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Mindful : December 2014
the part of him that’s afraid tell its story, which he tries to meet with curiosity. “Sometimes the content is as important as the process. When I’m able to name my fear and see it as just one aspect of myself, I get some space around it and it softens a bit. Then I try to converse with the fear, the way you’d speak to a child, a nd hear what it’s telling me.” But for some people, such as those with obsessive-compulsive disorder a nd other forms of severe a nxiety, meditation practice simply may not be possible, says Lobsang Rapgay, Ph.D., a psychologist who directs the clinical training program at the Mindful Awareness Research Cen- ter at UCLA (MARC). “We all have some level of a nxiety, but crossing the border into a disorder is a whole different thing.” Nevertheless, he says, people who have difficulty meditating ca n benefit from process-oriented therapy, which encour- ages them to monitor their awareness of what’s taking place in their mind and body in the presence of a therapist. In his own practice, Rapgay explains, “I might say, ‘When you mention such-and-such, you speak fast and look tense. I wonder what that’s about? Next time we talk about this, try to be aware of what you’re experiencing in your muscles.” “In people with genera lized a nxiet y disorder, there’s an underlying mis- guided assumption that if only they can be 100% safe, they can let go of their a nxiety. But that ’s impossible,” he says. as a result of chemical changes in DNA. Researchers Kerry Ressler and Brian Dias suggest that a similar phenomenon may influence anxiety in humans. The epigenetic research furthers what we already know from studies of twins and experiments related to temper- ament. According to Susan Smalley, Ph.D., a behavior geneticist and founder of MARC, many studies have shown a strong genetic component to our suscep- tibility to anxiety, especially generalized anxiety disorder and panic attacks, as well as ADHD. “Roughly 40-50% of peo- ple with these disorders are genetically predisposed,” Smalley says. She stresses, however, that just as there is no one sure- fire coping mechanism for anxiety, there is no single cause for it either. Still, the notion that my lifelong a nx- iety is due, at least in part, to genes and family history is comforting. It’s not just me! There are reasons. There are always reasons. As Lee Lipp says: causes and conditions. And though my fear reflex has mercifully diminished over the years, it remains a kin to a sleeping tiger that springs awake at the slightest hint of danger—often imag ined danger. This, too, seems to circle back to what we know about the brain. Smalley talks about two networks by which the body encodes fear: The reac- tive low road, which is unconscious a nd linked to the hippocampus and amyg- dala, a nd the high road—the famous pre- frontal cortex—which makes conscious connections and is more ma lleable. “ With mindfulness practice a nd va rious cognitive processes,” she says, “you can make a big dent in the high road. The low road is more primitive, more resistant.” Which accounts for my sleeping tiger. The Cossacks with their stones. The phantom brain tumor. My uninvited but faithful compa nions who demand to be seen a nd heard. “Oh, it’s you again,” I say now more often than not when they start banging at my door. “It’s only you.” This, more than anything, gives me hope. ● Behavior geneticist Susan Smalley says roughly 40-50% of people with anxiety disorders are genetically predisposed. “M BSR and CBT help promote a state of tranquility and offer a good starting point, but it’s also very important to help people deal with the overarching prob- lem of uncertainty in life. Doing more focused practice that enha nces insight is the way to get there. The affective state we want is one of resilient calm, so when your inner or outer world becomes filled with turmoil, you have a n inner anchor.” Hardwired or not? Like Martha in my group at the Mind- fulness and Anxiety retreat, I, too, have always sensed that anxiety is hardwired into me. So often it’s felt as if my whole nervous system is rigged to remain on high alert, as if at any moment the Cos- sacks will break down the door. This fear reflex feels cellular, genetic, ancestral—I come from a long line of ner vous women. As it happens, my grandmother was stoned by Cossacks when she was six, the age at which my anxiety first bloomed. Interestingly, the age at which some- one starts to struggle with intense fear is often not ra ndom. Therapist Mark Wolynn, director of the Family Constel- lation Institute in northern California says there can be “a link between our issues and what happened in a previ- ous generation.” Case in point, f rom Wolynn’s practice: Ben felt increasingly suicidal as his 40th birthday approached. He had a happy fa mily life, a satisfying job, a strong meditation practice. But as the date of his birthday neared, his agi- tation beca me intolerable. It wasn’t until he learned the real story about the father he never knew, a man who was murdered at age 40, that Ben’s panic finally eased. “In therapy he was able to develop a positive inner image of his father and stopped being on a collision course to relive his death,” Wolynn says. Far-fetched? Maybe not. Mounting evidence in epigenetics reveals how inherited information—in addition to DNA sequence—can affect gene expres- sion. In several studies, mice have exhibited trauma residues without hav- ing experienced trauma. Moreover, one recent study of mice at Emory University found that traumatic memories could be passed down to at least t wo generations Barbara Graham is an essayist, journalist, and playwright. She is author/editor of Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother. She is also an editor with Shebooks, a curated collection of short e-books written by women, for women. 40-50% 42 mindful December 2014 mental health