I was discussing a very bad habit of mine to my dear friend Dr. Anne Marie Albano, the Director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders: “Late at night, when I can’t sleep, I log onto news websites and find that no matter how hard I try not to, I click on the most horrifying and salacious stories. I always regret doing it, but again and again I repeat the pattern.” “Ah,” said Dr. Albano, “that’s your threat bias kicking in.” “My what kicking in?” I asked excitedly, as her naming it immediately made me feel like she might be able to cure me.
Over the years, I’ve conquered many aspects of my chronic anxiety, and Dr. Albano is well aware of my efforts. Anxious people have a much greater tendency to be hypervigilant about fear, even when there really is no threat at all. In my mind, I click on these articles with the notion that if I am hyperaware of each horrible thing that could possibly happen, I will be more prepared to deal with it. In actuality, my body is already well equipped to deal with emergencies.
Faced with genuine threat, my body will quickly activate a sequence of nerve cell firing, and chemicals like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol will be pumped into my bloodstream. My respiratory rate will increase. My blood will be shunted away from my digestive tract and redirected into my muscles, making me quicker and stronger. My pupils will dilate as my awareness intensifies and my sight sharpens. My impulses will quicken and my perception of pain will diminish. I will essentially become as close to a superhero as I can ever hope to be. Reading those terrible news stories about horrible things will have served me no good other than keeping me from getting sufficient sleep. The irony is that although I suffer with chronic anxiety, when the sh$t really hits the fan I am cool as a cucumber. Rushing the kids to the emergency room for stitches? No problem; I go into a Zen-like state. I know what has to be done and I do it.
This trait can have a big impact on our parenting style, and so I asked Dr. Albano to write more about this subject. As for myself, I get my news from my husband on the Daily Show because I trust he won’t needlessly scare me. I read newspapers where I can take out the sections that will only alarm me, and I go to websites that only inspire and soothe me (Dinner a Love Story, Apartment Therapy, and Momfilter).
Tracey Stewart is the founder and creative director of Moomah Creative Arts Cafe in NYC.