Surviving Anxiety

I wanted to draw your attention to this extraordinary story on anxiety, the cover story for the most recent issue of The Atlantic.

It begins with a fantastic lead. The author, Scott Stossel, admits to a pretty intense pre-public speaking regimen (sorry for the quote length, it’s worth it, I promise):

Let’s say you’re sitting in an audience and I’m at the lectern. Here’s what I’ve likely done to prepare. Four hours or so ago, I took my first half milligram of Xanax. (I’ve learned that if I wait too long to take it, my fight-or-flight response kicks so far into overdrive that medication is not enough to yank it back.) Then, about an hour ago, I took my second half milligram of Xanax and perhaps 20 milligrams of Inderal. (I need the whole milligram of Xanax plus the Inderal, which is a blood-pressure medication, or beta-blocker, that dampens the response of the sympathetic nervous system, to keep my physiological responses to the anxious stimulus of standing in front of you—the sweating, trembling, nausea, burping, stomach cramps, and constriction in my throat and chest—from overwhelming me.) I likely washed those pills down with a shot of scotch or, more likely, vodka, the odor of which is less detectable on my breath. Even two Xanax and an Inderal are not enough to calm my racing thoughts and to keep my chest and throat from constricting to the point where I cannot speak; I need the alcohol to slow things down and to subdue the residual physiological eruptions that the drugs are inadequate to contain. In fact, I probably drank my second shot—yes, even though I might be speaking to you at, say, 9 in the morning—between 15 and 30 minutes ago, assuming the pre-talk proceedings allowed me a moment to sneak away for a quaff.

I don’t know about you, but I think it takes a lot of courage to admit that kind of pre-9am schedule. And as someone who dreads public speaking (I opted not to speak at our wedding, for example, because I knew if I had a speech coming up I would probably not enjoy or remember any of the moments leading up to it), I can definitely empathize.

Stossel bares much more of his soul in the rest of the article. He discusses the childhood beginnings of his anxiety, his struggle to overcome a fear of vomiting (emetophobia), and a rather embarrassing episode involving a flooding bathroom at the Kennedy’s Cape Cod vacation home. He discusses the treatments and medication he’s tried, the differing doctors’ opinions.

I think this article is wonderful for two reasons. It tells anyone out there who suffers from anxiety, whether it be mild or strong, that they are not alone. It also suggests that anxiety, at least in some cases where it is not too debilitating, can be a gift.

My anxiety can be intolerable. 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. As often as anxiety has held me back—prevented me from traveling, or from seizing opportunities or taking certain risks—it has also unquestionably spurred me forward.

As Stossel points out, historical evidence suggests that anxiety can be allied to artistic and creative genius, and many of history’s most eminent scientists suffered from anxiety or depression, or both. He notes that Jerome Kagan, an American psychologist, has said that he only hires people with high-reactive temperaments as research assistants, because they are compulsive and don’t make errors.

I think most of us suffer from some degree of anxiety—it’s part of what makes us human. And while mine can occasionally be a little hard to manage, reading this article made me realize it could be so much worse. It also made me appreciate that a little bit of anxiety can be a good thing.

Image credit: The Atlantic

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Categories: Reading

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