Review: ‘My Age of Anxiety’ by Scott Stossel

my age of anxiety_book coverCongratulations, “My Age of Anxiety”! You’re the first book in this challenge that legitimately took me two weeks to read.

I’m usually a speed reader. It’s almost as if I can’t turn the pages fast enough. Most of the books in this challenge were finished within a day or two of me opening the first page. The review writing took a little longer, obviously, otherwise this challenge would’ve been finished months ago.

With Scott Stossel’s “My Age of Anxiety,” I slowed down a little bit for a few reasons. One, reading about anxiety and the history of anxiety caused me to have minor anxiety (go figure). Two, there were a lot of big medical words and I spent way too long trying to pronounce them correctly in my head before I could move on. Three, I kept reading all the footnotes, some of which were quite a few paragraphs long (they would’ve been easier to read/come back to if I borrowed a physical copy instead of the Kindle version). And four, I wanted to ingest as much information about anxiety as I could.

Stossel provided a lot of information about the history of anxiety, mentioning study after study on the various anxiety disorders that didn’t exist as a clinical category until 1980. But anxiety is in no way a recent development. Stossel goes as far back as the ancient Greek doctor Hippocrates, who concluded that pathological anxiety was a straightforward biological and medical problem in the 4th century. He writes about how Charles Darwin suffered from extreme anxiety, barely able to leave the house and vomiting multiple times per day for most of his life. Did you know that about Darwin? I didn’t.

There were many things I enjoyed about reading this book, considering some parts triggered some anxiety. With each chapter, I learned something new. Before this point, I had never researched anxiety in any capacity. In my beginner’s psychology class my last year of college, anxiety disorders were but a blip on the syllabus and focused more on obsessive compulsive disorder and the like.

At the end of the book, Stossel addresses whether more people are anxious today than ever before, and whether anxiety is an American problem. Here are some of the facts he provides:

  • Between 2002 and 2006, the number of Americans seeking medical treatment for anxiety increased from 13.4 million to 16.2 million.
  • Surveys by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America find that nearly half of all Americans report “persistent or excessive anxiety” in their daily work lives.
  • Anxiety disorders are now the most common mental illness on earth, according to a World Health Organization survey of 18 countries.

Stossel wonders if anxiety is a luxury — “an emotion we can afford to indulge only when we’re not preoccupied by ‘real’ fear.” He writes that the freedom of choice generates great anxiety, echoing psychologist Philip Slater and Barry Schwartz.

There are definitely times when I wonder if my anxiety is just a farce and that I just need to stop worrying about every single little thing. But then my throat starts to close and my stomach starts churning — sometimes it takes a day or two to dissipate. I may not be clinically anxious but anxiety affects me, along with about 18 percent of the American population.

If you suffer from some form of anxiety, are interested in learning more about anxiety disorders or are a psychology nerd, go pick up a copy of “My Age of Anxiety.” It’s worth the long read and the nuggets of information.

The truth is that anxiety is at once a function of biology and philosophy, body and mind, instinct and reason, personality and culture. Even as anxiety is experienced at a spiritual and psychological level, it is scientifically measurable at the molecular level and the physiological level. It is produced by nature and it is produced by nurture. It’s a psychological phenomenon and a sociological phenomenon. In computer terms, it’s both a hardware problem (I’m wired badly) and a software problem (I run faulty logic programs that make me think anxious thoughts). (Chapter 1)

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