Our amygdala are built in: they are part of our biology, and if we are not yet sure of exactly how they work or all that they do, all of us can certainly feel their effects as we go through daily life having alarms triggered whenever a departure from an ideal situation is scanned and spotted.
We can also see in the animal world the constant activity of the amygdala in working to protect the ‘genetic packages’ of individual creatures — birds fly away upon being disturbed, sheep flock together to avoid danger, mice flee for cover, tigers attack, horses gallop away, and so forth — automatically programmed efforts to survive.
But what about cognitive distortions? Surely these are not hard-wired in?
The higher, reasoning mind brings many advantages to an organism, not the least of which is the ability to imagine — to conjure up pictures and scenarios which do not in fact exist in the physical universe, and to use them to plan and forecast and adapt that universe in ways beyond the capacity of a simple animal. For the most part, our imagining and reasoning faculties serve us well, enabling us to have a vastly superior control of our surroundings, to have technologies, to create things no basic creature could contemplate — but if these faculties become ‘polluted’ in some way by the forceful operations of the primitive unconscious mind, then we are in trouble. That’s because there are few more potent powers in the human world than our own imaginations — and if they are slightly ‘off kilter’, they can take on the roles of advocates for insanity.
Polluted imaginations mean that for many alarms triggered by the amygdala, false solutions are envisaged. Being false, they don’t work, or work very poorly. That means the amygdala’s concerns are never fully assuaged = more alarms.
So how do our imagining/reasoning faculties get polluted?
Cognitive distortions usually develop in childhood. Higher imaginative reasoning is a subtle, finely tuned mechanism which is capable of gloriously astute and penetrating creations of thought — but as children, we are still learning how to use it. We are not ‘old enough to know any better’, in other words, and so into our minds creep tainted conclusions and ill-considered behavioural policies without detection.
What we learn is based largely on who we copy. Whoever is in charge of a child's development tends to become the role model for that child.
Usually this is a parent or parents, and usually these figures are loved, adored, and put on pedestals to some degree, consciously or unconsciously. Our caretakers may have been responsible in more ways than we might want to admit, though, for some oddities in our own thinking. If some of us have been born into abusive, violent and dangerous families, it’s easier to see destructive patterns being passed on — it’s the loving and caring backgrounds which are often the ones that conceal a quieter and more subtle transfer of cognitive distortions in youth.
As children, we know we are thinking, but we are not often aware of how moment-to-moment thoughts are developing into patterns, and how the patterns are becoming behaviour, which then reinforces the patterns. Of course, in a healthy family situation, we take on board huge amounts that are good and essential —social and managerial skills, emotional experiences, abilities to cogitate and reach right conclusions. A vast amount of mental and emotional comfort can be drawn from those times, later in life, provided that the childhood environment was relatively sane and safe. But it’s quite likely that, even in the best of situations, some anxiety creeps in from one or both parents. Apparently, a child of an anxious parent is 2 to 7 times more likely to develop an anxiety condition.
Are you the child of a parent who displayed symptoms of anxiety when you were younger? Their responses to various things probably had a great impact on your own. If your parents reacted with calm and patient reasoning whenever a crisis of some kind presented itself, you probably do too; if they demonstrated dread or panic, you may well demonstrate the same things. Was their worldview all doom and gloom? Or did they manage to convey a more balanced picture of reality so that your world has some order and hope despite hardships?
At least one of your parents may have had an anxious disposition. Their habits of thought may well have crept unobserved into your own.
Take a moment to scan through your childhood and examine those who, for you, were role models, wittingly or not. It can be of some assistance to recognise where your own worries may have stemmed from.
There are other predispositions to being anxious too, and we will take a look at those next time.