Baby 19

If there's a way, there's a worry. I wouldn't say I am paralyzed by worry, in fact, it's almost the opposite – I am an extreme worrier, but I do things anyway. But that doesn't mean it's easy.

Here's how I would explain it. No matter how well things are going in my life (and I've been very lucky) I have this low-lying nagging sense that there's something I should be worried about. It's like that horrible feeling that you left the oven on at home. And I often feel like arguing with my brain about it. "Listen brain, why do you insist on thinking there's always something bad right around the corner? Just because that person didn't return your email/phone call/letter doesn't mean it has anything to do with you. Why is it always about you anyway? Can you just relax and enjoy yourself a little?"

So if there's a worry gene, I've definitely got it. Which is why I was incredibly intrigued by an article I read some time ago and forwarded to every anxiety-prone person I know. It details a longitudinal study by a psychology professor at Harvard, Jerome Kagan, to examine whether or not there are people who are predisposed to be anxious. In infancy the participants in the study were observed to see if they were "high-reactors" – essentially whether they freaked out or not when exposed to something new.

The first 18 babies in the study were cool as cucumbers, but Baby 19 became incredibly distressed when she was exposed to new sounds, voices, toys and smells. And the oldest high-reactive subjects in this study, and other studies of the same sort (like Baby 19), are now in their 20s. The article states that "for many of them, no matter how much they manage to avoid looking anxious to an outsider, fears still rattle in their skulls at 3 o’clock in the morning. They remain anxious just below the surface, their subconscious brains still twitchy, still hyper vigilant, still unable to shift attention away from perceived threats that aren’t really there."

This sounded particularly familiar to me. Which got me thinking, was I like Baby 19? I'm sure it would be hard to accurately collect data on whether or not as an infant I freaked out when exposed to new things. In hindsight, people's memories are often very subjective. But there was an incident when I was five years old in kindergarten class. I totally freaked out about a class trip to an ice cream shop. It was a Carvel store (for those New York State readers) and it was one I had been to numerous times with my parents. I remember it distinctly – I was absolutely terrified about going. But I still can't verbalize why. Ice cream really isn't the scariest thing. They had to call my Mom to come get me, but luckily my kindergarten class was actually on the college campus where she was a professor and she knew my teacher pretty well.

Sounds pretty Baby 19-ish to me. As an adult I've dealt with my anxiety in other ways. In fact, I moved countries about eight years ago and despite feeling terrified (and hating it for about the first year) I did it anyway. The article talks about how some people are able to actually harness this nervous energy. I wouldn't say this is true all the time for me – often I find it unharness-able (probably not a word) and something I'd rather not cope with. This is particularly true if I have a lot of free time, which is probably why I make sure I'm pretty busy (which creates other problems). And when I'm busy I like to do things that keep my brain active – to distract it from worrying. Interestingly enough, although some anxious people might find socializing anxiety-inducing, I find it just the opposite. I get to focus on someone else and get outside of my own head.

But the one thing I appreciated most from the article was the fact that it said that maybe this excessive worrying wasn't actually my fault – perhaps I'm pre-disposed. Which was a bit of a relief. Because there's nothing worse than trying not to worry and others around you telling you to chillax, like you mean to be this way. Sometimes it's not that simple.

The article is from the New York Times Magazine, so it's super long, but if you have any interest in the area, or suspect you may be a Baby 19, click here to read it.


  1. I definitely don't remember that ice cream store incident. I don't even remember the trip, which sounds like something I would have liked to remember, I liked Carvel...mostly because of Fudgey the Whale. The other thing I don't remember is you being an anxious person! Not being one, particularly, I think I've always just assumed you did the things you did because you wanted to and never suspected you were fighting any internal anxious impulses. I know a Baby 19 now, and I appreciate your post since lately I've been feeling kind of fed up with the idea that life is somehow "harder" for her...I guess it might be?

  2. Who didn't like Fudgey the Whale?

    I think it's really hard to tell from the outside who is a Baby 19 and who's not. People who I know casually are often surprised when I get to know them better and start talking about my anxiety. Also, it manifests in different ways for different people. I have no problems socializing or public speaking but those two things are often big triggers for anxious people. However, I find going on vacation stressful in some ways -- which sounds absolutely nuts, but it's true! Being in a foreign location definitely triggers something in my brain that it is not fun, but I go anyway because there are amazing places to visit and great experiences to be had. I just have developed coping mechanisms.


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