Though he’s a highly regarded journalist, Scott Stossel has long endured an affliction that was hidden from many of his closest associates: near-crippling anxiety. In My Age of Anxiety, a narrative that’s both deeply personal and wide-ranging, he examines the history and treatment of this common disorder.
It took much courage for you to write this personal account of your inner life: What do you hope your book will accomplish?
I hope this book will provide readers with a deeper understanding of the condition, and of both the scientific and cultural contexts in which it exists. Especially for people struggling with anxiety, I hope the book can provide a modicum of solace—the recognition that they are not alone. I also hope people find it entertaining and possibly somewhat hopeful, despite my trawling through some dark places.
By all outside appearances, you’re the capable and confident editor of The Atlantic. Do you think many of your colleagues will be surprised to read about your struggles with anxiety?
Some of them already definitely have been. (As advance copies of the book circulate around the office, I’ve had a parade of colleagues in my office telling me they’d like to give me a hug. Which is nice and also a little uncomfortable.) And I suspect I will continue to be greeted with surprised reactions from professional acquaintances.
The book’s section on drugs is sure to be controversial. What are your thoughts about Big Pharma’s response?
I don’t yet have any sense of how Big Pharma will respond. But I’m definitely not anti-drug. (How could I be when I take medications myself!) In fact, I’d say I’m guardedly pro-pharma—drugs are the best or only solution for many people. I just think we need to be cognizant of the medical risks and societal risks. We should view drugs with both skepticism and hope.
You make many references to the caring and support of your spouse, Susanna. How are you able to maintain relationships with family and friends given your admittedly narcissistic focus on yourself and your condition?
In some ways, my inward focus on my anxiety makes me a worse husband/father/son/friend than I otherwise would be. Susanna has sometimes had to carry an unfairly heavy load. But I would like to think my anxiety has also enlarged my capacity for empathy and made me more conscientious and effective in some areas of my life (even as it has clearly made me less effective in others).
How would you describe the fiscal impact of anxiety—on families, workers and businesses, as well as the healthcare system?
By some measures the impact is huge. Missed days of work due to anxiety disorders (and depression) cost the U.S. economy upward of $50 billion annually. And anxiety is a leading cause of visits to doctors’ offices (which may actually help the economy, but is still not a good thing). Clinical anxiety can place a large fiscal burden on families—it can contribute to unemployment, alcoholism and drug addiction, as well as general distress.
You state that your lifelong struggle with anxiety might be a “source of strength” and a “bestower of certain blessings.” Can you explain how so?
Anxiety, when it’s not debilitating, can bring with it certain gifts: a heightened awareness of your environment; more sensitive social antennae; a general prudence about risk-taking; a spur toward achievement. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard believed that the greater the anxiety, the greater the opportunity for growth. I think there’s definitely something to that—though when my anxiety is at its worst I’d trade away the opportunity for growth in exchange for the anxiety dissipating.