nature or nurture ?

Anxiety and panic attacks and experiences of being overwhelmed by life or circumstances appears as a common theme in counselling.  For some people being overwhelmed by apparently small circumstances  can be a frightening thing. Especially when these events seem to come from out of no where. They are not only debilitating for individuals suffering from them but family and partners are also  affected by the episodes.

There are any number of starting points in relation to discussion of anxiety or panic attacks but I want to make some comments about temperament or personal makeup in relation to this small portion of the large topic. 

What has interested me in this topic, started some years ago It follows my interest in post war trauma.  Particularly after the Vietnam war and the veterans who found themselves with what is broadly known as post traumatic disorder.  One area got my attention. And that was what was clinically referred to as pre existing morbidity. The translation of that terminology is this.  Why was it that some individuals exposed to  conditions of combat or the slavery of military life seemed to return to Australia relatively unscathed and got on with life ?

In contrast why did some who were exposed to the same scenarios and  rigors find themselves suffering from post traumatic conditions ?  The same question can be applied to critical episodes in Mining or Shipping or commerce after some life threatening serious events occurs. The matter of  pre existing personality temperament seems to matter. 


The research on temperament is interesting. It is where the nature and nurture argument emerges. Firstly there is weight given to nature and genetic factors.  Studies of young children and their development into adolescence  discloses something about  the variety of individual responses to stress and anxiety . Longitudinal studies of  very young toddlers into their teens suggest there is a lot of behavioural continuity in terms of temperament. Some children when exposed to frightening events such as street noises , strange faces,  loud booming relatives and the bursting party balloon will have a marked startle effect and cry and be distressed.  Other babies exposed to similar stimuli will lay there happily and just ignore or find the stimuli all very amusing. Longitudinal studies suggest that the response over time remains consistent with the initial observed behaviours in the proverbial nursery.  About 10 % , who are nominated as a high anxiety group will continue the same anxious response into observed adolescent years.  And the 10%  who reside in the low anxiety group will continue in their own amused, nonchalent, relaxed manner. 

And the rest of the population appears somewhere in between. 

Now imagine if one of those naturally highly anxious children finds themselves in an environment at home where there is discord or abuse or constant arguments or dysfunction and where there is a lot of expressed worry or concerns. A  lot of  life experiences and events are going to accumulate and compound and translate into fear and anxiety in that young persons mind. Life will become a fearful and dangerous journey. Strife and fear and avoidance that a child observes will translate into a script of how to deal with life as an adult. Conversely if one of these same highly anxious children is in a home where there is affection and warmth and lots of coaching and strategic independence it follows there will be a reduced impact on their sense of anxiety. It will markedly reduce the anxiety.  It may not take it away entirely.  But it will be ameliorated. Both nature an nurture will have their impact . 

So the matter is not simply nature or genetics. Nurture is also important. If a child hears nothing but statements that they ought to be fearful of every adventure away from their mother. Or that life is dangerous or that all strangers in the outside world are dangerous or that simple tasks in a household are potentially harmful. Or again and again that life makes no sense and all questions are pointless and there is no sense or purpose to life. And simple life tasks always take on great drama – those words and scripts and anxieties will follow them into adolescence and adulthood. 

These are the dynamic words and dormant thoughts that mysteriously come out of no where. They paralyse or provoke panic attacks. Like the booby traps still discovered in World War 1 trenches 100 years later. The metaphorical traps inside the brain, exploding unpredictably with the shrapnel of defeat and angst deep in the recesses of memory. 

As I continue to say . Words and stories and how we use them are very important. The tone of voice and non verbals that are in concert with dynamic words really matter and can reorientate individuals lives. There are words conveyed that heal and that give back life.