise a child but also convert to Christianity)? Is this cut on my finger going to give me gangrene? Did I offend someone? Did I say something weird? Am I weird?