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Bookshelf: Your Own Worst Enemy

Anxiety disorder is a recent addition to psychiatric manuals, but its impact spans the ages.

Image: Book Cover - My Age of Anxiety

Stossel takes us into the trenches and explores how our understanding of irrational fears and self-defeating thoughts has—and hasn't—changed since the days of Hippocrates. Along the way, Stossel's blend of authoritative reporting and intimate storytelling evokes the double nature of many an anxious person: cool and competent on the outside, endlessly questioning underneath. We ultimately zero in on what it all means for one longtime sufferer—a highly accomplished professional whose voice still fails him in crucial moments and who recalls, as though it were yesterday, the soul-sucking experience of nearly collapsing at the altar.

Anxiety As We Know It

In his quest for relief, the author chronicled the evolution of anxiety. Here are highlights.

  • 4th century B.C. Hippocrates describes anxiety as a medical disease caused by "body juices." Plato and his followers argue that it is a philosophical problem, not a physical one, launching an enduring standoff between biological and cognitive approaches.
  • 1862 An anxiety-ridden Union soldier is diagnosed with "soldier's heart," a precursor to "shell shock" and post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • 1883 The case of a man with an open hole in his abdomen sheds light on how emotion affects the digestive system. When the man is anxious, his stomach tissue turns visibly pale.
  • 1899 The Merck Manual recommends opium as an anxiety remedy.
  • 1908 Two psychologists birth the Yerkes-Dodson law, which connects peak performance with optimal levels of arousal. The law suggests that the right balance of anxiety—not too much, not too little—can actually be helpful during a test or competition.
  • 1959 The New York Times makes the first written reference to antidepressants—early MAO inhibitors and tricyclic drugs, which pave the way for a surge in pharmacological anxiety treatments.
  • 1980 The third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is released, replacing Freudian concepts of neurosis with panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other varieties of anxiety.
  • 2005 The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 18 percent of American adults have some kind of anxiety disorder.