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T.E.A.M. Tuesday Articles 

Age-xiety

By Justin Simmons - Sep 5, 2023

Anxiety Brain.jpg

For anyone who has ever heard a train's distinct whistle, it’s easily recognizable even when echoing in the distance. The bold and steady tone is designed to notify us of its unrelenting power. Upon hearing it, we can envision the massive locomotive and its sheer force. This majestic image of strength and purpose may appear docile from a distance but begins to amplify as it approaches. Such power is deserving of respect and once in close proximity, can yield intimidation if not terror.

Anxiety is similarly amplified when we allow our fears to build in severity as issues of concern grow near. When allowed, our mind is capable of drawing vast depictions of what we could imagine going wrong. The more time we allocate to thinking this way, the more our minds will fabricate possible outcomes.

Age plays its part in the timeline we utilize to construct such thoughts and will account for the cognitive rationale applied in drawing our most plausible conclusions. An important differentiation to note, plausibility is much different than probability. The fears we conjure are typically far from probable but once in our thought patterns, they’re hard to dissolve. Luckily, our brain's ability to seek truths and positivity remains highly probable but requires sufficient effort and techniques. This is where an individual’s stage of life may add complications. Although youth and adults have different roles and responsibilities, both require attention when facing fears. Today we will explore how age can become a factor in identifying fears and discuss ways to manage our expectations when experiencing anxiety.

Imagine that same train chugging along the countryside through open fields with miles of track ahead in the distance. As a passenger, we can feel the steady vibration originating from the wheels and hear a low groaning white noise created by the giant machine in operation. The constant motion with little deviation in performance is reassuring and can produce a calming effect despite the accelerated speed of travel. This environment is representative of what our brain would like to replicate throughout our lifespan. A familiar movement pattern with little variance from baseline. Inevitably we know the track will bend and shift to the contouring landscape causing varying speeds and eventually come to a stop upon reaching the destination. Our brain, although highly versatile to perform in a similar fashion, will try endlessly to avoid variables in life unless we urge ourselves to proceed. These deviations encountered along our journey will test us much like the structural integrity of the railway and with age, will come plenty of challenges.

The way we handle the changes and challenges life has in store for us is anyone’s guess. Nothing can truly tell us how we will respond to the adversities which lie ahead but we can prepare ourselves to the best of our abilities for these moments. Young or old, we’re designed with instincts to survive, and fear is a conditional response that enables us to do so.

Fear by definition is not logical. If it were, we would simply seek out the facts to prove our fear’s conclusions and everyone would have the same exact concerns. Fear is however a function of our thinking process which we can attempt to logically control. Under normal brain function, sensory inputs take their time to navigate the prefrontal cortex, where information is processed for logical evaluation. Fear, however, allows these sensory inputs a shortcut to the amygdala just waiting to feed an emotional response. This harsh swing between fact and fiction is where we use reason to balance our thinking.

Fear is broadly categorized into two types: rational and irrational. In philosophy, there is much debate between rational thinking versus logical thinking. A way to help decipher between the two is by using observation. Many times, observations will be rational but not logical. The saying “You’ll have to see it to believe it” reminds us of this fact. We are factual beings, who want to prove the truth in anything we believe. When facing fears of the unknown, it's natural to be uncomfortable. As humans, we are capable of enduring all types of discomforts and typically grow stronger through doing so. It’s important to remember this when facing both rational and irrational fears.

Rational fears are what we can consider helpful instincts. We experience these when exposed to real, imminent danger. Someone being held at gunpoint would have the right to feel rational fear. A less extreme example might be getting in trouble at school or a place of employment and fearing the ramifications. In either case, we face a real event and emotionally respond based on the surrounding conditions.

Irrational fears present differently, often in the form of Phobia. In this case, we see debilitating effects when triggered. Fear of heights, deep water, bugs, etc. are all common phobias. In the example of being held at gunpoint, such a rationally traumatic experience could also result in a deeper future phobia. Things our brain finds challenging to control, accept, or experience can cause us these types of fears. Genetics can also play a large contributing role when considering our susceptibility to irrational thoughts.

Understanding what triggers us is not always clear-cut, we may find layers of fears with varying severities which eventually culminate into more glaring anxieties. This is why we must be honest with ourselves and our supporters when trying to remedy these conditions. Without complete transparency, key factors may go undetected and prolong the effects. These factors can prove to be moving targets and can even evolve over time. This might be one of the more confusing parts of the whole equation, anxiety can present for the first time at any age.

When we’re young, we face life with open arms and hearts. Big imaginations, grand dreams, and plenty of aspirations. When an excited imagination fills the void of unknowns, fear typically has less room to take up residency. As an avid skier/snowboarder, it always amazes me to watch the fearlessness of children learning to take on the mountain for the first time. Being a child myself when I first took skiing lessons, I don’t recall my demeanor but my parents say I had “no fear”. For anyone who has attempted to conquer the slopes for the first time as an adult, I don’t have to explain the difference in vantage point. From potential injuries to sheer frustration, the sport has a way of humbling the largest ego. Nonetheless, children still fall prey to many kinds of fears.

Youth and adolescence provide the formative years which are hard to mirror from one child to the next. Siblings of the same family, all raised with the same rules and opportunities often lead very different lives. So, it’s no wonder that children raised with compromised upbringings will be impacted in varying capacities. In either case, maltreatment experienced early on will dictate much of the social and psychological impacts that follow. With so many variables and exposure to new things, while growing up, much of the effects children display or even complain about can go overlooked or dismissed as a ‘phase’.

Although phases of growth and anxieties do exist, time alone doesn’t always remedy the issues. In the grand scheme of comparisons, children typically have lower stress and causes for concern than adults but that is heavily dependent on the parental support they receive. Difficulties in childhood can have compounding effects which don’t always present right away. Experiencing stress and trauma when young is likely to have an impact on the disorders that appear later in life as well.

As we grow older, we view life with open eyes and skewed minds. Life presents plenty of harsh realities and lessons learned that form our personalities and opinions. As we reach impressionable milestones beyond birthdays such as educational experiences, career occupations, and family ties (marriage, children/grandchildren, loss of loved ones), we deepen the stance of our vantage point.

The responsibilities we hold as adults will further forge these stances and strengthen them. Taking into account all the years, tears, and fears we have put behind us, adulthood compels us to stand tall and wear this past as our badge of honor. No matter how difficult it’s been, a certain level of prideful obligation motivates us to put our best foot forward. In these moments it's important to recognize that the term ‘best foot forward’ also implies one of the legs has been left behind in disapproval. If given the opportunity, we should be willing to present both feet in full acceptance of ourselves and our accomplishments.

What we boast and what we withhold are very different attributes, all of which make us who we are. Much of what we have worked so hard to achieve has also taxed our bodies and minds with excruciating stress and fatigue. We quickly dismiss these aspects as less glamorous and not worth sharing but within those efforts lies our true value.

The value we add doesn’t always get the respect it deserves, nor do people necessarily want to hear about it, or so we think. Those who care about us will want to hear all the details and in actuality, the details are the value. At some point, we might face a situation where these personal details matter and should be willing to share.

Any self-assessment is best served with comparison data. When considering our health and well-being, it's necessary to evaluate past and present. To suddenly feel things differently such as feeling vulnerable for example, may come as a foreign concept to accept. It could also spark emotions which trigger distant reminders of what it felt like to evolve through childhood. Whatever our response, the unfamiliar experiences can be jarring and scary.

The further we get in life, the more we settle into routines and become accustomed to certain expectations. These expectations heavily include our emotional response to situations whether we’re aware of them or not. When suddenly faced with rational or irrational fears, we might not be familiar with how to handle them and thus face new anxieties at any stage of life.

Stereotypically, age equals strength. This implies children should be afraid of things because they haven’t experienced enough to convince themselves everything is fine. Adults should be fearless because they have experienced many situations providing the insight and awareness to overrule danger. I can speak from my own experience in stating that anxiety can present out of nowhere in an instant and will stay for as long as we allow it.  There is no pride big enough to keep our fears a secret. We must be prepared to face them at any moment and the more we can communicate on this topic the less of a hold they will have on us.

Fear and anxiety by definition are often formed from rational thinking. This means we can reason ourselves into believing certain fears are so real, that we must adjust our whole life around them. Logic can help us work through the struggles but fear will often twist logic in a way that promotes negativity. To truly face our anxieties, we must challenge them at their core.

Taking the recent concerns around COVID-19 for example, many people who never feared being in public were suddenly terrified to leave their homes. Instructions for entering public forums included the use of masks, face shields, gloves, cleaning agents, and sanitizers. Once in the company of others, it was imperative to maintain at least 6 feet of distance and avoid indoor venues when at all possible. For anyone who struggled with social anxieties or underlying symptoms prior, this was a perfect storm to spiral thoughts out of control. Opinions aside, there is now ample evidence proving our risks are low for COVID exposure, yet today there are still many people choosing to isolate or minimize their public interactions. In theory, a way to combat this fear would be to start increasing rates of interaction with others, communicate with trusted supporters about the emotions being experienced, and work back to a level of normalcy. Furthermore, setting loftier goals to be more social than ever would be a strategy to break outside the physiological barrier. Completing this type of task will prove one's ability to exceed expectations and normalize leaving the house again.

Whether currently facing anxieties or not, anyone may encounter a situation in the future where they suddenly feel less in control of themselves or their surroundings and this may prompt unexpected fears. It’s critical to know you’re not alone. Millions of people suffer from anxiety in the US each year and this number will only increase if we don’t work together to identify causes and solutions.

Focusing our attention on the probable instead of the plausible can help regulate our mind from overthinking. I’m hopeful that those without anxiety will remain free and clear of its grasp and can be a source of strength for others. For those who have or still suffer from anxiety, I applaud all your efforts and implore you to keep pushing forward. Take control of your thinking process by being present in the moment and exploring ways to avoid fictional distractions. The world is beautiful during the light of day and in the dark of night, don’t let darkness scare you. It's possible to exceed your own expectations regardless of age, start by setting a goal to seek excitement and go find it! Are you ready to discover the power of your mindset?

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