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A conversation with Scott Stossel, author of My Age of Anxiety

Stossel bookScott Stossel has written a tome on anxiety. The editor of The Atlantic magazine opens his best-selling memoir with a frightening yet comical scene at his wedding. He’s standing at the altar in a Vermont church, and his angst has ripped open his innards reducing him to a puddle of sweat and embarrassment. Anyone who's suffered from severe anxiety can fully appreciate the yin and the yang of his moment:

The minister is droning on; I have no idea what he is saying... I am praying for him to hurry up so I can escape this torment… Seeing me – the sheen of flop sweat, the panic in my eyes – he is alarmed. “Are you okay?” he mouths silently. Helplessly, I nod that I am... As the minister resumes his sermon, here are three things I am actively fighting: the shaking of my limbs; the urge to vomit; and unconsciousness.

Anxiety disorders have a terrifying grip on nearly 44 million Americans. In the book, psychologist David Barlow, PhD, said of the affliction, "Anxiety kills relatively few people, but many more would welcome death as an alternative to the paralysis and suffering resulting from anxiety in its severe forms."

I first came across Stossel's work as a cover story in The Atlantic. Then, I discovered there was buzz about the book, as friends around the country were talking about it. For a few weeks, Stossel was everywhere - Fresh Air with Terry Gross, The Colbert Report, London's Sunday Times, personal appearances around the U.S., and in laudatory book reviews in the nation's top papers. I believed his exploration of  "fear, hope, dread, and the search for peace of mind" was something all anxiety sufferers seek, and I knew I wanted to snag him for a 1:2:1 podcast.

When we spoke, I thought I would open with a question I was very curious about. "You’re in the middle of a book tour," I said to him. "It’s a New York Times best seller. You’re speaking in public. Flying around the county. Doing things that you really hate. So has the book been good for your anxiety, as your doctor posed it might be?"

Well, as you'll hear, there have been ups and there have been downs. Unfortunately, there's no Hollywood ending at this particular moment to his psychological puzzle. Yet Stossel does congratulate himself for finishing the book, a task at times he was doubtful he could or would achieve.

When I asked Stossel to read from the book, he said it was my choice what he read. So I chose a passage that was hopeful. It talks about how his anxiety, though often intolerable and miserable, could have an upside. "But it is also, maybe a gift - or at least the other side of a coin I ought to think twice about before trading in," he writes.

In the end, I'm struck by the tremendous courage that it took for Stossel to lay himself bare - to expose some of his most idiosyncratic fears that have crippled him since childhood. He's a brave man. It's for that reason I think My Age of Anxiety has meaning well beyond the words on the page. It will help de-stigmatize this little dark corner of mental disorders. Through peeling back his own layers of psychic skin almost to the quick, I think he'll change attitudes and  perceptions.

I especially liked what Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, said about the book:

It could not have been easy for Stossel to dissect his own anxiety so honestly in this memoir. But he was brave as hell to write it, and I'm glad he did, for he brings to this story depth, intelligence, and perspective that could enlighten untold fellow readers for years to come.

Amen!

Previously: Reframing reactions could reduce symptoms of social anxiety disorder, Stanford study shows and Does more authority translate into a reduction in stress and anxiety?
Image from Random House

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