Blame the Amygdala

The neuroscience of crime and violent behavior

Asthmatic Personality

Asthma and how it's trained me to live

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asthma

I've had asthma ever since I was a child, and fortunately as I entered my adult years the severity of its onsets have reduced. Most people know that asthma results in a shortness of breath, but there are two things happening that result in this: Firstly, your bronchioles fill up with mucus, which means that less air can pass through, and secondly, the bronchioles themselves are narrowing, which has the same result. It's like a double whammy of suffocation, and as you're struggling to pull air in for extended periods of time, the muscles all around your chest begin to fatigue and ache. Imagine breathing through one of those narrow red straw-like coffee stirrers for five minutes, and you'll be able to recreate the feelings surrounding the onset of an asthma attack.

Even though there is no cure for asthma, fortunately there are some very effective drugs that can immediately open your bronchioles. I'm sure you're familiar with a friend who carries a little blue inhaler in their pocket or purse, although I bet you've never really seen them use it (I'm personally a bit embarrassed to use it in front of people). Typically, there are two types of inhaler. One that prevents the onset of asthma (a preventer), and one that relieves the symptoms of asthma (a reliever). With a combination of these treatments, most people can stop asthma from interfering with their lives.

So, what has asthma got to do with personality?

Asthma, like any other lifelong ailments, becomes a part of your life - indeed, a part of you. In order to treat the symptoms of asthma, a sufferer must always be aware of how frequently they need to take their inhalers, and make sure to keep them near their person at all times. In fact, as a sufferer, I can tell you that if I leave the house without my inhaler I suddenly feel fearful and nervous. Sometimes I even feel like my chest is getting tight when it isn't. In order to deal with these irrational feelings, I have deliberately left my inhaler at home, but only during times when I am not straying too far and I can easily get back if I need to. This increases my experiences of being without my inhaler that always transpire with no asthmatic occurrences, and I feel like the deathly-necessity of carrying it all the time is diminished.

As you can see, there is a habitual routine that asthma sufferers have to be mindful of all the time. If this routine is interrupted, such as forgetting the inhaler, emotions like panic and fear, and even the psychosomatic feeling of becoming short of breath can result. Over the years, all of this will have an impact on your personality.

The asthma attack itself is synonymous with feelings of desperation. When you can't breath, with each contraction of your chest muscles and diaphragm, you are desperately trying to pull the much needed air into your lungs, but you can't. The duration of an asthma attack is laced with frustration, fear, and desperation. You are anxiously waiting for your chest to open up and pull that much needed oxygen in. It is no wonder that asthma sufferers develop such an obsessive and paranoid relationship with their inhalers - anything to avoid having to go through an attack again. If the attack is bad enough, I would even call it a traumatic event, and we know how our lives and our behavior can be shaped by trauma.

I have even found that if I start to become tight, and I am engaged in a particular activity, I will try to finish the activity before I take my inhaler. In this sense, having a puff of my 'reliever' becomes the reward for finishing. If I start an activity, particularly if it is a chore such as doing the dishes, I do not want my asthma to mean I have to stop, go find my inhaler, take a puff, and then resume washing the dishes. Instead, I rush to finish the dishes so that by the time I can breath again I can associate the feelings of relief with the feelings of having accomplished the task. The only trouble is, if the asthma starts to get bad, I delay taking my inhaler as the asthma worsens, and could even end up making myself bad. But during the times that I am asthmatic, my inhaler has trained me to finish chores!

I have also become defiant with periods of chest tightness. I can remember a number of times during my school days that I did not want to let my asthma interfere with doing what the other children were doing. If I started to become tight, and taking my inhaler wasn't an option without stopping the activity (such as playing or running), I would just deal with the feelings in my chest for as long as I could ignore them. I didn't want to be the outsider. I didn't want asthma being the reason that I couldn't play and compete with everybody else.  I'm sure that these experiences are partly responsible for the aspect of my personality that ignores, even condemns, those who tell me I can't do something.

If I did have to stop playing, and with asthma you don't really have a choice in the matter, I started to become impatient with my condition, and I would start to get mad at myself for having such a 'crappy' body. I am happy to say that my self-loathing never resulted in anything clinical, and it vanished along with my adolescence. Nevertheless, the remnants of asthma-induced frustration in my 'developmental' years still shaped my brain and my personality.

If anyone has any thoughts on this, I would love to hear from you.

Jack Pemment is a recent neuroscience graduate from the University of Mississippi. He explores the neurobiology of criminal behavior and personality disorders.

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