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My Age of Anxiety

Cover of My Age of Anxiety

My Age of Anxiety

Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind
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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.
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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    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...

About the Author-
  • Scott Stossel is the editor of The Atlantic and the author of Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver. His articles and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He lives with his family in Washington, D.C.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from February 24, 2014
    Veteran magazine editor Stossel fuses his own account of lifelong chronic anxiety with a medical history of this baffling psychiatric condition that plagues an increasingly larger percentage of the population even as the range of available treatment options has become more varied. Narrator Goldstrom takes great pains to adopt Stossel’s journalist/insider identity in his delivery, conveying genuine emotion, but muting his tone enough to keep the production from emphasizing the personal at the expense of the larger scientific and societal issues. Still, Goldstrom’s rendering of some of Stossel’s autobiographical anecdotes do stand out as dramatic, particularly his therapeutic session to conquer phobia related to vomiting, as well as a panic attack involving a series of misadventures in a guest bathroom at the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port, Mass. Goldstrom also does an especially effective job reading the pharmacological and psychological portions of the narrative in a smooth broadcasting style that helps make the material more accessible and engaging. A Knopf hardcover.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    October 21, 2013
    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.

  • Kirkus (starred review)

    "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....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."

  • Booklist (starred review) "Tying together notions about anxiety culled from history, philosophy, religion, sports, and literature with current neuropsychiatric research and his extensive personal experience, Stossel's book is more than an astounding autobiography, more than an atlas of anxiety. His deft handling of a delicate topic and frustrating illness highlights the existential dread, embarrassment, and desperation associated with severe anxiety yet allows room for resiliency, hope, transcendence. Absolutely fearless writing."
  • Daniel Akst, The Wall Street Journal "Excessive anxiety, it turns out, is like most things that beset humans: partly nature and partly nurture. And it may even have its virtues. Worriers tend to be conscientious, sensitive to others and detail-oriented. These can be useful traits in many aspects of life: in marriage, say, and in the workplace. They appear to be useful in an author as well, judging by Mr. Stossel's achievement in "My Age of Anxiety."...In dissecting his own acute case, along with the disorder that afflicts him, he offers a degree of understanding to the rest of us--along with a modicum of comfort and even hope to those who must trudge through life chronically anxious despite their seeming good fortune."
  • The New York Times "Ambitious and bravely intimate...A thrilling intellectual chase."
  • Steve Danziger, Open Letters Monthly "The most accurate representation of the anxiety sufferer's mindset that I've ever come across....I suspect that much will be made of Stossel's bravery, but praise should be given to his literary achievement and the arrival of a substantial, if challenging, voice capable of elucidating the 130 year history of "magic" pharmaceuticals....The book is a startling achievement."
  • Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett, The Seattle Times "Scott Stossel's new book on his lifelong struggle with severe anxiety is outstanding in the fullest sense of the word. 'My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind' is both conspicuous and superior within its genre. Stossel, who also wrote a fine biography of Sargent Shriver, brings his dogged fact-digging skills to this work, which is peppered with humor and humility, remarkably balanced--and generous to the point of philanthropy with his deeply personal, hard-won knowledge. Plus, the man is a lovely writer."
  • David Adam, Nature "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."
  • Matt Price, Newsday "'My Age of Anxiety'" is a brave--and quite possibly perverse--book, one that will leave you squirming and fascinated in equal measure....There is much pain here, but humor, too....Without meaning to, Stossel has written a self-help manual. There is no miracle cure for anxiety, he suggests--we can manage our fears and worries, even if we can never quite tame them."
  • Matthew Gilbert, The Boston Globe "On the one hand, the book is astonishingly thorough and lucidly written. It's a fascinating look at that linchpin of the human condition--the primitive fight-or-flight response--and how it resides in our psyches in a time of IEDs and SSRIs. Rare will be t
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My Age of Anxiety
My Age of Anxiety
Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind
Scott Stossel
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