Emotional Health · Health

Dr. Ford Reviews: ‘My Age of Anxiety,’ by Scott Stossel

Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years. Today she reviews the memoir of an accomplished editor who has struggled with crippling anxiety his whole life long.

201401-omag-read-3-284xfallScott Stossel’s fascinating and brutally honest memoir concerns his lifelong problem: bedeviling anxiety. My Age of Anxiety chronicles his personal struggle with symptoms that nearly led to his hospitalization as a middle-schooler. Stossel, the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, describes hair-raisingly awkward moments throughout his development and into adulthood. In an interview he refers to this book as a “coming out,” and the analogy is apt, since so many people suffer from anxiety disorders with shame and embarrassment.

Forty million people suffer from anxiety disorders in the United States alone, and one in four people is likely to be diagnosed with anxiety at some point in his or her life. The figure for primary-care patients taking a benzodiazepine like Valium or Xanax to treat their symptoms may be as high as 20 percent. Stossel suffers from generalized anxiety as well as a cluster of specific phobias, including (but not limited to) acrophobia, claustrophobia, and a fear of cheese. Perhaps his most extreme and relentless problem is emetophobia: a fear of vomiting. So strong is his worry that he keeps track of stomach flu outbreaks throughout the world—this in spite of the fact that he hasn’t actually vomited in decades.

He shares his fear of vomiting with his mother, who also suffers from extensive anxiety and fears, and much of the book is devoted to a discussion of the history of anxiety diagnosis and treatment. The discussion includes questions such as the nature/nuture controversy, examined at length, as well as the implications that this has for treatment. Did his mother’s anxiety influence his because it made her an anxious mother, or did it have an effect because of the genes she passed on to him (or both)? In his investigation of the history of anxiety disorders, the author intelligently and clearly illuminates much of the development of our understanding and treatment of psychopathology as a whole—an especially valuable contribution.

Until the 20th century, there was essentially nothing available to patients like Stossel. His great-grandfather, a prominent dean at Harvard, had symptoms that grew so bad that he was hospitalized for a time at McLean, the famous psychiatric hospital near Boston. Another famous fellow sufferer, Charles Darwin, had such a “nervous stomach” that he vomited daily and was confined to his home for years after his Beagle voyage days. The author looks into such questions as the impact of anxiety on productivity and creativity—a little may have a beneficial effect, while too much is crippling.

In his quest for “peace of mind,” Stossel has tried “individual psychotherapy (three decades of it), family therapy, group therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, rational emotive behavior therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, hypnosis, meditation, role-playing, interoceptive exposure therapy, self-help workbooks, massage therapy, prayer, acupuncture, yoga, Stoic philosophy, and audiotapes . . . ordered off a late-night TV infomercial.” The description of these attempts alone offers a fascinating window into the world of a seeker of mental health treatment, as well as the conflicting theories that buffet consumers and professionals alike. Many of his descriptions, such as that of his experience (disastrous) with exposure therapy, are ruefully comic, despite the serious level of his suffering.

Nevertheless, he never gives up on his quest, and the story of his struggles reads well not only as the history of an interesting man, but one of the age in which he lives. Editor-in-chief Stossel has excelled professionally despite his handicap. My Age of Anxiety can be counted as a wonderful memoir, a valuable contribution to the history of psychopathology and its treatment, and, most especially, a stunning achievement well worth our attention.

 

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