My Age of Anxiety
is a nonfiction book by Scott Stossel, detailing the author’s own struggles with anxiety, and exploring the history of the condition and how humans have attempted to understand it through science, philosophy, and writing. Stossel writes that up until 35 years ago, anxiety was not a diagnosis that existed among the medical community. It is now the most commonly diagnosed form of mental illness in the world.
Stossel begins the text by assuring readers that some level of anxiety is perfectly normal, especially when significant and stressful life events loom in the future. He goes on to say that clinical anxiety is actually the most commonly diagnosed form of mental illness, with one in six people being diagnosed with it at some point in their lifetime. It is also an illness that exists worldwide, across countless nations and cultures. Through his research, Stossel has found that anxiety has existed through the ages, as it was documented in the texts of Plato and Hippocrates, Charles Darwin, and Gandhi.
The author then delves into what life is like with anxiety. He describes the daily struggles involved in living with the condition, and how it can dramatically limit one’s life. Often, people with anxiety would rather remain at home by themselves where they can control their surroundings than venture out into the world and risk encountering a potentially triggering situation. Stossel writes of his own anxieties surrounding flying and public speaking, stating that he is incapable of engaging in either activity without using drugs and/or alcohol to calm his nerves. He notes how he is certainly not alone—40 million Americans have been diagnosed with anxiety, and many well-known public personas have come forward to speak about their own struggles with the illness. In spite of suffering from extreme anxiety, Stossel is still able to maintain a successful career and provide for his family.
There are many theories regarding the origins of anxiety. Psychoanalysts have suggested that the seed of anxiety is planted in childhood, comprised of repressed taboo thoughts. It is also believed that children who experienced prolonged separation from their mothers could be at greater risk of developing anxiety. It is generally believed that the interactions that mothers have with their children set the tone for the level of comfort and security that child will experience throughout their lives. Stossel admits that as a child, he grew extremely anxious whenever his parents left him, and would often call their friends to check in on them, convinced that they were dead.
At the very root of anxiety is our genetic programming, which is wired to generate anxiety around potentially dangerous situations. It is a survival technique. However, in modern society, people have developed anxiety that is inappropriate for the situation at hand. Although they are not in any real danger, their brains and bodies still produce symptoms of anxiety. In the past, this anxiety would have been a useful tool to help our ancestors survive. In today’s world, anxiety functions more as a plague on people’s lives, preventing them from fully living.
The chances of an individual developing severe anxiety is also thought to be tied to their genetic makeup. Elevated levels of anxiety can be detected in babies just a few weeks old, indicating that some kind of genetic factor is at play. In his own family, Stossel has perceived a connection between his own anxiety and that of his daughter, as they share some of the same irrational phobias. In spite of the fact that Stossel and his wife made every effort to raise their daughter in a calm and loving household, it seems that she was genetically predisposed to developing the same kind of anxiety as her father.
Anxiety is produced in the brain, which means that there is the potential for it to be controlled by drugs. Clinically anxious people produce less serotonin, the chemical that is responsible for feelings of joy and satisfaction. Anti-anxiety drugs work by manipulating the brain’s neurotransmitters. Drugs can be a controversial method of dealing with anxiety as they are known to be ineffective in certain cases as well as potentially addictive.
Another common treatment for anxiety is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This type of therapy is based on the notion that anxiety is behavior-based, and that these behaviors can be managed and changed. Through CBT, patients are often encouraged to face their fears and anxieties in what is called exposure therapy. The idea is that, by confronting one’s greatest fears, they can be diminished. Another goal of CBT is to get to the source of the anxiety, which therapists believe is hidden deep in the mind.
Stossel continues to manage his anxiety through the use of drugs and CBT. Although he knows that this condition will never fully go away, he thinks it is important to acknowledge that it is manageable.