Everyone experiences some level of anxiety.  But it’s so unpleasant. Wouldn’t it be nice to always feel calm, cool, and collected?

Interestingly, research suggests that the only people who never feel anxious are those with sociopathic tendencies. The worry-free life may not be available to folks with a conscience.

Although it is one of the less popular emotions, anxiety actually serves a very useful purpose. You may be asking, “Are you serious?  What good is something that makes me feel nervous, sick in my stomach, shaky all over, sweaty, obsessive, and like my heart is going to jump out of my chest?”

Consider this: without a certain amount of anxiety we would never get our paperwork done, do the taxes, or schedule that mammogram. And in an emergency, without huge doses of it, we wouldn’t have the adrenaline rush needed for the “fight, flight, or freeze” response that may save our life!

The problem with anxiety is that it doesn’t often come in the right dose at the right time. It can come on like a flood and overwhelm our capacity to cope. The trick is to maximize its benefits, and develop the ability to regulate it so that it doesn’t interfere with our performance or, in its worst extreme, diminish our quality of life.

                       Fear sharpens the senses. Anxiety paralyzes them. (Scott Stossel quoting Kurt Goldstein).

A multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry is founded on our incapacity to regulate it naturally. Medication may be beneficial for the worst variety, but first consider what is possible with your “internal pharmacy” (i.e. the dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin elevating benefits of things like exercise, hobbies, or even sex).

I thought I knew a great deal about anxiety as an experienced licensed clinical social worker, who also, ten years ago, overcame an extreme form of depression with anxiety. But having just finished My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind by Scott Stossel, I discovered there was so much more to understand, integrate, and apply to my life.

Stossel

Stossel, who happens to be the highly respected editor of The Atlantic, is an incredible writer – witty, intelligent, clear, and absolutely thorough. He also suffers from the most oppressive case of lifelong anxiety I have ever known. It was his heroic effort to solve his own troubles with anxiety that led him to chronicle it in his self-revelatory book. My Age of Anxiety is refreshingly unique and hard to categorize: it is a 400 page encyclopedic montage of memoir, historical analysis, cultural commentary, philosophical exploration, and medical examination of anxiety from the beginning of recorded history to the present time.

Stossel’s determination to always get it just right makes for comically embarrassing personal stories and extreme psycho-educational learning. The man never took a short cut in his life. A self-described neurotic – and perfectionist to the core – he is not given to approximations nor willing to withhold a single nuance. Nothing is easy. Nothing is black or white. And nothing is explained from a single perspective or theory. It is all very complicated and subject to interpretation – not unlike the neurological mystery of our brains, the worldview of an anxious mind, or life itself. Never simple … but infinitely interesting.

I filled up the white space on so many pages as I recorded my own reactions to Stossel’s thought-provoking discussion of anxiety. Stossel examines the source of anxiety (the proverbial nature versus nurture question) by mining the writings of Plato, Epictetus, Darwin, Kierkegaard, and Freud, to name just a few. Despite the aggregate wisdom of this great pantheon of thinkers, we continue to be flummoxed by anxiety. National Institute of Mental Health data indicates that 18% of individuals suffer from a clinical anxiety disorder. This is an issue central to our nation’s health and well-being.

I found myself interacting with this book deeply and without restraint, because frankly, I feel that I am a bit of an expert on the subject. I present as evidence the fact that, as a junior high student, when my peers were enthralled with John Hughes movies and Star Wars mania, my favorites were of the Woody Allen variety.  Annie Hall was my role model. Need I say more?

There is hope for those suffering with mild and even extreme anxiety. I have had more than my share of anxiety and have found some effective methods of managing it. The concept of neuroplasticity suggests that new ways of being can strengthen one’s capacity for anxiety-busting qualities like resilience and self-efficacy.

Extensive research on veterans has demonstrated that certain characteristics such as resilience and acceptance are what have allowed some people to maintain or reclaim mental health. These qualities may be in-born, but can also be learned.  As Stossel describes, “These include optimism, altruism, having a moral compass or set of beliefs that cannot be shattered, faith and spirituality, humor, having a role model, social supports, facing fear (or leaving one’s comfort zone), having a mission or meaning in life, and practice in meeting and overcoming challenges.”

Another important concept for preventing and overcoming anxiety is “self-efficacy.” Cognitive psychologist Albert Bandura wrote brilliantly on this subject. Stossel reports, “… repeatedly proving to oneself one’s competence and ability to master situations, and doing so in spite of feelings of anxiety, depression, or vulnerability, builds up self-confidence and psychological strength that can provide a bulwark against anxiety and depression.”

YES! I know this through my experience as a runner. I find that each run is a lesson in self-efficacy. Yesterday, preparing for the Fontana half-marathon, my running club had an 8-mile, race-pace training run to get through. When I woke up, I was tired, still stressed from a difficult work week, and not sure that I was up for the challenge.

But getting into my routine, putting on my gear without any thought of having another option, enjoying my morning coffee … I set off at 7 am to meet my running group. And sure enough, surrounded by the support and camaraderie of others with a shared goal, I was able to rise to a higher purpose and not be dragged down by my weakest impulses (e.g. parking myself in my cozy reading chair all morning). The anxiety receded. As it churned a bit during the run (Can I do it? Do I have the energy?) being part of the group and putting one foot in front of the other helped me remain focused on the goal. Before I knew it, my self-doubt was eliminated; the 8-mile run was finished. And, the beautiful end product was a feeling of accomplishment and calm. My internal pharmacy was well stocked.

You are not your anxiety. You can find methods to regulate it and have your best possible life. I recommend The Age of Anxiety as a means of understanding anxiety and exploring the many avenues for hope and healing. And, might I suggest running (or any other form of exercise)? It has been a lifesaver for me, and has left me – if only for brief periods – calm, cool, and collected.