Each person's stress-level is not just the result of the problems that have accidentally occurred in their lives recently. It is more complicated than that (please see New Research in the first section of this chapter). For one thing we are surely, to some extent, in control of how many and what kind of problems come along. More importantly, as individuals we respond to a problem or stressor very differently. Examples: being dumped crushes some of us while others are happily dating someone else in a week or so. Being fired makes some of us feel very incompetent while others are certain they can get a better job. Having a handicap makes some of us think we were meant to be inferior while others become obsessed with becoming superior and do. Our theories must explain these enormously different reactions to stresses. There are several relevant theories and each one has something to teach us about self-help. We will briefly review four explanations of fear and anxiety: constitutional, learning-behavioral, cognitive-humanistic, and psychoanalytic.
Constitutional factors--genes and physiology
It is easy to overlook our biological inheritance but our genes influence our health and our behavior from birth to death. Recent studies of identical twins have yielded impressive results. For example, blood pressure is estimated to be 60-65% inherited; only 35-40% is determined by diet, exercise, learned stress responses, smoking, and other environmental factors. There is pretty good evidence that children of parents with serious psychiatric disorders (schizophrenia and manic-depression) have a somewhat (not greatly) higher risk of having the same problems. If one identical twin becomes schizophrenic, there is a 50% chance the other twin will too. As mentioned before, more schizophrenic children are born in late winter and early spring. We don't know why.
Most personality traits do not seem to be inherited, but there is one exception--shyness (discussed at the end of the chapter). It has also been reported that male abusers in a family in England have an abnormal gene on the X chromosome. However, it is a very rare abnormality; thus, not accounting for all the anger in the world. And, some men in the family had the defective gene but were not abusive.
In terms of other inherited traits, the activity level of 3 and 4-day-old infants is slightly related to the anxiety level experienced by the mother during the pregnancy. Hyperactive parents are several times more likely to have a hyperactive child. Disorders, such as migraine headaches and asthma, also seem to be inherited. Perhaps physiological and chemical processes, like hypoglycemia and proneness to alcoholism or epilepsy, are partly genetic. Identical twins are frequently similar in terms of enuresis, menstrual complaints, and nervous habits, like nail biting, or mannerisms, like rubbing their chin; they even describe their anxiety in very similar words, even if they have been reared completely apart. The power of the genes seems to be amazing, but we have to guard against exaggerating the role of genes.
Frustrations make us upset and making difficult decisions creates anxiety (see conflicts described above). Pavlov's (see chapter 4, classical conditioning) dogs had a "nervous breakdown" when forced to distinguish between a circle paired with food and an ellipse that got closer and closer to being a circle but was not paired with food. Like Pavlov's dogs, many judgments we have to make are hard, e.g. is my spouse joking or serious, is my friend irritated or not? It seems to be "dog nature" and "human nature" to be stressed when we are confused and don't know what to do.
Having an unusual or surprising experience also causes stress. Donald Hebb found that chimpanzees had no fears until 4 months of age. After that, familiar objects and unfamiliar objects (except for a few, like snakes) caused no stress. But familiar objects shown in unfamiliar ways caused fears, e.g. seeing a life-like model of a person's head without the body is a scary experience for monkeys. Most humans are also stressed by viewing a dead or mutilated body.
Pavlov's dogs and Hebb's chimps acquired these stress or fear responses without any prior painful learning experiences being involved. It appears that these reactions are innate in animals. Likewise, protective reactions are instinctive, e.g. baby rats freeze (with terror?) when a cat appears. Over 50% of parents of water phobic children (aged 3 to 8) claim that their child had always been afraid of water without any traumatic initial experience. Certain animals learn certain fears very quickly and others very slowly, e.g. a monkey immediately learns to fear a snake by seeing another monkey terrified by a snake but does not learn to fear a flower in the same way. This may be true for humans too. Perhaps other fears, like speaking in front of groups or encountering a snake, are also partly built into many humans at birth.
Just because you may have inherited a problem, such as being shy or hypertensive, does not mean that you are helpless. It does mean that, compared to others, you may require more effort--relaxation or practice or desensitization or correcting one's thinking--to overcome your constitutional tendency of fear, hyperactivity, speech anxiety, or whatever.
Since drugs (legal and illegal) influence our mood and stress responses, it suggests that internal chemical factors, such as our hormones, might influence our emotions too. The high percentage of women who feel differently before their period further suggests this is true. Indeed, it is important that every woman plot her feelings and moods to determine if there is a cycle involved.
Recent physiological research suggests that fears do not necessarily involve the cerebral cortex; sensory nerves in animals, involving hearing, go directly to the amygdala which triggers adrenaline (fear reaction). This may help explain how we humans (if we are wired the same way) can be scared without knowing why.
Feeling stress and anxiety may involve all three kinds of learning--classical, operant, and observational (see chapter 4). Remember Little Albert and classical conditioning? The loud "bang" was paired with the rat a few times and Albert became afraid (a little) of the rat. Obviously, this occurs; many people have been hurt in certain situations, like auto accidents or climbing on something, and developed a fear (many, of course, do not learn a serious fear in the same situation). But psychologists are learning that classical conditioning in humans is far more complex than just pairing a neutral stimulus (S) with a situation (UCS) that automatically arouses a reaction, like pain, fear, saliva, attraction, etc. Let's learn a little more about that.
Researching the development of fears is difficult because psychologists can't experiment with people and try to produce a phobia. It wouldn't be ethical. Instead, clients come to therapists with full blown fears; often they are unable to tell us how their fears developed. On the other hand, if you asked a psychologist how a fear could be created, he/she probably would suggest pairing something painful (shock) or scary (loud noise) with a harmless object (say a basketball). This is a classical conditioning procedure, but it is not likely to work. Remember: if Little Albert had been a little older, Watson's method (classical conditioning) would not have worked. If Watson had tried to condition fear to a white block of wood instead of a white rat, it wouldn't have worked (see last chapter). The CS-UCS connection (ball with shock) proposed by the psychologist is not reasonable; it isn't believable that a basketball will shock you, so reason can override conditioning. But, if you are told (and believed) that the basketball is filled with a dangerous gas which might explode if electrical shocks disturb the air within 10 feet of the ball, you would probably respond with fear if you were shocked holding the basketball and, later, you might fear the basketball alone. Many of our fears seem reasonable to us, but not to others.
A particularly fascinating study about creating fears was done 30 years ago by Campbell, Sanderson & Laverty (1964). Working in a medical setting with medical students as subjects, they paired a simple stimulus--a light or a tone--with a common drug (scoline, used in surgery) that stopped muscle action for about one minute. A person's reaction to temporary paralysis is panic, mostly sheer terror at not being able to breathe (even though they know what will happen). Two results were noteworthy: (1) the conditioning took only one trial, i.e. the panic reaction occurred every time the light or tone alone came on after that, even though there is no "rational" connection between a light and being paralyzed. It was one trial learning, just like in a serious accident. (2) The terror response never diminished. Naturally the experimenters tried to remove the fear. But they couldn't. They followed, according to learning theory at the time, the extinction procedure of presenting the conditioned stimulus--light or tone--without the unconditioned stimulus--the drug. They provided 100 extinction trials. The fear response did not diminish! The conclusion at the time was that fears may not go away, maybe they are just overridden with stronger relaxed responses.
The old conception of classical conditioning was that an association was learned when a CS and an UCS were paired together several times. That is still the essence of classical conditioning. But, thirty years ago we assumed the mind had nothing to do with this conditioning process. Today, experts say the CS arouses expectancies about the UCS (actually we develop a mental representation of the UCS) and then, as we have experience with the UCS, we evaluate and develop different reactions to the UCS which, of course, influences the final conditioned response (CR). Clearly, a lot of mental events influence the CS-UCS connection.
According to Davey (1992), the new theories suggest a conditioning-cognitive sequence is like this:
1 è 2 è 3 è 4 è 5 Conditioned
Outcome Expectations Cognitive conception of the Unconditioned Stimulus (UCS) Evaluation of the UCS Response (CR) Conditioned Response (CR)
Steps 2 and 4 are places where cognitive factors can affect the conditioned response (CR). How is this done? Consider this example, if your lights dim slightly before a very loud noise, what you think all this means makes a great difference in how you respond. If you think the dimming lights and noise means an earthquake is occurring or that your house is falling on you or the electrical system may set the house on fire, you will probably have a strong panic reaction. If, with a little experience, you learn that your huge new sound system dims the lights right before your favorite music blasts forth, you will soon be having a pleasant reaction to the dimming lights. If someone had told you to expect the lights to dim, your startle or fear response would be slight even the first time. If you believe the dimming of the lights is perfectly normal and poses no danger, you have a different reaction than if you believe you have overloaded the circuit and caused a fire hazard. Beyond all this cognitive influence on a classically conditioned response, recent research has found that experience with the UCS (in this case an unexpected loud sound blast) without the dimming lights (during the daytime) can affect your conditioned reaction too. Being told by an expert that loud sounds damage your hearing permanently will also influence your conditioned reaction. Likewise, observing your reactions to the CS or the UCS as well as using various coping strategies can alter your conditioned response (CR) to the conditioned stimulus (CS). So it is far from a simple mechanical reaction. That huge brain wasn't added to your spinal cord for nothing.
Since many experiences and thoughts will influence how we cognitively evaluate the UCS, and, in turn, change our CR, it is possible that Campbell, Sanderson & Laverty could have reduced the medical students' fear response to the light by administering the paralyzing drug (UCS) 100 times (instead of the CS--the light) so that the subjects would become less frightened by the drug's paralyzing effects. Perhaps, if the subjects had been told and shown that it was impossible for the drug to be administered again, the fear response to the light would have declined rapidly. Perhaps, if the subjects had been told that they could overcome the fear reaction to the light and given training for doing so (with the light being left on while they "talked themselves down"), their response to the light would have become less intense. Also, if the light had been presented many times before the drug was administered, the reaction to the light may have been easier to extinguish. Science is just beginning to learn more about how cognitions interact with conditioning. Cognitive methods are a new tool for expanding self-control in many areas. Some fears are unreasonable and harmful, some are reasonable and helpful, e.g. the anorexic's totally unreasonable fear of food making her fat and the heart attack victim's reasonable and helpful fear of high fat food. In time, the anorexic can change her mind about her body and the person with a heart condition can forget to watch his diet.
There are many other mysteries about fears. New conditioning theories help explain these things. Question: How do some people get phobic without ever having a painful or traumatic experience? Many people are afraid of snakes or mice but have never been bitten. Almost no one who is afraid of flying has been hurt in a plane crash. Lazarus (1974) reported that only 3 percent of his phobic patients could recall an actual event that might have caused their fear. Rimm, et al. (1977) found 50%. Actually, persons who are physiologically unable to feel pain still become anxious and fearful just like the rest of us (Derlega & Janda, 1981); why is this? Answer: Davey provides this example of a fear of public transportation developing without obvious trauma: you see an unknown person die of a heart attack on a city bus, so the connection is made but it has no effect on you until much later when your father dies of a heart attack, after which you become very afraid of riding the bus. Research also confirms that simply thinking about all the horrible things that could happen in a scary situation, say giving a speech, can increase your fear response. Similarly, as we will see in a later section, you can learn fears from models or family traits and never have any painful experience yourself; these vicarious experiences presumably change your "outcome expectancies."
Question: Why do many people have a truly traumatic experience, like a very painful dental treatment, but never get phobic about going to the dentist? Answer: If you went to the dentist several times before experiencing serious pain, that might prevent a CR of fear. Also, a fear may not develop if you are able to deny that the UCS (the root canal) was awful, in the same way the dying person denies he/she will die. Various mental strategies help us neutralize a threat or UCS, e.g. we minimize a stress ("Lots of people suffer more") and/or push it out of our awareness ("Just forget about it, it isn't worth getting upset about, think positively"). Giving people information about scary medical procedures can reduce their fear or panic them. It is not possible to cleanly separate conditioning from cognition.