Review: My Age of Anxiety

I have spent the last week immersed in Scott Stossel’s new book, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind. I would like to take a moment to stand and applaud his courage in so candidly and kindly sharing his own story and those of so many other anxious individuals, including his great-grandfather. This is more than a deeply affecting (and highly compelling) personal account of Stossel’s experiences with anxiety and depression. It’s also a meticulously researched account of anxiety through the ages, including examinations of brain science, psychopharmacology, genetics, human development, and myriad treatment options.

I have long considered myself an anxious person. As a young teen, I suffered an extended period of debilitating illness that did not entirely precipitate my anxiety but definitely served to underline and accelerate the symptoms. I was diagnosed with OCD as a result of feeling my life spiraling out of my control and underwent many months of therapy where I learned methods of relaxation and stress management that I continue to use today in both my personal life and in my work with children and families.

One lesson that I will take from this book is that it’s possible to consider aspects of my anxiety (and your anxiety) a kind of gift. Anxiety is a real biological imperative. It has evolved in humans for a reason. In individuals who display certain heightened levels, it has been shown to enhance their so-called social antennae. Stossel writes, “Social phobics are, in at least this one aspect, gifted — faster and better at picking up behavioral cues from other people, with social antennae so sensitive that they receive transmissions that ‘normal’ people can’t.” Your anxiety or neuroses, in other words, could be an asset in certain situations. In my own case, where my job entails a lot of observation of children and families and navigating sometimes sensitive social waters (difficult conversations with parents about their own children), I do believe this is something that has helped me to do my best work. Stossel further examines Freud’s belief that anxiety attempts to highlight something that our psyche is trying to tell us. Sometimes, we know, we need to listen to ourselves — our gut instincts or our heart.

“Just because I can explain your depression using terms such as ‘serotonin reuptake inhibition’ doesn’t mean you don’t have a problem with your mother.” – Carl Elliott

When I was studying child development in college, I completed a case study on a young child suffering anxiety. I was teaching preschool at the time and I had a child in my classroom who suffered from crippling anxiety. I had never before seen such a severe manifestation in a child so young (she started in my class at age three). Conducting research into the topic was hugely eye-opening and has had an effect on my work ever since. After reading Stossel’s book, I have gained still more insight into the topic which will prove helpful in supporting both children and their parents. I heartily recommend this book to parents of anxious children as well as to teachers and caregivers. It could really change the way that you think of and address children’s (all-too real) worries and fears.

Stossel spends time with one of my favorite subjects, Bowlby’s Attachment Theory. He shares, “In 2006, new results from the forty-year longitudinal Minnesota Study of Risk and Adaptation from Birth to Adulthood found that infants with insecure attachments were significantly more likely than infants with secure or avoidant attachments to develop anxiety disorders as adolescents. […] Bowlby’s attachment theory has an elegant simplicity and a plausible, easily understood evolutionary basis. If your parents provided a secure base when you were an infant and you were able to internalize it, then you will be more likely to go through life with a sense of safety and psychological security.”

What was particularly fascinating to me, however, was that rather than one understandable explanation for anxiety, there are in fact layers upon layers of explanations. There is a chemical component, a genetic component (John Livingstone, a doctor of psychiatry who treats victims of trauma, told Stossel, “It’s as though traumatic experiences get plastered into the tissues of the body and passed along to the next generation”) and also the Nurture (vs. Nature) component. One of my co-workers was delighted when I shared with her that studies have found that the coddled child (that is to say the child who is well and affectionately cared for in a highly responsive relationship) rather than the over-protected child (that is, the child who is denied a sense of self-efficacy), is the more confident and less anxious child. (“I can’t wait to call my son and tell him!” she triumphantly crowed.) Stossel writes, “By now scores of studies support the idea that the quantity and quality of a mother’s affection toward her children has a potent effect on the level of anxiety those children will experience later in life.” I think it’s important to note that we can substitute the title of “mother” in this instance with every single important adult person in a child’s life. Their interactions with family, with caregivers, and with teachers can all serve to build a child’s confidence and insulate them against what seems to be an increasingly anxiety-inducing world. In examining the quality of care in childcare centers, one of the key ingredients in children’s later school success is that they have received warmth and responsiveness. In a 2008 paper, Attachment and Psychopathology in Adulthood, it is reported, “Adults with agoraphobia are more likely to rate their parents as low on affection and high on overprotection.” This serves to further validate all that is said in the early education community about how we must allow children to take risks, make mistakes, and actively and autonomously explore the world around them.

There is so much about this book that is enlightening. It’s written in a very approachable style, with much of the science broken down in a way that is easy (and really interesting!) to digest. It’s unlikely that you don’t know someone who battles anxiety, even if you yourself find the topic to be unfamiliar territory, as some 40 million people in the United States alone are said to today. While I think it would be of special interest to those who suffer anxiety themselves or are caring for anxious children, I can heartily recommend it as universally appealing and educational. It was the kind of book that prompted me to sit up in bed and read passages aloud to my husband (a very non-anxious person). Perhaps surprisingly for a book on this topic written by a man who has, by his own account, been treated with various medications for anxiety for over thirty years, it left me feeling both hopeful and empowered.

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