My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind

Image of My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind
Release Date: 
December 27, 2013
Reviewed by: 

“. . . inspirational . . .”

In spite of what the title may suggest My Age of Anxiety is not precisely a memoir. If expecting a poignant, funny account of Mr. Scott Stossel’s life filled with hope and redemption, then expect to be disappointed. If looking for a well-written, impressively thorough history of anxiety in which Mr. Stossel has added just enough personality and personal information to make it all palatable, then look no further.

Mr. Stossel appears to cite every paper, every researcher, every study concerning anxiety ever conducted in the history of the written word (way before it was called anxiety) within the 416 pages of this book. Impressive, as it is daunting.

When musing over his own reasons for writing the book, Mr. Stossel writes:

“It occurred to me that writing this book might be a terrible idea: if it’s relief from nervous suffering that I crave, then burrowing into the history and science of anxiety, and into my own psyche, is perhaps not the best way to achieve it.”

When talking to his doctor regarding his concerns about writing the book he writes:

“‘Why,’ Dr. W. asks, ‘do you think writing about your anxiety in a book would be so shameful?’”

To which Mr. Stossel replies:

“Because stigma still attaches to mental illness. Because anxiety is seen as weakness.”

And this is where Mr. Stossel is to be commended for his bravery. Much of what he recounts does make him appear weak and ridiculous and just totally messed up. But it’s his vast intelligence, his successes, his fortitude, and his survival that shine through all the mess.

Wading through Mr. Stossel’s detailed descriptions of his many phobias: claustrophobia, acrophobia, asthenophobia (fainting), agoraphobia, bacillophobia (germs), “cheese (no term for that one),” social phobia, aerophobia (flying), and a personal favorite: emetophobia—intense fear of vomiting, along with aeronausiphobia (vomiting on airplanes) is quite a chore. But Mr. Stossel does so with subtle humor and self-disparagement, making it just tolerable.

Having tried every conceivable treatment: dozens of medications, booze, multiple types of therapy (CBT, RET, ACT, EMDR), role-playing, yoga, prayer, exposure therapy, infomercials . . . he says:

“Here’s what’s worked: nothing.”

He does go on to admit that some medication has helped, including alcohol, but “none of these treatments have fundamentally reduced the underlying anxiety that seems woven into my soul and hardwired into my body and that at times makes my life a misery.”

He spends a lot of time discussing cause: nurture versus nature. He also spends a great deal of the book looking at medication and its relationship to diagnosis and morality, stating that:

“We have historically judged reliance on psychiatric medication to be a sign of weakness or moral failure.”

Although medications work to some extent for Mr. Stossel, he takes them reluctantly—because while he does believe he has a medical condition, he also believes—as society believes—that his “nervous problems are in some way a character issue or a moral failing.”

In the end, Mr. Stossel offers no answers—for himself or for others suffering.

But he does provide a huge body of knowledge and a thought-provoking look at the history of anxiety, eliciting empathy and understanding and respect for human suffering and spirit.

Hopefully writing My Age of Anxiety proved to be cathartic for Mr. Stossel. Reading My Age of Anxiety will surely prove to be inspirational for his compatriots.