imageAs a senior corporate counsel for one of the largest captive finance companies in the world, Patricia Eastwood knows a thing or two about managing stress.  She can also manage an intelligent conversation about ballet and astrophysics.  She really hates loading and unloading the dishwasher, but loves her dogs and two bunnies, Cookies and Cream:  “They are quiet and soft and like to be petted and held. When you let them sit on your lap, your heart rate immediately lowers and you feel calmer.  Everyone should have a bunny to love.”  Today, Patricia reviews My Age of Anxiety:  Fear, Hope, Dread and the Search for Peace of Mind, by Scott Stossel.

From Patricia:  When my husband and I were married, we decided on a simple, by-the-book ceremony in the church of our chosen faith.  My husband, a litigator by trade, suggested we memorize our traditional vows.  I still remember my “You’ve got to be kidding me” reaction.  I am a transaction lawyer and would have been happy if the minister had held up cue cards and fed the lines to me one word at a time.  As it played out, the minister performing the ceremony was the one who got nervous and flubbed his lines.  To be fair, he was to perform his child’s wedding ceremony the next weekend and presumably felt anxious about the dress rehearsal we were providing.  My husband, ever the cool one, just ignored the minister’s misstatement and corrected the vow in his reply (remember, he had them memorized).  None of this drama, however, compares with the internal mayhem and stress that author Scott Stossel experienced at his own wedding.  In his new book My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread and the Search for Peace of Mind, Stossel vividly describes the mental and physical reactions he experienced at his own wedding (“As the processional plays, sweat begins to bead on my forehead and above my upper lip”) to launch his deep dive study of anxiety disorders and to tell his personal story of struggle with a life-impacting mental and physical condition.  Through Stossel’s use of personal “anxiety” vignettes against the backdrop of his outwardly successful life (he has a responsible job, happy marriage and two children), Stossel teaches the reader that there is no “snapping out of it” or “getting a grip” for some people.  Indeed, Stossel postulates that anxiety and physical reactions flowing from certain events or phobias may be uncontrollable like the weather and, given that data shows many of us will suffer debilitating anxiety at some point in our lives, we had better figure out how to manage it.

My Age of Anxiety is dense and erudite.  If you ever thought about going to medical school, you will love it for the research and the balanced 9780307269874_p0_v3_s114x166scientific presentation by Stossel.  This is not a reality tv/high level type approach to a topic.  You will want to read it again, after the first run through, in order to look more closely at a specific aspect of anxiety or its treatment.  The pharmacological treatments explored by Stossel and their origins would have made a great stand-alone book.  Stossel does not sensationalize or whine, even though he is unapologetic and graphic in his examination of himself, his family and many historical figures that arguably suffered from anxiety disorders.  It is sometimes hard to believe that certain individuals spotlighted, such as Charles Darwin, suffered to the degree that Stossel states.  Stossel’s research, however, flawlessly reveals the stories of Darwin and other great persons, even suggesting that the competitive edge commanded by these individuals was closely linked to their mental suffering.

While there are many wonderful aspects of Stossel’s writing style, I found his use of less obvious research and scientific sources particularly powerful.  For example, Stossel presents studies conducted at Yale School of Medicine into how the blood and brain tissue of individual military service members carry chemical markers predicting the likelihood of their success under extreme conditions.  These chemical traits identify those individuals less likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder as a byproduct of combat and to predict those who will most likely complete Special Forces training.  I could not help but think about the ethics around the handling of this type of information – how could we (and should we) as a society use this kind of information in building our military?  Stossel is masterful at generating that kind of extended analysis.  If you enjoy open-ended thought-provoking information and arguments, you will enjoy the book and want to explore associated topics.  I am already re-reading a book on Zen meditation, purchased three years ago, with a completely different view of what it might offer.

Earlier this week, my daughter commented that she suspected some of the destructive things kids are doing today are because they had learned about them from the Internet.  As she explained it, “Why would someone think to try cutting themselves, unless they read about it somewhere first?  I don’t think you’d suddenly decide to wear a goat on your head, unless you read about someone else doing it first.”  The downside of Stossel’s deep dive review of anxiety is that readers could feel some of it is catching like a cold.  I admit that I started to analyze my own behaviors and coping skills as I read the book.  Stossel himself reveals that he struggled to resist gathering new phobias as he wrote the book.  Apparently, there are phobias that can appeal, once you learn that someone else has thought of it first.  With this in mind, I would recommend you decide, before starting the book, that you will not come away “wearing a goat on your head;” and, I would avoid the book altogether, if you think that is a possibility.

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