Ode to the worrier

DE RERUM NATURA - Maria Isabel Garcia (The Philippine Star) - August 30, 2012 - 12:00am

When we fret about things, we are often told by our family and friends not to worry. And for those who are really pushing it, they even add “be happy.” While well-meaning and, in one instance even made for a good refrain in a song, I personally have never found that really comforting. I am sure that most of the time, they are also at a loss for words on how to comfort someone who is afraid. Worrying does enable me to mentally explore reasonable options; but to be a reliable worrier is not a special talent of mine. Humans are, in general, thank goodness, wired to worry. In fact, if our ancestors did not worry, we wouldn’t be here.  

Worrying or being anxious is an offshoot of fear. Fear is primal. It rests in that oldest part of our brain that we share with other animals long before there were mammals. It is called the reptilian brain and it is responsible for a lot of things that we do not have to “will” but end up performing anyway, like breathing, swallowing, having heartbeats, blood flow, blood pressure, gut functions and yes, even basic facial expressions. It is in the oldest part of our brain because long before nature gave way to humans, fear proved successful in survival. If animals did not worry based on their fear that they were going to fall off from dizzying heights or from the onslaught of powerful waves or from terrorizing predators, it would not prompt them to do what had to be done. In those days with those creatures, there were just two options: fight or flee. There were no super heroes suddenly popping out of nature’s scene to save them.

Fast-forward to when nature gave way to humans hundreds of millions of years later and we end up retro-fitted with some brain parts that have worked for other creatures before. But we get more brain parts on top of them and human concerns grew in number and in kind that other creatures could never imagine. On top of our worries involving bodily survival, we worry about the outcomes of our financial, emotional and creative lives. We worry about our children and their children. We worry about the planet and occasionally, over some meteor that might crash onto it.

We inherited a wiring for fear, for worrying, because it worked and it still does. Most people carry it in calibrations that work in most conditions. But we also know or know about people who are uncontrollably anxious — those who are physically debilitated by the bodily manifestations of fear — racing heart, increasing blood pressure, hysteria — that they neither fight nor flee. They get stuck.

Then there are those who have very little fear of things. While this tendency has proven useful in taking innovative leaps, you can really only thank it if it does not kill you. In the book A General Theory of Love (Vintage Books, 2001) by Lewis, Amini and Lannon, they cite research that showed that children who are born with very little fear are more often likely to grow up to commit crimes than average. They also took note of how Hollywood glorifies the reckless in characters that Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis play. I think we can also add commercials and scenes of “pleasure” that are often associated with the “edgy,” of defying risk through facial expression, bodily stance, fashion and other “risky” activities. In those settings, having an abnormal sense of risk then seems cool except that in the only game that matters, which is the game of life that nature laid out, life belongs more to the worrier. 

So think of this as an odd ode to the worrier. The calibrated worrier prepares her body and sends messages to her thinking brain parts to think, contemplate and lay out a plan. She does not volunteer to crash into nature’s or culture’s manholes.  

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