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Smoking Guns and Puzzles.

Mar 09, 2008 - 2 comments

Panic and anxiety often have emotional and psychological roots planted firmly and deeply in our past -as far back as childhood. And while these roots may not be sufficient, in and of themselves, to cause panic or anxiety, they can predispose us to an occurrence if other conditions are also in effect. Like actual roots, the early experiences may be deeply buried and difficult to trace.

Nonetheless, in the quest to dig out any and all contributors to our disorder, there sometimes is a tendency to look for a "smoking gun," a remembered incident or set of conditions which at the time they occurred moved us very deeply -or so we now think. Indeed, some of us experienced very devastating situations in our early years which may contribute to our panic and anxiety in the present. But this possibility also begs a question: why were we so moved back THEN? The question may seem irreverent or silly at first, but in fact not all people react to challenging situations in the same way: Some choose flight. Some fight. And some don't seem to notice at all, really. And there can be all kinds of variations, as numerous as the number of people who experience them.

The evidence for this variety of responses is siblings who are within 1 to 3 years of one another and who were exposed to the same abuse by the same person: a family friend, or a sitter, for example, who did bad things. One child will be emotionally devastated, and hide the incidents because of shame or fear of punishment. Yet the brother or sister may simply be aggravated or understand that something is wrong -and alert a parent. And so, the way we handled emotional challenge way back when may itself point to a particularly vulnerable or especially resistant psychology and that, in turn, suggests inherited psychological traits: the hand you were "dealt."

Likewise, timing can be important -an older child may be more or less susceptible simply because of developmental factors. And while all kids tend to develop at more or less the same rate, that's where the rub comes in -it is "more" or "less." There are early learners, and there are late bloomers and sometimes a person changes from one to another. Furthermore, the circumstances of our early years plays a part in the speed of our development. That is the "nurture" part of the equation.

I have referred to this process as an "equation," which calls to mind a simple math problem: A+B=C. But this is more like a "quadratic equation," solvable, but complex and tedious with numerous opportunities for error.

Therefore, the search for a "smoking gun," a "prime suspect," may not produce an "answer." In the first place, if we do remember early material, it may not, in and of itself, be source event or situation. And thus, while we might experience a reprieve from our panic and anxiety, it might come back. Second of all, we might then say that our past has little to do with our problem today, or conclude that therapy which covers past events is a wild goose chase.

It might be more likely that the circumstances of our early years combined to nudge us toward behaviors and choices which COLLECTIVELY AND OVER TIME encouraged us to adapt to the perceived reality of that day, and so became part of the psychological tool kit we brought along with us to the present. All of this can occur -does occur- in growing up years which otherwise are entirely "normal:" loving parents, a rich and safe environment, stimulating and healthy play -all the "right stuff. " But even in that context, we can make dysfunctional adaptations. Bear in mind that in your early years, EVERYTHING is big, psychologically. Everything makes a big impression, because there is little to compare it against in the child's experience. What we do not think of as being threatening today may have been overwhelming back then. And thus, the well-meaning parent who expects a child to perfrom better at sports or school may send early signals of disappointment if the performance is lacking. Today we might say, "I can't dance, I have 2 left feet," and laugh it off. But back then? Multiply all this by the thousands of interactions a child experiences, and you have something akin to a puzzle, whose picture gradually becomes clear as more pieces are assembled. But this puzzle has a unique feature: some pieces will fit in more than one way -so, it is not just the raw ingredients -but assembly, too, which is important.

All of this may portray a situation which seems impossible to unravel -there is SO MUCH. Fortunately, it need not be completely disassembled in order to understand how your puzzle was put together. Rather, one need only find a few examples which clearly -in your mind- link present to past. Once your brain is convinced that the observation is valid, other links may be validated, and resolved, "on the fly."

Let me give you an example from my own past. Until I was about 6 or 7, my father and I enjoyed many activities together. One of these was learning how to sail a boat. He had purchased a ratty old day sailor and we set out to "learn" how to sail. Nothing I could do was wrong, because neither of us knew what the hell we were doing. We laughed at ourselves, wrapped up in the experience and mutuality. The leaky boat finally filled with water and sunk. In about 3 feet of water, there we were, sails unfurled, our heads sticking above the water line, going nowhere. We made our way to shore and back to the house. When Dad asked if I would like to try again with a better boat, you can imagine my delight.

And so, he bought another sail boat -and books on how to sail. And books on how to race. He bought little toy boats for table-top recreations of racing strategies. And he joined the yacht club. He was "into it." I was excited when he asked me to crew for his first race. But that's where the boundary was crossed. EVERYTHING I did was wrong. He yelled at me, criticized, issued constant corrections as Captain Bligh might do. I was hurt and disappointed. The fun was gone and my trusted companion had turned into a tyrant. And this went on for hours -out there on blue water. I tried again the next weekend -same result. After a month, he asked if mother would like to try. Imagine my relief. I rarely sailed with him again and when I did, simply kept my face turned away, to hide my pain and tears at being so "not right." And this is when I remember Dad using the phrase, "What's the matter with you?" whenever I did anything of which he did not approve or felt could be done better. Did he love me? Of course. Did I love him? Of course. Did I think my family was normal, and did I describe my life as happy? Yes and yes. And it was true -every word of it. But what do YOU think I now carried with me along my developmental trail? I won't go into all the ripples which circled out from this stone in the water -but you understand how that incident -and successor similar encounters with Dad- played a part in my self-concept and need to perform.

It took a fair amount of therapy to dig up that root, but once I did so, I became automatically attuned to others, and to this day still have flashes of "now I get it" insights about myself. Those past experiences never "go away," but understanding how they came to be helped get rid of the bad data that there was and is anything "the matter" with me. And it also gave me some appreciation that Dad acted as he did because he, too, had made some adaptations in HIS childhood -which he relied upon in his adult years. People have asked me HOW knowing what went on when you were a kid can possibly take the fire out of panic and anxiety. While getting to that point may be complex and even painful, the basic concept is fairly simple: you find out that the bad ideas you had about yourself are wrong -that you really are "OK." It is much the same as getting back a medical test that shows you do NOT have the disease or disorder being tested for, or finding out that a test you took was scored incorrectly -and you DID pass, after all. What a relief!

Those early adaptations "work" in the way that driving around a pot hole "works" to avoid an accident. But that doesn't mean the road you are on is the one that will get you where you want to go.

In my own experience -and in that of many other people as well, there is no "smoking gun," but there may well be a puzzle whose pieces can be moved around to create a new and more accurate and more pleasing picture. I'm not saying we should not look for the "gun" or study any we may have found, because doing so may help us uncover other aspects of our emotional background which COLLECTIVELY AND OVER TIME have influenced the paths we have chosen.

I hope this is helpful to anyone.

PS: As for Dad, when I understood what happened between us, and the role of his own childhood in his adult behavior, it contributed to his humanity -made him more believable as a person with faults, traits and characteristics like anyone else. And so the last decade of his life was very rewarding for the two of us and I am very glad to have had those years with my companion, back again.

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409760 tn?1271037972
by gentle51, Mar 09, 2008
Thanks for your time that went into presenting this to us. As you know I can relate with your childhood. I had many years of impressionable moments that are still with me and I am working on organizing and throwing out that of which haunts me. Thanks again for your comments.


404138 tn?1308941656
by AnxiousGurl, Oct 30, 2008
Thank you JS, it was very helpful reading that. I finally made an appointment for talk therapy!! I look forward to getting better!!

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