Pocket worthyStories to fuel your mind

When Stressed, We ‘Catastrophize’—But We Can Learn to Calm Our Irrational Fears

Our primitive brains summon up worst-case scenarios to protect us from danger. In today’s world, that can be debilitating.

The Guardian

Read when you’ve got time to spare.

illustration of a person looking nervous or scared

When we feel out of control, we shift down to our primitive coping mechanisms, ramping up our fear responses. Photograph: CSA Images/Getty Images

The first day I returned to work after maternity leave, I walked to the office racked with a fear I knew to be highly unlikely: that our new, and loving, caregiver would push the stroller across the street at the precise moment a reckless driver ran the light. I imagined the sound of tires screeching, the sickening crunch. I started to sweat, and my heart rate quickened. And then, when I got to the office, I took a deep breath, told myself to pull it together, and did.

What I was doing, I later learned, is common to new parents. In a heightened emotional state, you’re more prone to what psychologists call “catastrophizing”, or experiencing “intrusive thoughts” – imagining the worst-case scenario, however improbable it might be. They came at me full-throttle when I became a mother; according to studies, I’m not alone. By some estimates, more than 70% of new mothers have them. One close friend catastrophizes, but in reverse – once the danger has passed, once the baby has been released from the doctor with just a normal virus, not the dreaded MIS-C, she’ll sit with the fear of what could have happened.

In moderation, while they’re certainly not fun, these fantasies are healthy and normal. They are rooted deep in our bodies, an adaptive trait and evolutionary defense mechanism that helps us prepare for the worst and protect our most valuable possession. If I stay inside the cave and obsess about a mastodon attacking my baby while gulping back my cave wine and binge-watching cave paintings, the lower the chances I wander out on to the tundra and have a tusked encounter, in other words.

What isn’t healthy? Being bombarded with such a relentless onslaught of tragic events that the condition of simply living in today’s world makes these feelings chronic. So chronic, our brains’ ability to process uncertainty and anxiety might be diminishing – as we speak.

First, some stress stats: according to a March poll released by the American Psychological Association, inflation, supply chain problems, global uncertainty and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on top of a two-year pandemic, have pushed America’s stress to “alarming” and “unprecedented levels” that will “challenge our ability to cope”, APA’s CEO said. And unhealthy behaviors that began in Covid’s first year – more drinking, less exercise – “became entrenched” in the second, suggesting that the path towards a collective recalibration may be a far way off. That goes for parents (“Parents Aren’t All Right,” blared a recent Axios article), and non-parents, too.

One way I was able to turn these stats into something more vivid – beyond tallying up my glass-of-wine-and-fistful-of-gummy-bear-consumption-per-week – was to speak to a neurologist who has found herself particularly concerned about what all this might be doing to our neural functions.

“The whole world – but certainly we see it very vividly in America – has had brain changes due to chronic stress, which makes us less capable of making decisions that can give us a healthy future, both at an individual and cultural level,” Dr Amy Arnsten, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Yale medical school, told me. I’d reached out after coming across a YouTube video she posted during the first year of the pandemic that clearly delineates how the brain processes uncontrollable stress, and how that has been exacerbated during Covid.

The nuts and bolts: there are more primitive parts of the brain (like the amygdala) that control our basic functions, like our heart rate, or the immediate rush of fear we feel when a snake slithers across our path; and more evolved regions (like the prefrontal cortex) that execute top-down control, and allow us to focus, plan ahead, and inhibit bad impulses. I have my prefrontal cortex to thank for the statistical reality I was able to summon, that first day back from maternity leave, that assuaged my fear of a skipped light and a vigorously pushed stroller.

When we get stressed or feel out of control, we shift down to our primitive coping mechanisms, ramping up our fear responses and shutting off the prefrontal cortex. The higher the levels of arousal or stress, the stronger those primitive circuits get, the less affected you feel by things that might normally give you pleasure, and the more things feel threatening or sad.

As Arnsten explained to me, your brain is wired to activate its fear system if it sees someone else afraid. So when horrifying news blows up our phones, we instinctively empathize. Combine that with the new normal of living in a constant state of Covid-related uncertainty, and a political environment that can feel hopeless and intransigent, and you get a perfect neurological storm that has her worried.

“You are losing the very circuits that enable you to self-regulate, to be rational,” Arnsten told me, “and in a small-grained way not to be irritable, which is really important for family health.”

Can we get those circuits back? Research suggests yes, if we spend time in calm environments in which we feel in control. There are active ways to combat our new reality, many of which we know but don’t pursue: exercise can strengthen the prefrontal cortex, deep breathing can calm one’s arousal systems. Seeking out joy and humor, in the forms of books or music, can help. Another simple suggestion: “Do something that helps you feel more efficacious,” Arnsten said, “even if it’s very small. Often times, helping someone else can help jumpstart that.”

Before we hung up, Arnsten mentioned one large caveat. In 2011, Mount Sinai School of Medicine researchers put three cohorts of rats – young, middle-aged and aged – through stressful situations (which, for a rat, means being restrained by wire mesh), and determined that “aging modulates the capacity for experience-dependent spine plasticity in PFC neurons”. Spines, in this case, refer to “dendritic spines”, which protrude from a neuron’s dendrite, and receive input. You lose them during chronic stress exposure. In layperson’s terms, the study concluded that the older you are, the harder it is to weather the negative effects of chronic stress exposure and respond rationally – if you’re a rat.

“Now that I’m an oldish rat,” Arnsten told me with a chuckle, “I’m hoping they didn’t wait enough in the study; that connectivity did, in fact, return with time.”

For the older rats among us, here’s to hoping.

How was it? Save stories you love and never lose them.

Logo for The Guardian

This post originally appeared on The Guardian and was published June 21, 2022. This article is republished here with permission.

Be a part of the Guardian’s future.

Become a Guardian supporter.