May 26, 2017

By Bob Carolla


What does anxiety mean to you? Nervousness before a test? Driving down a dark highway and realizing you’re almost out of gas and it’s 35 miles to the next exit? Or does it mean breaking out in sweat as your muscles suddenly tighten and your heart rate quickens? You think you’re dying. You go to doctor after doctor and have test after test done. You lie frozen on the sofa while family and friends try to convince you to move.

In her newly-published book On Edge: A Journey through Anxiety, Andrea Petersen explains that ordinary anxiety is “rooted in reality.” The fears in anxiety disorders, however, are usually unfounded or speculative at best. They can overwhelm a person and prevent them from doing everyday things. “Anxiety disorders derail lives,” she writes.

Petersen is a news editor for the Wall Street Journal. She has struggled with anxiety for more than 24 years. Her book is part-memoir and part-exposition of the science, symptoms and treatment of anxiety disorders, neatly woven together. Her experiences are both painful and colorful.

A friend of mine who has lived with an anxiety disorder for more than two decades told me that despite her personal experience, she never understood her disorder until she read this book.

The book follows Petersen’s journey of becoming a reporter, “a profession characterized by deadlines [and] cold-calling sometimes hostile strangers.” She covered 9/11 and the fall of the World Trade Center’s twin towers. A week later, while covering the anthrax attack in New Jersey, she had a panic attack. She went to an emergency room thinking—improbably—that she had anthrax. She then found herself unable to write her assigned story.

“For the first time in my career, I couldn’t do it…I felt strangely lost. I couldn’t find my focus,” she writes. Her editor killed the story. “When my anxiety soars, I have a hard time concentrating. My mind overflows with worries, leaving scant room for information of the non-doomsday variety.”

Besides her personal testimony, Petersen’s book is chock full of facts and research studies. To list a few:

  • Anxiety is considered a “gateway illness” that can lead to depression and other problems. There is also evidence that respiratory problems (asthma, emphysema and bronchitis) during childhood can increase the chance of developing an anxiety disorder later in life.
  • In 2006, one survey found that 25% of people with anxiety disorders told their employers (In Petersen’s case, she did not tell hers until she proposed writing the book).
  • Young people with anxiety conditions are more likely to be bullied. One study found that 35% with panic disorders and 50% with obsessive compulsive disorder were bullied.
  • Preschoolers “who are clingy and don’t explore their surroundings” are three times more likely to develop an anxiety disorder by their teenage years.
  • The rate of anxiety disorders is rising—particularly among college students. A study conducted between 2008 and 2016 showed an increase from 10% to 17%.

Petersen closes the book with a pragmatic assessment of how her journey has shaped the person she is today: “Weirdly, anxiety makes me live a more authentic life. And a more empathetic one. Anxiety has made me ask for help, made me vulnerable and thereby deepened my friendships.” It has motivated her to “work harder, travel farther, speak more honestly and curiously, take more risks than I might have otherwise.”

“Anxiety means I’m simply not mellow enough to take things for granted. And that has made my life all the richer.” It also makes the book a rich resource, worth reading carefully.

Andrea Petersen will speak at NAMI’s National Convention in Washington, D.C., June 28-July 1. 

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