My wife and I are very fortunate to live surrounded by rose bushes, rhododendrons, Japanese maples, flowering plums, towering fir trees and hundred-year-old cedars. In the summer as the island water table drops, my wife takes on the job of plant-watering. When she does, my threat detection circuitry becomes activated and my stress hormones begin to rise higher and higher the longer I hear the sound of the water rushing from the well through the sprinkler pipes.
Since it was formed perhaps millions of years ago the water table on Whidbey Island has never run dry. In my brain, though, counterfactual neural circuits anxiously proclaim:”No water table ever runs dry until it does. Look what’s happening in California’s Central Valley!” (I deliberately refrain from sending this link to my wife, since one of her greatest fears is of being swallowed up by a giant sinkhole! I also don’t have her read the wisdom tale, When the Waters Were Changed). Nevertheless, visions of disaster populate the eidetic imagery in my brain: every plant shrivels up in slow motion, tree roots die, trees fall over onto the house, the property turns into desolate wasteland suitable perhaps only for being a storage facility (a new one just went up in town, I carefully note, fearing future competition!).
But I’m not alone. David Brooks recently detailed in the NY Times how people in mainland America are undergoing an epidemic of worry unparalleled in modern times.
We Don’t Own Stock in the Electric Company
My wife and I also have very different body thermostats – hers runs hot and mine runs cold. While I’m depositing one load of firewood after another into the wood stove, she’s busy opening windows and turning fans on all over the house. All I can see is the little wheel on our electric meter siphoning 20 dollar bills in droves out of our bank account. One day the money will be all gone and I’ll be living alone in … a storage facility. Of course, she’ll have moved on to someone who can meet her energy needs and keep the power company paid.
Super-Sensitive Threat Circuitry
These are just two scenarios the threat circuitry in my brain has been conditioned to generate (mostly unconsciously) across my neural network over the years. Most of the time these threats never break through into conscious awareness; they simply go about the task of silently elevating my stress hormones, adversely affecting my breathing, compromising my immune function and trying hard to make me a generally grumpy guy. But it turns out that what my brain’s threat circuitry is MOST affected by – for better or worse – are … words. Every single thing that people say, and the way they say them, and every single thing that my own Inner Narrator says, and the way he says it, moves the needle either right or left on my arousal scale. Words have great homeostatic regulatory power.
She’s Got My Number
My wife, however, is onto how my brain and words work; she rarely takes my recurring terrors seriously or personally. Most often, she offers a few soothing words, “It’s okay, honey. Don’t worry. You’re brain’s trying to scare you and make us both crazy at the same time. It’s all going to be just fine.”
It used to be that I would find those words surprising in the calming effect they would have on me, even though the Supreme Court in my logical, reasoning brain could easily point out all the ways that she was clearly delusional. Now, I know better. Now, after decades of paying attention to how – one way or another – body, brain, mind and spirit will find a way to deal with life’s uncertainties – I recognize that my wife is absolutely right (even if it is for the wrong reasons!) 😉 It IS all going to be all right. Nevertheless, better would be for some concrete manifestation to show up in support of her thesis, like having our annual income stream triple, or having solar power be free for all. Until then, I suppose we’ll just have to work with the neurobiology we got at the moment.