In Louis Menand’s New Yorker (Jan27) review of Scott Stossel’s book, “My Age of Anxiety” (Knopf) Menand gives a fairly good historical perspective on how the topic of anxiety has been researched, described and treated. And, like Stossel’s condition, not a whole lot has changed in the so-called human condition of the reaction to the stress and uncertainty of our lives.
It seems that people worry daily about everything from their work to their finances, about their children or their parents (or other family members) about their present or future conditions, including health and wellness, and in some places about where they are going to live, what they are going to eat or how they might end up. One of the better definitions of anxiety that I heard a long time ago was “prolonged worry over matters we can do nothing about.”
Perhaps it would help to understand the continuum of anxiety, not unlike the continuum of fear. One can experience mild fear or stark terror as extremes on either end. Likewise, there are the little worries that are not all that upsetting, concerns of one kind or another that we can actually do something about and take action to the enormous anxiety that renders one feeling helpless and ultimately depressed. That’s probably why the diagnosis in the DSM-V has tried to separate some of the related “disorders” from each other.
Much has remained the same in the areas of anxiety and depression, with refinements of criteria and symptoms across the lifespan. Some disorders included in the broad category of anxiety disorders are now in three sequential chapters: Anxiety Disorders, Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders, and Trauma- and Stressor-Related Disorders. This move emphasizes how each category has its own distinctions while still being interconnected.
Menand says that the term “anxiety” is a catch-all and I tend to agree. He says, “people describe themselves as excited, nervous, apprehensive, tense, stressed out, bugged, worried, panicky, vapor-locked, scared shitless, sick to their stomach, and feeling like they’re gonna die.” Sometimes it does help to give the feeling a name rather than not be able to put a handle on it and deal with it.
What I want to suggest is that there are numerous ways to alleviate anxiety and as Stossel and others have discovered, drugs and therapy don’t always work. There are those who have made enormous changes in their lives whether in life-style, locations, significant changes in significant relationships, or in the approach to solving the problem instead of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results (the classic definition of insanity). There are many people who have experienced a reprieve from anxiety that is most welcome and mentally healthy. In fact, it is life-giving rather than life-reducing.
What seems to be an obstacle to making the change is the unwillingness to take the risk and step off into the unknown. That’s often a scary proposition and some people would rather be in a state of stress-filled security than live in a situation without knowing the outcomes. In the end, it boils down to choices and choosing not to do anything is also a choice. It’s your turn to play your cards.