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.

A Prescription For Happiness – Bibliotherapy.

Reading is the new therapy.

Reading is the new therapy.

Recent studies from Liverpool University led by Professor Philip Davies have demonstrated that reading the classics improves our own reflectiveness and self-knowledge. Extracts from works such as ‘Othello,’King Lear,’ ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Corialinus’ were read by participants and scientists measured brain changes during these exercises using Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Extracts from the work of Larkin, Wordsworth and TS Eliot were also read by the readers for the experiment. After reading the classical work, the participants then read the work in a simplified form, without any of the metaphor and colour of the original. Not surprisingly, the results showed much greater electrical activity in the brain when the complex phrases and eloquent sentences were being read, as opposed to the dumbed down versions of the classical construct.

Indeed, the right side of the brain which is concerned with personal memory and emotion was highly stimulated when reading poetry, which prompted the scientists to extrapolate that self-reflection and a reappraisal of previous experiences is produced by the bardic works. This research is in its infancy but coupled with the rolling out this May of a scheme in the U.K. dubbed “Books on Prescription,” there is a very large swing in favour of the healing powers of books and literature. The scheme according to Miranda McKearney, director of the Reading Agency will allow GPs to write out prescriptions for books available at their local libraries to sufferers of mild to moderate anxiety and depression.The list includes many self-help books as well as mood-boosting novels and poetry from writers such as Jo Brand, Bill Bryson and Terry Jones. This is extremely good news for those of us who have always known the restorative powers of an early night and immersion in a good book.

I have always been a book lover and it is a relationship that has withstood the vagaries of time and has remained unsullied by my odd flirtations with music and travel. A life without books for me would have been an arid desert of gulag groundhog day, dull and dreary and essentially unintelligible.  I read for the sheer pleasure of escape into another World, into other states of consciousness, other apercus and filters of experience. The only World any of us know is the one our own brain shows us, and as human beings we can often feel alone in our thoughts and views, unable to access the inner thoughts and feelings of others. Even as a young reader I always loved that eureka moment when the character in the novel had a train of thought similar to my own, that communing with the author, that finding a bit of myself in the pages of a book.

I progressed from an obsession with bible stories at four through Enid Blyton, hanging out for a while with Anne of Green Gables.I think that reading The Catcher in the Rhy at thirteen opened my eyes to teenage angst as suffered by Holden which was mirroring by own bubbling rebelliousness. Life and art are good bedfellows and in novels and poetry the dilemmas and beauty of the human condition are there in the pages , waiting to be discovered by the reader. The School of Life, which was set up my philosopher and writer Alain De Botton in Bloomsbury, London is a unique cultural enterprise whose goal is to try to help us all live lives with more meaning and to negotiate the often tricky minefields of work and relationships. Uniquely they also offer a biblotherapy service, where very accomplished authors and thinkers will prescribe a course of reading which will help with negotiating the times when life can be more challenging whether because of career angst or coping with bereavement.These gurus are like personal trainers for the soul and aim to change your thinking and ignite and revitalise your life using carefully selected books as tools.  You can click here to learn more about Bibliotherapy.

Over the next few blog posts I am going to trawl through my shelves and find those books whose pearls of wisdom have sustained me over my life.

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Image from The School of Life