By Suzi Brozman
When I’m assigned to write about a famous artist, scholar, author or anyone else with outstanding credentials, I get nervous. Will I know enough not to make a fool of myself with my questions? Will I portray that person’s ideas accurately?
Imagine, then, how I felt when I received Scott Stossel’s new book to read before interviewing him. The book, “My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind,” meant confronting all of my fears with someone far more knowledgeable about them.
I needn’t have worried. Stossel, editor of The Atlantic, is a gentleman in the truest sense, aware of people’s feelings and willing to discuss his topic on any level. His book is more than a memoir; it is a veritable encyclopedia of anxiety, from his personal story to history and cultural variables to drugs, treatments and cures. It’s fascinating enough to keep you up reading and deep enough to act as a textbook.
Stossel told me that some people say it made them feel better about confronting their fears. People learned that some drugs work and some don’t and how the debate between nature and nurture treats anxiety.
It’s fascinating that anxieties in our ancestors present themselves in our own behavior. Stossel finds this true in Holocaust survivors, though studies haven’t shown whether behaviors in survivors cause anxiety in children and grandchildren or whether genetic mutations are responsible. But we know that survivors’ descendants have a higher degree of anxiety than the general population.
Stossel said he has found anxiety answers for himself. “Force yourself to stay in the moment. Focus on your surroundings. Don’t dwell on the past and on regret or anticipation about bad behavior. Stay mindful. Do breathing exercises. There are times I’ve been in the throes of an attack. … These exercises can stop it in its tracks, but once it’s full blown, I’m powerless. Things that are legitimately stressful can overwhelm me, but I can rise above them and act quite calm, cool and collected.”
He said the obvious things help: getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, avoiding too much caffeine. Alcohol is a big no-no. “It is an incredibly effective short-term anxiety reducer, a short-term augmenter of well-being. But overall it’s a terrible way to control anxiety. The rebound effect creates dependence, and relying on it makes you need more and more. It’s very potent, but no doctor would ever prescribe it.”
Stossel, the nephew of television personality John Stossel, said he seeks help “from a shysician, a psychiatrist. Hospitals have anxiety programs. The ADAA [Anxiety and Depression Association of America] website is a resource that provides information about anxiety disorders, and you can look up therapists where you live.”
He believes in mindfulness meditation. It makes you more resistant to anxiety and creates brain changes that can be beneficial. Anxiety, he said, is woven into the human condition, but certain periods of history, economic structures and uncertainty are conducive to anxiety, especially when vast choices improve material well-being but deplete your brain, making you vulnerable to regret for making wrong choices.
Stossel said the book offers different things to readers in different situations. “For readers suffering, I hope it gives them hope and consolation that they are not alone, they are not completely crazy. For those with friends and relatives suffering, the book can provide empathy, allowing readers to offer useful support for what their friends are going through. And for general readers, the book provides an interesting exploration of the history of pharmacology and the human condition.”
What: Page From the Book Festival event with Scott Stossel
Where: Marcus JCC, 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, March 1
Tickets: $10 for center members, $15 for others; 678-812-4002 or atlantajcc.org/bookfestival.