My Age of Anxiety Summary and Review

by Scott Stossel

Has My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.

Many people experience “normal” anxiety every now and again, like getting nervous about a significant event or presenting in front of an audience. Some of us also feel more severe anxieties like worrying a lot or having a phobia. However, those things don’t generally prevent us from having a “normal” life. In extreme cases, it is considered to be clinical anxiety. Those who suffer from clinical anxiety are afraid of things that aren’t intrinsically dangerous (like public speaking) and have severe reactions to them, such as vomiting or fainting.

In this summary of My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel, you’ll find out:

  • Some theories about the cause of anxiety;
  • How daily actions can become almost impossible for the clinically anxious;
  • How anxiety got the author into a few awkward situations, like flooding the Kennedy family’s bathroom.

My Age of Anxiety Key Idea #1: Clinical Anxiety Is the Most Common Type of Mental illness.

Most of us would probably agree that anxiety is somewhat standard. Only a few people know that clinical anxiety is the most common form of mental illness. It’s diagnosed more often than depression, and one out of six people worldwide will be deemed clinically anxious for at least one year in their lifetime. Additionally, anxiety appears to be a characteristic that defies both the boundaries of culture and time. For example, in South America anxiety is called “ataques de nervios,” Greenland Inuit say “kayak angst” and Iranians describe it as “heart distress.” However, it may be labeled; these phrases all refer to the same thing. Clinical anxiety not only manifests across countries and cultures but also isn’t bound to a particular era and has been discussed in documents throughout history. For instance, Plato and Hippocrates had theories regarding the disease, Spinoza wrote about it, and Sigmund Freud was caught up with discovering and defining its mechanisms. It’s essential to note that anxiety is not a weakness of a person’s character. Some claim that anxiety is the motor of civilization, creativity, and inventive genius Indeed, many people noted for their successes and influence like Gandhi, Charles Darwin, and Barbra Streisand have had to cope with anxiety. Along with the more well-known and respected personalities, some 40 million Americans have been diagnosed with the illness as well. With such a staggering amount, it would be difficult to call all of those people “insane.” Far from being a “crazy” person who can’t do well in life, the author is a successful journalist and editor who can provide for his family and raise children despite having chronic anxiety. So it’s apparent that clinical anxiety is a widespread illness to which no one is immune. But what is it like to be living with anxiety?

My Age of Anxiety Key Idea #2: What Life Is Like Living With Anxiety

Life with anxiety is a constant fight. Some people compare it to diabetes, insofar as the anxious have to deal with painful inflictions every day. Like people with diabetes who have to monitor their blood sugar levels continually and inject insulin, a clinically anxious person must always watch out for stressful situations and stay prepared to drug themselves for relief. Unfortunately, being anxious is a dramatic limitation to one's daily life; copious people with anxiety are housebound, often preferring to stay home to feel safe and in control. In one case, a clinically anxious man couldn’t walk within a five-kilometer radius around his house without uncontrollably vomiting blood. Some of life’s fundamental requirements are nearly unmanageable for someone with anxiety to meet. For instance, the author can’t get on an airplane or speak in public without consuming a mixture of medication and alcohol. Attachment is another major problem for anxious people because they tend to get overly attached to their loved ones. As a child, the author couldn’t bear being separated from his parents, and when they were gone, he would call their friends, convinced that his parents had died. Another struggle people with anxiety face is their behavior can be unpredictable and embarrassing. When traveling in a foreign town, the author visited almost all of the sanitary facilities but none of the actual sights, due to his nerves. He also had the opportunity to visit the Kennedy family once. Regrettably, because of his sensitive stressed-out bowels, he clogged their toilet and left the whole bathroom flooded.

My Age of Anxiety Key Idea #3: Determining Causes Of Anxiety

There are several varying theories on what induces anxiety. Psychoanalysts believe anxiety derives from repressed taboo thoughts that first occur during childhood. Take Freud’s Oedipus complex theory for example. Freud thought that boys desire their mother and envy their father, while girls desire their father and envy their mother. Those sexual and envious thoughts are never acted upon because the child is fearful of punishment for thinking them. Consequently, the feelings persist and are projected on an object that makes the child feel anxious. Freud believed that his phobia of trains originated from viewing his naked mother on a train as a child, and desiring her. However, the Oedipus complex is now considered to be a traditional approach. There’s another theory that looks specifically at mother-child relationships. Specifically, it is believed that children who experience prolonged separation from their mothers tend to become anxious. A study on Rhesus monkeys revealed that those separated from their mothers suffered from long-term impacts such as anxiety, along with aggression and social abnormality which is shown in adulthood. The way that a mother interacts with her child appears to be of distinct importance in determining how anxious the child will get in stressful situations. One experiment showed that a child whose mother is mindful, caring and loving functions less anxiously in new circumstances (like if a stranger comes in a room and the mother leaves) compared to a child whose mother acts ambivalently and anxiously. So, what could have provoked Freud’s anxiety? It could be explained by his mother growing depressed after his brother died and she stopped taking care of her older son. The author had an anxious and phobic mother too, and it may have influenced his anxiety. Therefore, it seems that the way a child is raised has a significant influence on their future behavior and level of anxiety.

My Age of Anxiety Key Idea #4: Anxiety and Evolution

While not easy to live with, anxiety is not necessarily a deficit or disadvantage. It is, in fact, an evolutionary adaptation that can be located in our genes. According to the “survival of the fittest” theory, we are programmed to be anxious about dangerous matters; someone afraid of a threat like a snake or a high cliff is more likely to survive than someone who isn’t scared of it. Hence these phobias being quickly developed; they were useful fears in the past. However, clinically anxious people are afraid of things not intrinsically dangerous, and the potency of their anxiety doesn’t make sense from an evolutionary standpoint. Take the author’s phobia of cheese, which is not adaptive, nor useful. It’s also been determined that the chances of a person having clinical anxiety increase with specific genes. Higher levels of anxiety can already be discerned a few weeks after birth, which indicates a genetic aspect. Studies show that 15 to 20 percent of infants are considerably more anxious than others only a short time after their birth. Studies also reveal that these infants get very anxious when they reach adulthood. The author also saw a genetic link between his and his daughter’s anxiety, because she shares his phobias, despite her parents raising her in a loving, caring manner. So, which genes are responsible for anxiety? Well, scientists have been able to distinguish a few of them. The stathmin gene, for example, produces the ability to feel fear. When it is removed from mice, they no longer exhibit fear. There’s also a correlation between variants of a gene called RGS2 and people who have high levels of anxiety. Thus, we see that a certain amount of anxiety can ensure one's survival. Still, some people are overly anxious, and their genes may induce that.

My Age of Anxiety Key Idea #5: Dealing With Anxiety Using Drugs

We’ve examined how anxiety began through evolution and how it can be passed on genetically. Now let’s look at the physiology of the condition and how drugs may impact it. Firstly, we know that anxiety is produced in the brain. Thanks to functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) brain scans, we can recognize that anxiety is connected to hyperactivity in particular areas of the brain. This hyperactivity can be observed in the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex when worry about future events is triggered. And increased activity in the anterior cingulate is linked to a fear of public speaking. Aside from determining where clinical anxiety occurs, we also know it stems from a defective neurotransmitter system in the brain. Mainly, clinically anxious people produce less serotonin (a neurotransmitter that regulates emotions like satisfaction and happiness) than people with standard amounts of anxiety. What can we do with those findings? Well, we can look further into drug treatments but medication is just one method in treating anxiety, and it’s not for everyone. Anti-anxiety drugs operate by affecting the brain’s neurotransmitters. The drug Xanax, for example, binds to GABA neurotransmitters that hinder the central nervous system’s activity, and that has a calming effect on people. Drugs are a popular choice those suffering from clinical anxiety; in 2005, there were 53 million prescriptions for Ativan and Xanax. However, medication is controversial because it has severe side effects; there’s a risk of addiction and theories that certain drugs aren’t any more effective than placebos. A 2003 study determined that only one out of three patients truly felt better after taking the anti-anxiety medication. As for addiction, the author was addicted to anti-anxiety drugs, including Xanax and Paxil. He tried once to go without them but found it to be unbearable, and as a result, started retaking the drugs after just one week.

My Age of Anxiety Key Idea #6: Therapy as a Treatment Method

We’ve seen how medication functions in the brain; however, there are also alternative treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT, which we’ll look next. CBT is based on the theory that there are behaviors (like anxious behavior), that can’t be managed with rational thinking. The most common method applied in CBT is exposure therapy. It requires having a patient directly face what they fear to teach them there is no real threat in the feared object. For example, the author has emetophobia – the pathological fear of vomiting, and in an attempt to treat it he tried exposure therapy once. As a part of the therapy, he had to take emetics to induce vomiting. Unfortunately, it ended in disaster, because instead of vomiting, he choked. Cognitive behavioral therapists also believe in getting to the source of anxiety which is often hidden in the patient’s mind. The author’s therapist used what is called imaginal exposure, concluding that there was something more existential causing his anxiety. In therapy sessions, the author had to list things that scared him in a hierarchal manner, then pictured those things and told the doctor what he felt. On one occasion, the author cried without understanding why. Nonetheless, the doctor thought they were on the correct path to find an explanation for the author’s anxiety. To this day, he still fights his anxiety with drugs and CBT. Although there doesn’t appear to be a universal cure for anxiety, there are measures to take to reduce its intensity. The author hoped that this book would assist him with understanding that.

My Age of Anxiety Key Idea #7: In Review

The key message in this book: Clinical anxiety is a more frequent and severe illness than one may think. However, there are various ways to reduce and treat the condition. It’s important to note that even when a sufferer’s anxiety is not always under complete control, it doesn’t mean that a life with anxiety is a miserable life.