The Age of Anxiety

Daniel Smith, author of Monkey Mind, writes that everyone has it, everyone must deal with it. “Anxiety compels a person to think, but it is the type of thinking that gives thinking a bad name; solipsistic, self-eviscerating, unremitting, vicious”.

WH Auden published the book-length poem, The Age of Anxiety, in 1947 and it immediately struck a cultural chord. The piece begins as a conversation among four strangers in a New York barroom on Third Avenue and is the poet’s method of analysing Western culture during the second World War. The Age of Anxiety won a Pulitzer Prize and also inspired a symphony by Leonard Bernstein. Auden’s title The Age of Anxiety has been ubiquitous for more than six decades. From the moment it appeared, the phrase has been used to characterise the consciousness of our era, the awareness of everything perilous about the modern world: environmental issues, global warming, nuclear energy, religious fundamentalism, violence, terrorism, economic calamity. Anaïs Nin wrote that “Anxiety… makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds onto you”. Kierkegaard compared anxiety to a type of spiritual dizziness, afflicting “he whose eyes happens to look down the yawning abyss.” In his poem No Worst, There is None, Gerard Manley Hopkins describes a mind jagged with anxiety:

“O the mind, mind has mountains;
cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.”

Danny, Withnail and I’s drug dealer and famous roller of the Camberwell Carrot joint, described postmodern and peri-hangover social anxiety thusly: “If you’re hanging onto a rising balloon, you’re presented with a difficult decision – let go before it’s too late or hang on and keep getting higher, posing the question: how long can you keep a grip on the rope?”

Few people would dispute that anxiety is a hallmark of our times or that anxiety has become a kind of cultural condition of modernity. In Britain, 19 per cent of people suffer from depression and anxiety and up to 40 million Americans have an anxiety disorder, with the average age of onset only 11. There are no accurate figures detailing the prevalence of anxiety disorders in Ireland, but it is estimated that 1 in 9 individuals will suffer a primary anxiety disorder over their lifetime. Anxiety, according to Scott Stossel, the author of My Age of Anxiety, “has become part of the cultural furniture”.

As a clinical condition, anxiety has only become classified in the last 30 years. It can be seen through the work of writers that anxiety has been with us since humans first emerged, from Hippocrates to Freud. Ancient Epicurean and Stoic philosophers suggested techniques to reach an anxiety-free state of mind that are reminiscent of modern cognitive psychology. Typical cases of anxiety disorders kept being reported and in the 17th century. Robert Burton described anxiety in The Anatomy of Melancholy. Anxiety is a normal human emotion. From an evolutionary viewpoint it is adaptive, since it promotes survival by inciting people to steer clear of perilous places. Just because our anxiety is heavily diagnosed and medicated, however, doesn’t mean that we are more anxious than our forebears. Perhaps as a society we are more cognisant of the mind’s tendency to spin out of control.

Whether the anxiety is social or status, generalised or obsessive compulsive, the following books are an enlightening read.

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

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Scott Stossel is an American journalist and author, Harvard graduate and editor of The Atlantic. He is also a man who has suffered all his life from an acute anxiety disorder, beginning with separation anxiety as a child and culminating in a myriad of phobias including public speaking, flying, fainting, heights, germs, vomiting and cheese. Stossel has been in therapy since he was 10, and he has consumed pharmacopoeias of psychopharmaceuticals – Thorazine, Nardil, Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Wellbutrin, Valium, Librium, Xanax as well as copious amounts of alcohol to temper his symptoms – but the respite never lasted long.

His current therapist encouraged him to write this book, and he says he has taken the advice in the hope that “by tunnelling into my anxiety… I can also tunnel out the other side.”

This book is not a memoir. Stossel only reveals parts of his life that are relevant to what he calls “ the riddle of anxiety”. Most of the book is a scholarly exploration of the history of anxiety and a journalistic account of the present state of medical knowledge on the subject. Stossel’s description of his anxiety on his wedding day is evoked with humour despite the horror he endured at “one of the happiest, most significant moments of life”. He stood trembling with rivulets of sweat running into his eyes, his limbs trembling on the verge of convulsing at best or unconsciousness at worst. He felt that at the reception afterwards he was only pantomiming happiness, which induced a brutal, self-lacerating despair.

The Pursuit of Happiness: And Why It’s Making Us Anxious by Ruth Whippman

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When this British journalist moves to California, she realises that the American obsession with finding happiness is driving everyone crazy. Whippman feels that happiness in America has become the overachiever’s ultimate trophy. As a cynical British woman, Ruth finds that in conversations with everyday people that the route to “happy ever after” is a constant concern. Techniques used to achieve this happy state range from the mundane (yoga and meditation) to mind-boggling seminars on how to Unleash the Power Within and, most bafflingly, the drinking of wolf colostrum. She struggles with the concept of mindfulness and cannot see “how greater happiness could be achieved by reining in that magical sense of scope and possibility to stare down some oatmeal”.

Whippman notes that her new happiness-seeking American acquaintances seem no happier than her cynical British ones and her instinct is that happiness should be serendipitous; the byproduct of a life well lived.

Anxiety for Beginners by Eleanor Morgan

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This fusion of memoir and scientific investigation is very accessible. It begins with a vivid description of a panic attack that Morgan suffered at 17 in the middle of biology class. “Within seconds I was convinced I was about to detonate there on my wooden stool” as the blackboard went blurry, her head started to prickle and her hands went numb. As well as speaking to fellow sufferers, Morgan consults psychiatrists, psychologists, OCD specialists and nutritionists. With a generous dollop of humanity Morgan analyses genetic and environmental influences on anxiety as well as hormones, fertility, trauma and medication, all the while interspersing science with her own stories and those of fellow sufferers.

Mad Girl by Bryony Gordon

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This is a funny, intimate, personal account of the author’s OCD, bulimia and drug habit. At the age of 12, Gordon woke up convinced she was going to die of Aids and began obsessively washing her hands. After she revealed her fear that she might murder someone, a doctor diagnosed OCD and prescribed antidepressants. When she landed her dream job in journalism she led a double life: to friends, colleagues and lovers she was the effervescent girl about town, while privately she fought her demons. Bryony chronicles all of this in a breathless, self-mocking tone, which helps when reading such dark material. Her story is a potential lifeline for others who may suffer in silence.

A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled by Ruby Wax

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The larger-than-life, seemingly confident Ruby Wax of our TV screens was also clinging on to sanity. She spent some time in the Priory Clinic, London to tackle her problems with anxiety and depression. Wax now has a master’s degree in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy from Oxford University. Practical and pragmatic, A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled talks in a funny way about depression and demonstrates how mindfulness exercises can help with everyday problems.

Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

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Status anxiety is about who you are in contemporary society – whether you’ve got enough money, enough kudos, enough fabulosity to cut it in our judgemental world. De Botton’s bestselling book is concerned with just that: an exploration of this anxiety and a valuable insight into class and a meritocratic society.

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