S&H caught up with journalist Andrea Petersen, author of On Edge: A Journey through Anxiety.
Sara Harding: What did you hope to achieve writing this book?
Andrea Petersen: Well, I had a couple of goals for the book. One was just to really provide sort of understanding and insight and connection to other people who struggle with anxiety. I was hoping that people would maybe be able to take something away from it and that it might reflect their own experience. And also for people who don't struggle with anxiety, but love people who do, I wanted to be able to explain it. I think it can be difficult sometimes for people who don't struggle with anxiety to understand why we can’t just take a few deep breaths or just relax.
As a health reporter and as someone who’s been writing about mental health issues for the last several years, I was realizing that this is actually a really exciting time in anxiety research, that advances in neuro imaging and genetics were really unraveling some of the mysteries of the anxiety brain and that there were new treatments on the horizon. So I also really wanted to convey that information.
You’ve said that in managing your anxiety, that you felt more empathetic. How do you feel that you are leading a more authentic life because of having an anxiety disorder?
Going back to the empathy, I feel like going through this life with anxiety and having these struggles has made me be more vulnerable and made me ask for help in relationships. And I do feel like that has made me closer to people and also given me a point of connection with other people and pain.
And then in terms of the authenticity, I feel like often my anxiety will go off if something is amiss in my relationships or in my work life, which makes sense, because actually anxiety is overlaid over this ancient threat-detection system that most organisms have to respond and react to threats. So it’s actually critical for survival. Of course, most of us are not being chased by predators. Now our threats are not as immediate and often not as identifiable. But, for me, I find that sometimes anxiety will tip me off to: Okay, there’s something a little off in my marriage, or I'm not taking care of myself like I should be, that it actually is a signal that something is amiss. So I feel like it helps me to stop and notice and makes me really sort of analyze: What do I need to do to get back into a place of more balance?
And then also just having this constant sort of expectation of catastrophe or this fear that something terrible is going to go wrong, it kind of makes me—there’s a little more urgency to the way I live my life, I feel like. It’s hard for me to be sort of laid back and mellow and take things for granted, because I feel like there’s always this possibility that it all might fall apart. And so I feel like it makes me just value what I do have all the more.
Do you think it makes you edit your life a little bit more, too?
Definitely. I find myself saying no to sort of superfluous obligations. It really makes me take stock of what I value, because I know that it’s easy for me to tax myself or that I need to just be vigilant about not heaping stress upon stress in my life, because I can get into a bad place if I do that. Yeah, so I think it helps me sort of prioritize.
You talk about anxiety rising in youth. Why do you think that is?
There’s no one single reason for it. I’ve talked to a lot of psychologists and psychiatrists, as well as students themselves, and people point to many different possibilities, many different factors that probably all contribute a little bit.
Everything from the rising cost of college tuition—students have to take out so much more in terms of loans; economic insecurity—a lot of students remember the recession. It wasn’t over that long ago. Also, the rise of social media—people point to that. They feel like they’re comparing themselves to other people, even though they know it’s a life highlight reel. Even so, it can be tough if you’re having a bad day to sort of compare yourself to everyone’s smiling pictures.
Even just to “helicopter parenting,” the style of parenting where parents may have a harder time letting our kids fail because we feel like the stakes are so high.
Why is it more prevalent in women, do you think?
One in three Americans will suffer from an anxiety disorder at some point during their life, and 40% of women. So those are huge numbers. There’s some evidence that actually hormonal factors may contribute, that actually fluctuating levels of estrogen might make women a little bit more prone to anxiety. But a lot of the research I’ve looked at does point to the way we’re raised, and the way we raise little boys versus little girls and the messages that we send. There’s actually a lot of interesting research showing—interesting and depressing—that boys are much more likely to be encouraged to be independent, and girls are much more likely to not be.
I think it sends a message that the world is a dangerous place and that you’re not capable of doing things on your own. So those are key kind of anxious cognitions, too.
As a journalist yourself, do you feel like the media contributes to a higher level of anxiety in our society?
I think it’s interesting, because people sometimes ask me: Are we in a particularly anxious age? That’s such a hard question to answer because so many other—people in other time periods have also claimed that theirs was the age of anxiety. In the 1800s, people were blaming things like technological advances, like the steam engine and the telegraph and even the mental activity of women, actually, was somehow to blame for anxiety in the world. And then in the 1950s, the atomic bomb was sort of—and this was also at the same time when a lot of the anti-anxiety drugs were being developed, too.
There are plenty of things we can be anxious about, whether it’s the environment or what’s going on in politics, especially since people who are prone to anxiety tend to have an intolerance for uncertainty. I think a lot of people would say that now can feel pretty uncertain for a lot of people.
What is your advice to those people to best support someone that you love that has anxiety?
Well, I think first just really understanding that anxiety disorders are not a moral failing; they don't mean someone is weak. It’s an illness, like any other illness, and it just happens to affect the brain and the body. And also that there are effective treatments, too, and that this is a very treatable disorder.
Beyond that, I think every person who struggles with anxiety has different needs in the moment with their relationship. I know, personally, when I have a panic attack, I just like my husband to hold my hand. I don't want him to talk. I just want him to hold my hand or take a walk. I find, actually, for some reason, just taking a walk around the block, movement, can be really helpful for me to get through those moments.
For someone else, they might want to be hugged. It could be totally different. But I think that being willing to sort of ask: “What’s helpful in the moment when you’re feeling really anxious? What can I do?” Try to negotiate that. I think that’s the best thing you can do.