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‘My Age of Anxiety’ sheds welcome light on a misunderstood affliction

This is two entirely different books carefully woven into one. One is a history of anxiety and the other is the personal story of the author’s lifelong struggle with it.

Though he has managed to carve out a successful career as editor of The Atlantic, the author still worries he might end like his great-grandfather who was a successful Harvard professor until anxiety ended his career. He probably thought a book about a struggle that could finish badly needed a second wing to fly. That’s why he includes an excellently researched treatise on the subject.

Stossel starts his treatise with the shocking fact: that anxiety as a clinical category didn’t exist as recently as 30 years ago. Its symptoms were impossible to ignore on the battlefield of two World Wars but they were attributed to something called “solder’s heart” or some other euphemism and swept under the rug.

Even though many famous people had suffered from it – William and Henry James, Charles Darwin, Emily Dickinson, Isaac Newton and Leo Tolstoy to name a few – the details of their affliction were hidden behind glamorous names like “vastation” or “neurasthenia” and left unstudied.

Polite society didn’t want to hear about an illness that usually involves throwing up, losing control of your bowels or both. So for years if it was discussed at all, it was blamed on a flaw in one’s character or upbringing and treated by therapy.

Freud was complicit in this. He suffered from anxiety and then when he became famous he and his disciples covered it up and blamed anxiety on separation from the mother and the Oedipus complex. Late in life he began to move toward a more “modern scientific view of anxiety,” according to Stossel. “But by then it was too late. His disciples were off the to races with the view that anxiety was caused by dammed-up sexual drives.”

No one knew how the brain worked so only a few outlier scientists bothered to study the brain’s chemistry and whether or not it might be the cause of the problem. Anxiety was a subset of some other disorder, probably having to do with dysfunctional upbringing and pent up sexual feelings.

Slowly scientists discovered – often by accident – that substances developed for other purposes relieved anxiety’s symptoms. Drug companies had to be dragged into using them.

In one case a board member of a leading drug company had a brother whose anxiety was not helped by therapy. He happened to meet at a conference a scientist who had developed a substance that made anxiety’s symptoms less onerous. But he had been unable to convince the company to market it. As far as the company was concerned, a chemical imbalance did not cause anxiety and that was that. But the scientist gave the board member some of the medication and said it couldn’t hurt to try. The brother’s anxiety became manageable and the board member insisted the company’s management sell it.

The company made billions from it.

But these substances don’t cure anxiety. The author is very careful to point this out. He even wonders if the drugs he has taken would have made his great-grandfather any better. He even suggests that the electric shock treatment that his great-grandfather received, and is now frequently discredited, may have offered him more relief. Stossel wants to dispel any and all myths that have grown up around anxiety.

He is especially quick to cut short the argument that conditions like anxiety build character and pave the way to success. He gives examples of athletes who, at the pinnacle of their success, suddenly “choked” and had to leave professional sports due to anxiety attacks. They were incapable of doing simple physical tasks that they could easily do during practices.

Anxiety is a terrible affliction but there are ways of dealing with it and the more you know about it the better. Stossel turns to the philosopher of anxiety, Kierkegaard, for the most cogent assessment of one way anxiety can add to a life:

“The ability to worry about the future goes hand in hand with the ability to plan for the future – and planning for the future (along with remembering the past) is what gives rise to culture and separates us from other animals.”

This is similar to Jung’s epiphany on the Serengeti Plain that consciousness is what separates us from everything else and is the reason God put us on earth. And that we have to fight against any force that tries to limit our consciousness.

Maybe anxiety is consciousness on steroids.

If you’re still thinking you want to avoid this book because it sounds too depressing let me say that it isn’t depressing. It is so well-written and so well-researched you feel that you are by the side of a great physician who is walking you through one of our great hospitals telling story after story, both personal and historical, until you understand anxiety and therapy and psycho-pharmaceuticals well enough to think clearly about them in the future.

Someone had to pull back the rug and Stossel has done it. It’s estimated that one in seven suffer from anxiety.

Maybe if enough people read this book and others like it, those poor, anxious souls who are expelled from schools, universities and other institutions as dangerous influences or fakers will receive better care in the future and not be scapegoated.

William L. Morris was a co-creator of The News’ Poetry Pages and is a former teacher. He now lives and writes in Florida.


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

By Scott Stossel


400 pages, $27.95