In the January/February cover story, Scott Stossel, the editor of The Atlantic, shared his personal struggle with anxiety, and offered a glimpse into the history and science of the disorder.
Staring the anxiety demon in the face has been very scary, which is why it’s such a relief to read an article like this, knowing that it will help chip away at the very dark stigma that is attached to silent, elephant-in-the-room diseases like anxiety and depression.
At times I was nodding like crazy, then laughing with tears running down my cheeks. I felt like the author knew me! He gives me hope that we can lead successful lives in spite of, and maybe because of, our anxiety.
I feel like I have waited my entire life for Scott Stossel’s article. There has been no real progress at all in removing the deep shame that is attached to any kind of mental illness. “Crazy” people are blamed for their condition, despite all evidence to the contrary. It takes a rare sort of courage to “come out” and divulge the nitty-gritty details of the inner workings of a brain dominated by the dictates of mental illness. Mr. Stossel so wonderfully validates those of us who have to be the Great Pretenders in life, constantly covering our tracks so we can be seen as normal. He is correct. Anxiety is regarded as a weakness; therefore, weak people are less worthy. Except Mr. Stossel proves otherwise.
Amherst Junction, Wis.
Scott Stossel makes the often-repeated observation that historical evidence suggests anxiety—and, by extension, a lot of other mental illnesses—can be allied to artistic and creative genius. As a person who has suffered from many of the afflictions he describes, and has the pill bottles to prove it, I’d love to believe this, if only to be in exalted company. But this has always seemed kind of dubious to me. How do we know that history isn’t also full of charwomen and mule drivers and accountants who suffered, but whose lives were just so nondescript that nobody noticed?
The cover line—“I’ve tried therapy, drugs, and booze. Here’s what helps”—is just sensationalism. Unless The Atlantic and Mr. Stossel are endorsing the mixing of prescription drugs and alcohol on a trial-and-error basis, nowhere in this piece is there any mention of or advice on “what helps.”
Scott Stossel’s article is much needed to help people know that they are not alone. I am a psychiatrist and have specialized in treating anxiety for 30 years. I am always amazed at how alone someone feels when he or she comes in for treatment. Patients have no idea that millions suffer from anxiety. Scott’s willingness to share his personal experiences is brave, and his understanding of anxiety is extremely accurate. There are parts of anxiety that are quite hardwired into the fight-or-flight system. The devastation to a person’s self-esteem can be incredibly damaging. I have spent years listening to people and learning from them about what seems to help, and I have seen that what comes first is knowing anxiety is something you “have” but is not something you “are.”
Overcoming anxiety takes tenacious determination and courage. It is not easy, but I have seen many take on the fight and win. You cannot manage anxiety by hiding from it, you cannot kill it, and you cannot medicate or meditate it away.
I sincerely hope that through Scott’s willingness to share his personal experiences, many others will see that there is hope for them.
Charles R. Cobb, M.D.
Living With Anxiety: Reader Responses
After Scott Stossel shared his story, the magazine and the author heard from hundreds of readers who shared their own stories, by turns funny, poignant, and heartrending. Some of those stories are included here; to read many more, visit theatlantic.com/anxiety.
If we had a drink together one evening, you would notice that I have the perplexing habit of taking my pulse the way a runner might at the end of a race (two fingers at the neck, under the jaw on my right side), even though I am seated on a stool with a scotch in my hand, not crossing a finish line and clutching a small paper cup of water. I do this because I fear I’m not getting the oxygen necessary to keep my frail human machine going. I’ve been convinced of my own slow suffocation for at least the past decade, and the steady beat of blood beneath my fingers makes me feel relaxed. It is reassurance that I’m still alive.
J. W. Garrity
I am plagued by endless questions, swept up in a whirlwind of self-doubt: Are mass-produced, made-in-China toy figurines an indication of my shameless consumerism? Have I perpetuated gender stereotypes by providing my daughter with an abundance of tutus, primarily of the pink variety? Am I promoting unhealthy eating habits by allowing the occasional sugary snack to win out over carrot sticks? The anxiety began with the birth of my daughter. And now, as she attends preschool and the playdates are in full swing, my nerves are entirely fraught. Now my parenting choices are on display for all to see. Now I find myself tackling a bizarre set of proportions every Saturday morning: What is the ideal ratio of Cinderella to Sid the Science Kid? Of tiaras to doctor kits? Of cookies to cucumbers? I haven’t come up with any solutions yet, but that doesn’t stop me from staying up all Friday night searching for answers.
If you have never had a panic attack, the best way I can describe it is to compare it to that crazy rush of adrenaline you get when you’re on a roller coaster, during those few seconds right before the ride transitions from the slow, creaky climb to sudden free fall. Your limbs tingle a little, and your stomach knots up in anticipation, only to be released in a matter of seconds. That feeling is intense, and for most people, it’s exhilarating because it is temporary. You’ve only tricked your body into reacting with fear.
With a panic attack, that primal, physical reaction of fear is constant. There is no relief, no sense of exhilaration. Your blood pressure rises, causing your heart to beat a mile a minute; your limbs go numb. Your stomach starts sinking, only there is no bottom for it to hit. So it keeps sinking, and sinking, and sinking. Every physiological alarm your body has for fear is firing at once, and your mind becomes consumed by a panic that defies all logic.But worst of all, even though you know your body is playing a trick on your mind, your mind is trapped inside a fun house with no exit, and you have no idea when the ride will be over.
How I make important phone calls:
1. Write down whatever I have to say.
2. Practice over and over.