We’ve all been there: the tightening of the throat, the shallow breathing, the twinge of pain around the heart, the dry mouth, the inability to focus. It is anxiety. We live in anxious times. But when haven’t we lived in anxious times, and before we get too far into our own neuroses, are there not times in history when things might have been more precarious, more dangerous, more downright scary? I am thinking now of the height of the Second World War when victory was not imminent, or in the late 60s when one had a reasonably good chance of being drafted, handed a weapon, and told to go fight in the jungles of Vietnam. What about the Dust Bowl, the Plague, the Great Flu, the Great Depression? Surely every age is one where anxiety might be the right and proper response to the circumstances that threaten the very existence of us.
Scott Stossel, in his book My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind (Vintage Books, 2013), gives readers a well-researched, crystalline picture of what anxiety means in our culture today, and what he has suffered his entire life. His book is the perfect marriage of the scientific and the personal. To be human is to be afflicted with anxiety. Increasingly, according to Stossel’s research, we are in need of greater medication and treatment to deal with the surge of adrenaline coursing through our veins each day, or is it that we are less able than our ancestors at managing our stress levels? Life is life with all of its trials and tribulations; we cling to the apocryphal Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times. That might make life exciting, but we must be able to handle those times without being reduced to a quivering pile of gelatin.
Stossel is an editor at The Atlantic, and he comes off here in this book as a competent, intelligent man not given to fits of hysteria without reason or inciting incident, but when faced with one of those incidents, he indeed becomes hysterical (a word, interestingly enough coming from a condition of a “disturbed uterus” in its Greek origins). His is a life-long struggle against near crippling anxiety, even when his intelligence evaluates the circumstances of his agitation and finds them lacking the necessity of such a dramatic response. Yet, he still loses control—of his bowels, his bladder, his equilibrium. He does not projectile vomit only because he has a pathological fear of vomiting known in professional terms as emetophobia. The book, however, is not just stories of Stossel’s battles, although that is some of the most interesting material. There is ample science and psychological insight, but one cannot read this book without feeling sympathy for Stossel’s predicament. He describes his situation: “I am buffeted by worry: about my health and my family members’ health; about finances; about work; about the rattle in my car and the dripping in my basement; about the encroachment of old age and the inevitability of death; about everything and nothing. Sometimes this worry gets transmuted into low-grade physical discomfort—stomachaches, headaches, dizziness, pains in my arms and legs—or a general malaise, as though I have mononucleosis or the flu. At various times, I have developed anxiety-inducing difficulties breathing, swallowing, even walking; these difficulties then become obsessions, consuming all of my thinking.” His troubles may seem rooted in narcissism, but that does not entirely explain them away.
In an effort to defeat this mental enemy, Stossel has tried all manner of pharmaceuticals as well as “self-help workbooks, massage therapy, prayer, acupuncture, yoga, Stoic philosophy, and audiotapes…ordered off a late-night TV infomercial.” In all the Ativan, Xanax and Klonipin, the psychotherapy, all kinds of other therapies, something called “eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, nothing has worked. A stiff drink and a host of other drugs wash through his system. The anxiety remains potent and debilitating.
The book is laced with quotes, many from Sigmund Freud, regarding anxiety in history, science and culture. There are also copious footnotes and explanations that function as a sort of parallel text, a Talmudic commentary on the science of the anxiety experience. He traces human history and anxiety as well as his own history: his great-grandfather Chester Hanford was suicidal and suffered from “feelings of anxiety and tension” as well as “fears as to the future.” He writes of one therapist he encountered, a Dr. W., who boiled anxiety down to a single sentence: “Anxiety…is apprehension about future suffering—the fearful anticipation of an unbearable catastrophe one is hopeless to prevent.” Other animals seem immune to anxious thoughts, mainly because they cannot get lost in the past, worry about the future, or contemplate events other than the ones in the present. They need food, water and shelter. In the animal kingdom, everyone but us lives in the present. Dr. W. makes an important distinction: “while fear is produced by ‘real’ threats from the world, anxiety is produced from within ourselves.” In other words, we seem to make ourselves anxious. If only we could let go and stop, but Stossel’s argument is that our anxiety is as much a result of genetics and biology as a product of our over-active imaginations. Many of us are predisposed to being anxious, and once rolling down that slippery slope, there is very little, pharmacologically or therapeutically, that we can do to stop ourselves.
Along the way in the book, Stossel gives the reader a complete history of drug treatments as well as a discussion of the genetics of anxiety. The latter is a fear Stossel has: he might pass his phobias onto his children, and in fact, that is already in evidence as his kids begin to exhibit some of the same concerns and fears. He discusses the different eras and evaluates how anxiety might be instigated by world events. It turns out that every age has the potential for anxiety. In fact, it is our response to those events that causes anxiety. Times were not necessarily worse in some previous era, nor are things necessarily bad now. Nuclear war may occur in the future, but potential does not indicate certainty. It turns out we are the architects of our own anxious feelings, and genetics play more of a role than world cataclysms. Stossel holds out the hope that by writing a book about anxiety and his own phobias, he might somehow defeat them and find some peace. But the jury is still out on whether or not he is successful.
Could it be that we are more aware of the dangers out there? Could it be that anxiety is communicated more effectively in our time through the 24 hours news cycle, the ever-present eye of the media? We have actual news and then we have the talking heads to walk us through every potential possibility of catastrophe. With so much information out there, zipping back and forth and around the world on our digital devices, maybe we are anxious because we simply know too much? We suffer from catastrophic information overload. There is too much coming at us twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
The world may be no more dangerous than it was five hundred years ago. It may have the seeds of potential cataclysm in its future. But arguably, whatever happens, we will know about it sooner than our ancestors did. Bad news travels much faster in the digital age. For those of us inherently disposed to feelings of anxiety as Stossel is, medication and psychology might be the only refuge and even they may be somewhat less than effective. In the end, the tools we have to control the mind on fire with fear might only be courage and resilience. In the case of Scott Stossel, he has tried nearly everything else, but the anxiety remains.