Scott Stossel, editor of The Atlantic, has spent most of his life trying to hide his severe anxiety. In his new book, the 44-year-old goes public as a means to explore the condition that affects an estimated 40 million Americans. He’ll overcome his fear of public speaking to talk with writer Hanna Rosin on Wednesday at Sixth and I. She offered to get drunk with him beforehand to calm his nerves, he says, but he declined.
Was it hard to be so candid about your anxiety?
While I was writing the book, I was able to convince myself that it was never going to come out. If I’d been fully aware people I knew were actually going to read it, I don’t think I would have been able to do it.
There’s a lot people can relate to.
A friend said one reason she liked the book was because some percentage she was able to relate to it and be like, “Oh God, I have that,” and some part she was like, “But thank God I’m not as f—ed up as that guy.” That’s probably where most people will fall on the continuum.
The personal anecdotes are meant to illustrate some historical or scientific concept. I’m sort of the unifying strand, but what I try to do is range across history and culture and the frontiers of science to look at the thinking about what is anxiety? What are its evolutionary origins? How can anxiety be productive?
What was the response after you published a book excerpt as the cover of this month’s Atlantic?
I’ve gotten lots of notes from mostly people I know saying they liked the piece. A lot of people say they think it was “brave,” a brave thing to have written, which I hear as they mean “stupid.”
Do you think your anxiety has helped you be successful?
There are ways certainly in which it has. Jerome Kagan, who is a retired professor of psychology at Harvard, finds his most effective workers tend to be the anxious ones because they tend to be more conscientious, more hardworking.
So anxiety can be positive.
There’s evidence that anxiety is tied to better social awareness and the ability to scan the environment and pick up cues and anticipate things when charting strategy and things like that.
Are there situations in which having more anxiety would help?
I talk in the book about how I once got attacked by a kangaroo. I have very little fear of animals, which is a common phobia. I thought the kangaroo wanted a hug.
Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW; Wed., 7 p.m., $12; 202-408-3100, sixthandi.org. (Gallery Place)