“I have an unfortunate tendency to falter at crucial moments,” begins Scott Stossel in My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind. The editor of the Atlantic wastes no time getting really personal, opening with the painful story of his wedding day panic attack. “This is supposed to be one of the happiest, most significant moments of my life, and I am miserable. I worry I will not survive” (4, 5).
It’s the sort of hellish contrast familiar to any anxiety sufferer.
Goodness, how I empathize with Stossel. Anxiety is no joke; his sounds unbearable. Lest we consider anxiety a problem of the modern age, dismiss it as a first-world problem, Stossel provides a history: anxiety may just be part of the human condition. He tells us what the great philosophers had to say on the matter: this is not a twenty-first-century thing. Anxiety is as mysterious as it is painful, but Stossel provides historical, scientific, and medical facts, hard information likely to soothe those who see no method to the madness.
I learned a lot and found this book a real comfort, myself. For a good 10+ years, I struggled with serious anxiety without professional support. It was debilitating, humiliating, frustrating. In the most innocent situations, my body committed what felt like betrayal. I’d sweat, nearly faint, my heart would race and I’d construct elaborate fantasies as to how to remove myself from the situation. A sample situation: introducing myself in front of a group of people. Could be five people. Didn’t really matter. At those moments, I felt ill, seriously ill. I daydreamed about going to the dentist instead, having the flu. I knew this wasn’t healthy or normal, but I didn’t know what to do. I would then scold myself for being stupid, weak. My goals and big dreams seemed ridiculous in these moments. Self-talk like: “you say you’re considering law school? You can’t even order a coffee like a normal person, talk on the phone like a normal person. You’re pathetic.” These episodes happened nearly every day. My constant companion: the dark weight of dread in the pit of my stomach. It made it hard to relate to people, even people I really liked. I lost out on opportunities. I caused my body lots of stress. I felt irrevocably different, like a freak. I wanted so badly for something to be truly, clinically wrong with me, because I longed for relief. I needed help but for much of this time, didn’t know anything about anxiety, that this wasn’t in fact normal. I didn’t know that this wasn’t just me but a serious problem.
Without real knowledge, I desperately tried to deal. At first, I tried to adapt by reframing how I saw myself. Okay, I’d be an introvert: happy to be quiet, happy to be alone. As time passed though, I realized more and more that this narrative wasn’t enough. I’m not an introvert. I don’t really need time to ‘recharge.’ I’m chatty and sunny and optimistic and bubbly. I love meeting new people, flirting, making people laugh. The ‘quiet reserved girl’ thing I tried for awhile felt like a painful shell. It seemed there was a ‘real me’ stuck inside a box somewhere. I even pictured it: this transparent cube, six hard impenetrable walls. Desperate Me beating on those walls with my fists. I felt like a complete waste of potential: a passionate, joyful person living in a shy, timid girl’s body. The contrast was a misery.
It took years. It took dozens of classes in which I sat paralyzed, having trouble breathing. It took scores of embarrassing moments and shame. It took me fighting the self-loathing and misery and forcing optimism every single day, days when getting out of bed and approaching another human felt impossible. But I can say it now: I beat anxiety.
Since I am on the other (victorious!) side of this awful thing, Stossel’s last chapter resonated with me. After a thorough exploration of the various drugs used to treat anxiety, anxiety’s relationship to success and failure, and much more, Stossel writes about “Resilience.”
“The ten critical psychological elements and characteristics of resilience…[that allow one to] ward off [clinical anxiety and psychological breakdown…] are optimism, altruism, having a moral compass or set of beliefs that cannot be shattered, faith and spirituality, humor, having a role model, social supports, facing fear (or leaving one’s comfort zone), having a mission or meaning in life, and practice in meeting and overcoming challenges” (332).
Even if it seems hopeless (it seemed that way to me for a long, long time), we must fight and not surrender to the tempting solutions of our anxious brains (stay in the house! Don’t go to the party! Lie and say that you’re sick! Turn down the opportunity! Don’t correct them when they’re wrong! Stay silent, it’s better than risking embarrassment!). No. I beat anxiety, and I did it without drugs or therapy and I did it (mostly) alone. I wish that I had sought more support, but at the time I didn’t know how. I would hope for any friend or any anxiety sufferer more support than that, but no matter if you’re facing this alone or you’ve got a plan, these ten things might well be part of the answer.
I had my faith and optimism and a strong sense of humor. I had a few people who loved me unconditionally. I set little challenges and I worked to meet them every single day, whether big (go out for cheerleading; study abroad) or small (introduce myself to a stranger; speak up two times this class period). It’s been over a year now that I can confidently say that the joyful person has made it out of the box. I no longer fantasize about just…not existing.
I am sorry that this author hasn’t found the same comfort. I truly hope it comes. Stossel’s public exploration of his own anxiety is very brave; I haven’t seen much like it in the world of nonfiction (psychology or otherwise). I do think the book would benefit from some editing. It could stand to lose some of the anecdotes and footnotes, particularly in the section on drugs. There is a real, compelling story here, but I think it’s a little buried in loads of heavy information. Still, this is a worthy read for better understanding your own struggles or those of someone else (and if that’s the case, show someone you love that you really care and read this. I know they’d appreciate it).