My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind

My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind

4.2 9
by Scott Stossel

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A riveting, revelatory, and moving account of the author’s struggles with anxiety, and of the history of efforts by scientists, philosophers, and writers to understand the condition
As recently as thirty-five years ago, anxiety did not exist as a diagnostic category. Today, it is the most common form of officially classified mental illness.See more details below

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A riveting, revelatory, and moving account of the author’s struggles with anxiety, and of the history of efforts by scientists, philosophers, and writers to understand the condition
As recently as thirty-five years ago, anxiety did not exist as a diagnostic category. Today, it is the most common form of officially classified mental illness. Scott Stossel gracefully guides us across the terrain of an affliction that is pervasive yet too often misunderstood.

Drawing on his own long-standing battle with anxiety, Stossel presents an astonishing history, at once intimate and authoritative, of the efforts to understand the condition from medical, cultural, philosophical, and experiential perspectives. He ranges from the earliest medical reports of Galen and Hippocrates, through later observations by Robert Burton and Søren Kierkegaard, to the investigations by great nineteenth-century scientists, such as Charles Darwin, William James, and Sigmund Freud, as they began to explore its sources and causes, to the latest research by neuroscientists and geneticists. Stossel reports on famous individuals who struggled with anxiety, as well as on the afflicted generations of his own family. His portrait of anxiety reveals not only the emotion’s myriad manifestations and the anguish anxiety produces but also the countless psychotherapies, medications, and other (often outlandish) treatments that have been developed to counteract it. Stossel vividly depicts anxiety’s human toll—its crippling impact, its devastating power to paralyze—while at the same time exploring how those who suffer from it find ways to manage and control it.
My Age of Anxiety is learned and empathetic, humorous and inspirational, offering the reader great insight into the biological, cultural, and environmental factors that contribute to the affliction.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Nathan Heller
[Stossel's] new book, My Age of Anxiety, uses his experience as a guide through the disorder, tracing its legacy in thought and culture. He seeks to understand what anxiety is and what it means; he probes the condition's ambiguities. The result is ambitious, and bravely intimate: a ruminative book that often breaks into a thrilling intellectual chase.
Publishers Weekly
Stossel, editor of the Atlantic, leads a jittery, searching tour through the most common mental disorder in the world: “a function of biology and philosophy, body and mind, instinct and reason, personality and culture.” As an acutely miserable and anxious 10-year old, Stossel began an early journey through various therapies and medications. His experiences with these treatments doubles as an accidental history of how science, psychotherapy, medicine, and the culture at large have attempted deal with anxiety’s psychological riddle: persistent fear with no “concrete object” of which to be afraid. Stossel’s work features biographical sketches of famous anxiety cases like Charles Darwin and Samuel Johnson, and a rigorous survey of the foundations of anxiety research, from Freud to attachment theory to the “chemical imbalance” model of mental illness, alongside discussions of the biological, neurological, and genetic roots of the condition. Stossel’s journey through his own life is unsparing, darkly funny (a nervous stomach tends to flare up at the worst times, like in front of JFK Jr.), but above all, hopeful. As with many sufferers, Stossel’s quest to find relief is unfinished, but his book relays a masterful understanding of the condition he and millions of others endure. Agent: the Wylie Agency. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
“Scott Stossel has produced the definitive account of anxiety. . . . This story has needed to be told.” —Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon

“Enlightening, empowering. . . . Brave and . . . potentially therapeutic.” —The Washington Post

“Sheds light not just on a particular disorder but on the human condition that gives rise to it.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Brings to this story depth, intelligence, and perspective that could enlighten untold fellow sufferers for years to come.” —Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love

“A carefully reported, wryly funny, and admirably honest historical and personal investigation.” —Elle

 “[An] erudite, heartfelt, and occasionally darkly funny meld of memoir, cultural history, and science. . . . Excruciatingly relevant.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“Bravely intimate. . . . Dazzlingly comprehensive.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Admirably done. . . . Intelligent, interesting, and well written.” —The New Yorker
“First-rate. . . . Fascinating. . . . [A] triumph.” —The Boston Globe
“There is much pain here, but humor, too. . . . Without meaning to, Stossel has written a self-help manual.” —Newsday
“Quite impressive. . . . [Stossel is] a terrific, companionable writer.” —Forbes

“With humor, insight and intense research, [Stossel] sheds light on the disorder that is believed to affect one in seven Americans. From a historical overview to a review of current treatments in a book laced with fascinating personal anecdotes, Stossel delivers authentic perspective on such suffering. “ —New York Daily News

“Scott Stossel’s new book on his lifelong struggle with severe anxiety is outstanding in the fullest sense of the word. . . . Both conspicuous and superior within its genre.” —The Seattle Times

“Books exploring personal experiences of mental illness tend to be either over-wrought accounts of personal trauma that shed little light on the world beyond the author’s nose, or the more detached observations of scientists and medics. It is rare to find works that bridge these objectives, which is one reason that the writer Andrew Solomon achieved such success with The Noonday Demon. . . . Stossel’s book deserves a place on this higher shelf.” —Nature

“Powerful, eye-opening and funny. Pitch-perfect in his storytelling, Stossel reminds us that, in many important ways, to be anxious is to be human.” —The Dallas Morning News
“An immense achievement. . . . Superbly wide-ranging. . . . With this substantial treatment, Stossel has done justice to himself and his subject.” —The Daily Telegraph (London)

“An extraordinary literary performance. . . . In an age inundated by memoirs and psychic self-help books, My Age of Anxiety is the rare memoir that tells an entirely compelling story, and the rare self-help book that really helps. You, and many thousands of readers along with you, will laugh until you cry.” —Bookforum

Library Journal
Now the most commonly acknowledged form of mental illness, anxiety wasn't even a diagnostic category 30 years ago, but even Hippocrates recognized its troublesome signs. Atlantic editor Stossel draws on his own battle with anxiety as he blends historical account with a discussion of anxiety's treatments; biological, cultural, and environmental factors; and blind-siding consequences,
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-11-03
In this captivating and intimate book, the editor of the Atlantic spares no detail about his lifelong struggle with anxiety and contextualizes his personal experience within the history of anxiety's perception and treatment. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in seven Americans currently suffers from some form of anxiety. Stossel (Sarge: The Life and Times of Sergeant Shriver, 2004), whose assorted phobias and neuroses began to manifest when he was a toddler, provides an exceptionally relatable and frequently hilarious account of a modern sufferer: the endless combinations of therapy and drugs, pharmaceutical and otherwise; the inevitable mishaps of a public figure who is terrified of flying, enclosed spaces and speaking in public; the delicate negotiation between managing psychological torment and being a husband and father. Alongside these anecdotes--one of which, involving the Kennedy family, is laugh-out-loud funny--the author explores how anxiety has affected humans for centuries and how there is still no "cure." Instead, anxiety is a "riddle" with very personal and diverse factors and symptoms, and it affects people from all walks of life. Many great minds, including Freud and Darwin, documented their battles with anxiety. They also experimented with chemical interventions, testimony of a long history of sought-after relief from anxiety's debilitating effects. Stossel deftly explores a variety of treatments and their risks and successes, providing unique insight as both a journalist (whose priority is impartial investigation) and sufferer (whose imperative is to feel well). Throughout, the author's beautiful prose and careful research combine to make this book informative, thoughtful and fun to read. Powerful, eye-opening and funny. Pitch-perfect in his storytelling, Stossel reminds us that, in many important ways, to be anxious is to be human.

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

Some eighty years ago, Freud proposed that anxiety was "a riddle whose solution would be bound to throw a flood of light on our whole mental existence." Unlocking the mysteries of anxiety, he believed, would go far in helping us to unravel the mysteries of the mind: consciousness, the self, identity, intellect, imagination, creativity — not to mention pain, suffering, hope, and regret. To grapple with and understand anxiety is, in some sense, to grapple with and understand the human condition.

The differences in how various cultures and eras have perceived and understood anxiety can tell us a lot about those cultures and eras. Why did the ancient Greeks of the Hippocratic school see anxiety mainly as a medical condition, while Enlightenment philosophers saw it as an intellectual problem? Why did the early existentialists see anxiety as a spiritual condition, while Gilded Age doctors saw it as a specifically Anglo-Saxon stress response — a response that they believed spared Catholic societies — to the Industrial Revolution? Why did the early Freudians see anxiety as a psychological condition emanating from sexual inhibition, whereas our own age tends to see it, once again, as a medical and neurochemical condition, a problem of malfunctioning biomechanics?

Do these shifting interpretations represent the forward march of progress and science? Or simply the changing, and often cyclical, ways in which cultures work? What does it say about the societies in question that Americans showing up in emergency rooms with panic attacks tend to believe they're having heart attacks, whereas Japanese tend to be afraid they're going to faint? Are the Iranians who complain of what they call "heart distress" suffering what Western psychiatrists would call panic attacks? Are the ataques de nervios experienced by South Americans simply panic attacks with a Latino inflection — or are they, as modern researchers now believe, a distinct cultural and medical syndrome? Why do drug treatments for anxiety that work so well on Americans and the French seem not to work effectively on the Chinese?

As fascinating and multifarious as these cultural idiosyncrasies are, the underlying consistency of experience across time and cultures speaks to the universality of anxiety as a human trait. Even filtered through the distinctive cultural practices and beliefs of the Greenland Inuit a hundred years ago, the syndrome the Inuit called "kayak angst" (those afflicted by it were afraid to go out seal hunting alone) appears to be little different from what we today call agoraphobia. In Hippocrates's ancient writings can be found clinical descriptions of pathological anxiety that sound quite modern. One of his patients was terrified of cats (simple phobia, which today would be coded 300.29 for insurance purposes, according to the classifications of the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the DSM-V) and another of nightfall; a third, Hippocrates reported, was "beset by terror" whenever he heard a flute; a fourth could not walk alongside "even the shallowest ditch," though he had no problem walking inside the ditch — evidence of what we would today call acrophobia, the fear of heights. Hippocrates also describes a patient suffering what would likely be called, in modern diagnostic terminology, panic disorder with agoraphobia (DSM-V code 300.22): the condition, as Hippocrates described it, "usually attacks abroad, if a person is travelling a lonely road somewhere, and fear seizes him." The syndromes described by Hippocrates are recognizably the same clinical phenomena described in the latest issues of the Archives of General Psychiatry and Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic.

Their similarities bridge the yawning gap of millennia and circumstances that separate them, providing a sense of how, for all the differences in culture and setting, the physiologically anxious aspects of human experience may be universal.

In this book, I have set out to explore the "riddle" of anxiety. I am not a doctor, a psychologist, a sociologist, or a historian of science — any one of whom would bring more scholarly authority to a treatise on anxiety than I do. This is a work of synthesis and reportage, yoking together explorations of the idea of anxiety from history, literature, philosophy, religion, popular culture, and the latest scientific research — all of that woven through something about which I can, alas, claim extensive expertise: my own experience with anxiety. Examining the depths of my own neuroses may seem the height of narcissism (and studies do show that self-preoccupation tends to be tied to anxiety), but it's an exercise with worthy antecedents. In 1621, the Oxford scholar Robert Burton published his canonical The Anatomy of Melancholy, a staggering thirteen-hundred-page work of synthesis, whose torrents of scholarly exegesis only partially obscure what it really is: a massive litany of anxious, depressive complaint. In 1733, George Cheyne, a prominent London physician and one of the most influential psychological thinkers of the eighteenth century, published The English Malady, which includes the forty-page chapter "The Case of the Author" (dedicated to "my fellow sufferers"), in which he reports in minute detail on his neuroses (including "Fright, Anxiety, Dread, and Terror" and "a melancholy Fright and Panick, where my Reason was of no Use to me") and physical symptoms (including "a sudden violent Head-ach," "extream Sickness in my Stomach," and "a constant Colick, and an ill Taste and Savour in my Mouth") over the years. More recently, the intellectual odysseys of Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and William James were powerfully driven by their curiosity about, and the desire to find relief from, their own anxious suffering. Freud used his acute train phobia and his hypochondria, among other things, to construct his theory of psychoanalysis; Darwin was effectively housebound by stress-related illnesses after the voyage of the Beagle — he spent years in pursuit of relief from his anxiety, visiting spas and, on the advice of one doctor, encasing himself in ice. James tried to keep his phobias hidden from the public but was often quietly terrified. "I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread in the pit of my stomach and with a sense of insecurity of life that I never knew before," he wrote in 1902 of the onset of his anxiety. "For months, I was unable to go out in the dark alone."

Unlike Darwin, Freud, and James, I'm not out to adumbrate a whole new theory of mind or of human nature. Rather, this book is motivated by a quest to understand, and to find relief from or redemption in, anxious suffering. This quest has taken me both backward, into history, and forward, to the frontiers of modern scientific research. I have spent much of the past eight years reading through hundreds of thousands of the pages that have been written about anxiety over the last three thousand years.

My life has, thankfully, lacked great tragedy or melodrama. I haven't served any jail time. I haven't been to rehab. I haven't assaulted anyone or carried out a suicide attempt. I haven't woken up naked in the middle of a field, sojourned in a crack house, or been fired from a job for erratic behavior. As psychopathologies go, mine has been — so far, most of the time, to outward appearances — quiet. Robert Downey Jr. will not be starring in the movie of my life. I am, as they say in the clinical literature, "high functioning" for someone with an anxiety disorder or a mental illness; I'm usually quite good at hiding it. More than a few people, some of whom think they know me quite well, have remarked that they are struck that I, who can seem so even-keeled and imperturbable, would choose to write a book about anxiety. I smile gently while churning inside and thinking about what I've learned is a signature characteristic of the phobic personality: "the need and ability" — as described in the self-help book Your Phobia — "to present a relatively placid, untroubled appearance to others, while suffering extreme distress on the inside." *

To some people, I may seem calm. But if you could peer beneath the surface, you would see that I'm like a duck — paddling, paddling, paddling.

* "For many, many people who have anxiety disorders — particularly agoraphobia and panic disorder — people would be surprised to find out that they have problems with anxiety because they seem so'together' and in control," says Paul Foxman, a psychologist who heads the Center for Anxiety Disorders in Burlington, Vermont. "They seem to be comfortable, but there's a disconnection between the public self and the private self."

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