Saturday, January 10, 2015

The search for peace of mind

My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of MindMy Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind by Scott Stossel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Scott Stossel's My Age of Anxiety is a personal, honest and thorough exploration of anxiety - what it is, how it manifests itself, how it is treated and how it may, in moderate levels, even be a blessing.

Anxiety may be defined as "a signal that the usual defenses against unbearably painful views of the self are failing." Exploring its various interpretations in the opening chapter of the book, The Riddle of Anxiety, Stossel writes that it is a "medical illness," a "philosophical problem," a "psychological problem" and perhaps even "a cultural condition, a function of the times we live in and the structure of our society." Molecular genetics have also suggested that anxiety has hereditary roots; Stossel, who belongs to a family of phobics, is living proof of this. Indeed, it is striking to note that we share the same evolutionary roots as rats and marine snails when it comes to fight-and-flight reactions. Is anxiety purely a cruel trick of our biological mechanisms, then? Perhaps not. As Stossel points out, what differentiates humans and animals is our orientation towards the future. "An animal cannot fear death," the source of many of our "fear of ontological givens"

So, these categories are certainly not mutually exclusive. As Stossel writes, "anxiety is at once a function of biology and philosophy, body and mind, instinct and reason, personality and culture."

Focusing on the impact of culture on anxiety, Stossel also discusses the ways in which our understanding of and response to anxiety have changed over time. For example, the fight-or-flight reaction mentioned above was well adapted to dealing with legitimate physical dangers in the past. Yet these days, this response is activated by what tumblr might term '21st-century-problems.' Among the few listed in the book, "the college application process" is the one I identify with the most. As Stossel eloquently puts it, the result is that we end up "marinating in a stew of stress hormones" that are detrimental to our health and only elevate our anxiety.

Moreover, the digital age in has heralded a sprawl of choices and possibilities that did not exist before. We, before a myriad options that at once liberate and trap us, have become victims of the "paradox of choice." Thus, as Stossel proposes, maybe anxiety is "a luxury" - in many ways, it is the consequence of the breadth of personal freedom that the generations before us did not have. Moreover, as social media continues to construct extreme standards of beauty, what psychologists call "impression management" - the fear that others will perceive one's inadequate self - has now become both a symptom and cause of anxiety.

Throughout the book, Stossel also outlines the many ways of curing anxiety, including riveting personal anecdotes. The most memorable of these is his horrifying experience of trying to vomit. Such an approach falls under the umbrella of "exposure therapy" - the process of exposing ourselves to what makes us anxious in order to overcome it. There is also the biomedical approach, which tackles the mechanisms of anxiety by focusing on research concerning the amygdala (the part of the brain that controls fear) and hippocampus. Interestingly, research has shown that people who meditate have much denser amygdalas. Other approaches include the experiential approach, which seeks to addresses the issues underlying anxiety, and the psychoanalytical approach, which encourages patients to develop a conscious awareness of their repressed conflicts in order to achieve a sense of emotional closure.

Moreover, Stossel also explores how drugs have worked to cure - but perhaps even increase - anxiety. In the case of the former, drugs such as Xanax and Prozac have been used by celebrities, musicians and thousands of anxious people worldwide. On the other hand, the presence of these drugs might have put into place a self-fulfilling prophecy regarding anxiety; indeed, reported cases of anxiety have soared since the drugs first entered pharmacies. You would think that more people would feel stressed out during World War One than now, but in fact statistics show that the latter is true instead. In legitimizing anxiety in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), have we merely escalated what could otherwise be simply referred to as 'worry?' In some cases, many may be tempted to say yes. Yet Stossel's story and those of the many others he writes about suggest that anxiety is - in its harshest form - a draining, debilitating and maybe even fatal condition.

In the midst of all our fears and anxieties, however, a silver lining persists. For example, Stossel argues that those who are phobic "retain their love for mankind" by transferring their fear of humanity's evils onto other things, like the dark. Those who are anxious are also more sensitive to others' feelings, making them - in some ways - better spouses and friends. Finally, most worriers are workers; don't we all know that one person in our class or office who frets about the tiniest details but scores the highest on the exam or gets the first promotion? If harnessed properly, anxiety can fuel our productivity. Stossel writes about a basketball player who used to vomit before every match but would then go on to play incredibly (up to the point where his coach would not allow the game to begin until he had vomited). Isn't Stossel himself, editor of The Atlantic and author of this incredible work, also proof of how anxiety can help people achieve more and with more focus?

I find it astounding that Stossel has written this book, "come out of the closet" as it were, and shared his fears and findings with the world. My Age of Anxiety is an astounding "quest to understand, and to find relief or redemption in, anxious suffering." It is an important read for not only the people who suffer from anxiety, but also the families and friends of those who live in "fear, hope, dread" and are ever on "the search for peace of mind."

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