This week in the Atlantic, editor Scott Stossel (that's right, he's the editor of The Atlantic!) goes into deep, painful detail about his struggles with anxiety. Here's a sample:
I wish I could say that my anxiety is a recent development, or that it is limited to public speaking. It’s not. My wedding was accompanied by sweating so torrential that it soaked through my clothes and by shakes so severe that I had to lean on my bride at the altar, so as not to collapse. At the birth of our first child, the nurses had to briefly stop ministering to my wife, who was in the throes of labor, to attend to me as I turned pale and keeled over. I’ve abandoned dates; walked out of exams; and had breakdowns during job interviews, plane flights, train trips, and car rides, and simply walking down the street. On ordinary days, doing ordinary things—reading a book, lying in bed, talking on the phone, sitting in a meeting, playing tennis—I have thousands of times been stricken by a pervasive sense of existential dread and been beset by nausea, vertigo, shaking, and a panoply of other physical symptoms. In these instances, I have sometimes been convinced that death, or something somehow worse, was imminent.
Stossel is a powerful writer, and his article is a honest portrait of a person who has been struggling with severe anxiety for years. Like most people with severe anxiety, Stossel had previously kept it to himself, until writing this article. In an interview with Fresh Air, Stossel discussed the overwhelmingly positive and sympathetic reaction he received from colleagues and friends who read the piece.
I wanted to pass these along, because for one thing, both the article and the interview are very informative--both about the author's experience, and about anxiety disorder and their treatment.
More importantly, though, is that it can be comforting to know that other people have anxiety, even if they don't show it. Not that it's a competition or anything, but other mental health issues (depression, AD/HD, bipolar disorder) have received a lot more press than anxiety has. Because anxiety--as an emotion, not a clinical disorder--is a normal part of the human experience, people who haven't struggled with it may be unaware of the misery that anxiety disorders can inflict. Stossel's piece (and the comments, for that matter) are a reminder that, if you struggle with this, you are far from alone.
At the same time, I admit that I was a bit hesitant to recommend the piece, because of this:
Here’s what I’ve tried: individual psychotherapy (three decades of it), family therapy, group therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, rational emotive behavior therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, hypnosis, meditation, role-playing, interoceptive exposure therapy, in vivo exposure therapy, self-help workbooks, massage therapy, prayer, acupuncture, yoga, Stoic philosophy, and audiotapes I ordered off a late-night TV infomercial.
And medication. Lots of medication. Thorazine. Imipramine. Desipramine. Chlorpheniramine. Nardil. BuSpar. Prozac. Zoloft. Paxil. Wellbutrin. Effexor. Celexa. Lexapro. Cymbalta. Luvox. Trazodone. Levoxyl. Inderal. Tranxene. Serax. Centrax. St. John’s wort. Zolpidem. Valium. Librium. Ativan. Xanax. Klonopin.
Also: beer, wine, gin, bourbon, vodka, and scotch.
Here’s what’s worked: nothing.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. Some drugs have helped a little, for finite periods of time...But none of these treatments has fundamentally reduced the underlying anxiety that seems hardwired into my body and woven into my soul and that at times makes my life a misery.
Nothing worked? That's a pretty blunt (and hopeless) statement. And I fear that others might read it and think, "if nothing worked for him, then nothing will work for me." Thus, I think it's important to point a few things.
For one, the author appears to fall at the extreme end of severity. He's struggled with both generalized and situational anxiety throughout his life. Many people struggle with anxiety problems that are less severe, or fundamentally different, than his. Also, he has found huge success in an insanely competitive field (journalism). He also claims to be a committed husband and father. Clearly, he's been able to accomplish many of his personal goals, despite his anxiety. And, as he acknowledges, his anxiety may have actually helped him achieve his professional goals.