As if I’m not stressed out enough, I made Scott Stossel’s My Age of Anxiety part of my springtime reading. Perfect for bringing up regrets and uncomfortable memories just before bedtime.
Stossel, an editor at the Atlantic, weaves history and science with an autobiography of constant terror. My Age of Anxiety made me thankful that my own anxiety hasn’t involved the physical symptoms that caused Stossel to spend trips to Europe running from bathroom to bathroom, to panic over a clogged toilet in the Kennedy Compound, and to spend a day writhing on a floor trying to cure his fear of vomiting.
I’m not so proud that my way of dealing with anxiety-provoking situations is to avoid them.
Stossel keeps taking plane trips even though they terrify him, he accepts public-speaking engagements even after the multiple times he’s bailed out mid-performance, and he’s gone after jobs that with stomach-churning levels of responsibility. Stossel is weak, sweaty, and “on the verge of convulsing” while standing at the altar at his wedding, but I marvel that he made it there at all.
My Age of Anxiety covers a lot of ground, including the debates over the causes and treatment of anxiety. Is it the product of genetics or an unfortunate childhood, or a mix of the two? Has anxiety become more prevalent in modern society, or are we just better at diagnosing it? Can it be relieved without talk therapy or without medication?
It’s a thorough book, but one topic I’d like to know more about is the role of socioeconomics on anxiety.
“[W]hile researching my first book, I spent part of the summer with the extended Kennedy family on Cape Cod,” writes Stossel, the great-grandson of a Harvard College dean. Sentences like that jolted me out of identifying too closely with the author, who is also the nephew of Fox News journalist John Stossel.
That may sound churlish, and I’m not implying that high social status alleviates feelings of anxiety. The constant scrutiny and the need to keep up appearances can surely lead to unbearable levels of stress. But a different kind of anxiety can come from feeling invisible, or excluded, when interacting with people of higher social status. (Stossel does touch on modern uncertainties about social status as a possible contributor to anxiety. Also note Sarah Sloat’s recent New Republic article on evidence that boys can suffer trauma from a sudden socioeconomic change: “According to the study authors, led by Harvard professor Ronald Kessler, boys who move into more affluent neighborhoods report higher rates of depression and conduct disorder than their female peers.”)
Stossel writes about attaching too much importance, and fear, to social interactions like job interviews — and about the terror of being exposed as an imposter or fraud, no matter how well he does his job. Describing himself at the Kennedys: “a sweaty young writer stands awkwardly gulping gin and tonics and thinking about how far he is from fitting in with this illustrious crowd.” His fears are real, but for people without a strong support network, a single job interview really can mean the difference between success and failure. The failure to recognize a VIP’s name or the inability to contribute to a conversation about European travels may not get you fired, but it can mark you as an outsider.
I still wince at all the times I signaled, sometimes unwittingly, my less cultured upbringing: the unstylish seersucker suits my mother, with the best of intentions, bought for me to wear at my first real job, as a legislative aide on Capitol Hill; the time I pronounced David Mamet as if the name rhymed with Monet; the first time I tried sushi and put the entire glob of wasabi in my mouth; the failure to identify Beethoven’s Fifth… There’s a particular kind of social anxiety that comes from seeing yourself as Homer Simpson wearing a fake moustache.
“Social phobics,” Stossel writes, sometimes try to project “an image of confidence, competence, even perfection” to try to hide his own feelings of inadequacy. The danger of this coping mechanism is that “you feel always in danger of being exposed as a fraud: one mistake … and the façade of competence and accomplishment is exposed for what it is — an artificial persona designed to hide the vulnerable self that lies within.”
What better way to project perfection than to become, like Stossel, an editor? I can identify: I’ve spent most of my adult life as a proofreader and copy-editor, two jobs for which the qualifications boil down to always being right. That’s why I’ve long had literal nightmares about math errors and missing headlines, and it’s why a repeated spelling mistake on a piece I wrote last week sent me into a spiral of depression, waiting for an email informing me that my services would never be needed again. (It never came, since most people don’t have a zero-tolerance attitude on misspellings.) I can also see why, say, code-writing would appeal to social phobics: One mistake in building a website (let’s just say it’s healthcare.gov) can mean disaster. It’s a perfect situation for maintaining both an aura of infallibility and constant gastrointestinal distress.