Drawing by Elizabeth Wagele
Scott Stossel, author of My Age of Anxiety
, has a severe case of anxiety. His phobias include fear of flying, fainting, heights, closed spaces, germs, vomiting, and cheese. “Faced with the prospect of a plane trip or a speaking engagement or sometimes even a squash match or a meeting at the office, Stossel experiences full-blown panic: insomnia, sweating, vertigo, stomach pains, and loss of control of his bowels. The sight of an unfamiliar pimple can send him down a bottomless chute of dread. He nearly passed out at his own wedding.” This is from the New Yorker article, The Prisoner of Stress—What does anxiety mean?
by Louis Menand, 1-27-14.
Stossel, likely a 6-Questioner in the Enneagram, tried dozens of drugs and alcohol. His therapist thought writing a book might help him get to the bottom of it. Stossel at first grappled with anxiety as connected to the human condition. In the end, however, he leaned toward a theory of genetics and family history to explain it.
Menand lists the different theories of anxiety, from the psychoanalytic view that it’s a symptom of psychic conflict; to theology’s view that anxiety has to do with conscience, guilt, and original sin; to evolutionary psychology’s view that our flight or flight reflex gets triggered by danger; to cultural theories that anxiety is a response to unnatural conditions and the stress of modern life. The term is a catchall for moods that include “excited, nervous, apprehensive, tense, stressed out, bugged, worried, panicky, vapor-locked, scared shitless, sick to one’s stomach and feeling like one is gonna die.” It is difficult to distinguish it from depression, but anxious people are often not dysfunctional.
The worst state I’ve ever experienced was anxiety, so I sympathize with those plagued by it. For a period of a few months—decades ago—there were times I couldn’t relax enough to sit down to a holiday dinner or wait for a prescription to be filled. All I could do was pace. The cause was neurological. Doctors diagnosed seizures in my temporal lobe and gave me medicine that worked. I became calm again and my phobia of restaurants disappeared.
I also felt anxious in college before presenting papers. Later, I sought anything that might help me endure giving book talks, including hypnotism. That and finding out from experience that no harm came from them worked. The night I told the audience I was feeling afraid was a turning point. I was no longer keeping my fear a secret from the audience. Keeping secrets creates stress. And the audience seemed to support me. Now I give talks with little apprehension.
Anxiety protects us by releasing cortisol, the stress hormone associated with fight or flight. “At the end of his book,” Menand writes, “Stossel makes a good case that his problem is, at bottom, genetic. He lists many relatives with clinical levels of anxiety and depression…Sometimes it just is the biology.” As in many areas of our life, we begin with our foundation of genes. Then environment interrelates with our DNA to make us who we are.
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