That Scott Stossel is an incredibly anxious person is no longer a secret. He has admitted this, in extensive detail, in his book, “My Age of Anxiety,” in recent interviews and in a lengthy excerpt that became a cover story for the magazine he edits, the Atlantic. He’s a man “buffeted by worry,” he explains, “stricken by a pervasive sense of existential dread” and plagued by various phobias, including claustrophobia, acrophobia (fear of heights), emetophobia (fear of vomiting), aerophobia (fear of flying) and aeronausiphobia (fear of vomiting on an airplane). He’s also mortally afraid of public speaking and typically chokes back some Xanax, blood-pressure medication and a shot or two of vodka every time he prepares to place his mouth near a microphone — which, these days, is fairly often.
By combining such unfiltered honesty with deep reporting, Stossel has delivered an enlightening, empowering read. But all of his disclosures serve a higher purpose, too. His candor about his sense of unrest — as well as his gnawing, conflicted feelings about admitting to it — serve as the foundation for his investigation into the panic and apprehension that afflict millions of Americans. As Stossel notes, about 40 million people in the United States suffer from anxiety at any given time, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, while other data suggest that about one in four Americans will succumb to “debilitating anxiety at some point in [their] lifetimes.”
Stossel spends much of the book trying to figure out why this is so, revisiting the theories of Hippocrates, Freud and contemporary therapists (including some of Stossel’s own doctors), and tracing the evolution of anxiety both clinically and culturally. His heavily footnoted findings can be sobering, particularly in the chapter that examines how the rise of drugs like Xanax and Prozac occurred in tandem with upticks in the number of depression and anxiety sufferers. As for panic disorder, why, that wasn’t even a thing until, according to one account, a bunch of psychiatrists came up with a name for it during a wine-soaked dinner in the 1970s.
Of course, none of this makes panic attacks less legitimately terrifying. And as a longtime user of various prescription drugs, Stossel does not entirely dismiss their effectiveness, either. “One can be, I believe, skeptical about the claims of the pharmaceutical industry, concerned about the sociological implications of a population that is so heavily medicated, and attuned to the existential trade-offs involved in taking psychiatric medications, without being ideologically in opposition to the judicious use of these drugs,” he writes. That passage is typical of Stossel’s balanced approach to his subject, one that’s complex and devoid of easy answers.
As the book illustrates, a tendency toward severe worry can develop because of the tangled interactions between multiple factors, from the quality of early parent-child relationships to stressful situations to simple genetics. Indeed, Stossel’s journey through the annals of anxiety also features a trip through his family’s mental health history, one that leads him to conclude that, though it’s not the only cause of his anxiety, he was genetically predisposed to suffer from airplane and public speaking freak-outs. He combs through the medical records of his great-grandfather — Chester Hanford, onetime dean of students at Harvard University — and finds that he suffered from “acute anxiety” that resulted in multiple hospital stays and electroshock treatments. Stossel also reveals that his maternal grandfather has long exhibited signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder and that his mother deals with some of the same neurotic preoccupations as her son, including a fear of vomiting.
That’s obviously some very personal water, and Stossel acknowledges that many in his family were not pleased about his decision to tread in it. But, as previously noted, he is just as forthcoming about his own difficulties as he is about those that affect his relatives. He writes in great detail about the sweaty panic attack he endured on his wedding day, as well as the time his notoriously nervous bowels resulted in a disastrous toilet-clogging at the Kennedy compound, where he was staying while researching his first book, a biography of Sargent Shriver. His description of a failed attempt at aversion therapy for his emetophobia — one in which he dry-heaved for hours while a former therapist forced him to drink ipecac — is harrowing, humiliating and also kind of hilarious.
Most people, whether they have an anxiety disorder or not, would be afraid to share such vulnerable moments. So was Stossel. “I worry that this book, with its revelations of anxiety and struggle, will be a litany of Too Much Information, a violation of basic standards of restraint and decorum,” he writes. But with encouragement from his current therapist — a man dubbed only “Dr. W” — he persevered. The word “brave” tends to get thrown around pretty cavalierly in our culture, but given the frankness of this book, there’s no other appropriate word for what Stossel does here. It’s brave, and, as Dr. W suggests, potentially therapeutic for individuals other than the writer himself. I can personally attest to that.
This reviewer is the daughter of a very anxious mother who is, no doubt, currently resting in much more peace than she often found on Earth. This reviewer also has some first-hand experience with the kind of queasy unease Stossel describes in “My Age of Anxiety.” And this reviewer was comforted to learn that someone else is intimately acquainted with prickly, heart-stopping panic but can still regularly push through it to find light on the other side.
MY AGE OF ANXIETY
Fear, Hope, Dread and the Search
for Peace of Mind
By Scott Stossel
Knopf. 400 pp. $27.95