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Solving (and Resolving) the Riddle of Anxiety

From the Show: Naturally Savvy
Summary: If you look at anxiety and related disorders as a riddle, might you better be able to resolve them?
Air Date: 2/18/15
Duration: 10
Host: Andrea Donsky, RHN and Lisa Davis, MPH
Guest Bio: Scott Stossel, Author
Scott Stossel is the editor of The Atlantic and the author of Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver. His latest book, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind, is a national national bestseller.  His articles and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, New Yorker, New Republic, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He lives with his family in Washington, D.C.
  • Book Title: My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind
  • Guest Twitter Account: @SStossel
Solving (and Resolving) the Riddle of Anxiety
Getting up in front of a group of people to give a speech or presentation of some sort can be terrifying, even if you're an accomplished scholar, artist, performer or author. Fear of public speaking is just one form of anxiety that many people struggle with.

But, for many others, anxiety and related phobias go far beyond being at the front of the room.

From a very young age, Scott Stossel struggled with a fear of heights, claustrophobia, separation anxiety, and more.

He still suffers in certain ways but has made great improvements since he started working on the "riddle" of anxiety. 

To some degree, anxiety remains a riddle even to the doctors and scientists who study it. But, there have been advancements and improvements in both understanding and treating it.

Anxiety, like any emotion, is a result of something physical going on in your brain; a dysfunction of neurotransmitters, for instance. But, it's also a psychological problem and may even be partly due to philosophical/spiritual considerations.

Understanding how all of these factors work together can help you solve that riddle, or at least recognize what's going on when you experience anxiety.

There may also be a genetic element. This does not mean that you are doomed to suffer if anxiety or other disorders run in your family; but knowing the presence can also contribute to solving that riddle. 

Listen in as Scott joins Lisa to share more about his personal story of anxiety, as well as how he has worked on solving the riddle.

RadioMD Presents:Naturally Savvy | Original Air Date: February 18, 2015
Hosts: Andrea Donsky, RHN and Lisa Davis
Guest: Scott Stossel

LISA: This is Lisa Davis. Andrea Donsky is off today.

Growing up, I was a very shy child, which is hard to believe now because you can’t stop me from talking, but I was very uncomfortable. Any time I knew I had to give a speech or even if we were just going around the room saying something, my heart would beat so fast and I would turn bright red. The other kids used to call me “Cherry Face” because I was constantly embarrassed and constantly anxious and “Please don’t call on me,” and the whole nine yards.

Well, somebody who knows a lot about being anxious is our next guest, Scott Stossel. He is the national, best-selling author of My Age of Anxiety, Fear, Hope, Dread and the Search for Peace of Mind.

Hi, Scott.

SCOTT: Hi, Lisa. How are you?

LISA: I’m good. How are you?

SCOTT: I’m good, thanks. Thank you for having me on.

LISA: Oh, I’m so glad to have you on. Scott and I have had the pleasure of speaking before and I read his book cover to cover. It is absolutely fantastic. I highly recommend it. Now, it’s funny for me, Scott. My anxiety was really contained to just the classroom situation. In other areas of my life, I was okay. But for you, you talk about it being pretty crippling from the age of 2 on. Tell us a little bit about that.

SCOTT: Well, sure. And, I’ll start by saying that I can totally relate to your public speaking fears and, you know, I’ve had friends who’ve had blushing problems or many people who have acute public speaking fears, they become debilitating. They become so self-conscious about their blushing that they actually contemplate a surgery that you can get that cuts down on your blushing. Blushing for me is not a problem--it’s more sweating and other symptoms--but I remember being in high school and several times giving a presentation in front of the class and, suddenly, my head would start to swim and I’d have to excuse myself and sit down. Of course, when you’re a 7th grade boy and all your 12-year-old peers are laughing at you, that’s about as mortifying an experience as you can have at that age. But, like you said, my anxieties and phobias are from a young age and extended far beyond that and included things ranging from fear of heights and kind of claustrophobia to separation anxiety, sort of terror of my parents dying and being away from my parents to more idiosyncratic phobias like my emetophobia, which is the acute sort of pathological fear of vomiting and which I developed at a young age.

LISA: Yes. Those are so complicated and one of the things—I mean, there are so many great things in your book—you really go into the history of anxiety and I love how you call it the “riddle of anxiety”. Tell us a little bit about what you learned about this riddle.

SCOTT: Well, I learned a lot. It was, in some ways, therapeutic working on the book. I was always interested in kind of the history of the idea of anxiety and also the science. To some degree, anxiety remains a riddle, but it’s a riddle that the investigation of which really sheds light not just on anxiety, but on the whole human condition and that’s for a few reasons. The main reason being that anxiety, like any emotion and anxiety disorders and like any psychiatric or emotional disorder, are a mixture of sort of a physical problem. This is a problem. It’s a brain disease. It’s a dysfunction of neurotransmitter systems. People who are acutely anxious may have actual irregularities in the structure of their brain. At the same time, it’s also a psychological problem that’s sort of overlaid and may be independent of these physical problems. Then also, for many people, it may be sort of a philosophical or a spiritual problem about are you living the right life? You know, am I believing the right things? And so, solving the real anxiety, which is kind of a quote from a mid-century researcher in the 1950’s at Cornell named Howard Liddell, sort of growing on Freud, that if you can sort of solve the mystery of anxiety which, again, is evolutionary designed impulse that kind of goes awry, you learn a lot about how the brain relates to mind and how we come together as personalities.

LISA: One of the things that really struck me in the book, too, was the idea of coming out and you say, “For a long time, governed by reticence and shame, I told people who inquired about my book that it was a cultural and intellectual history of anxiety. True, as far as it goes, without revealing its personal aspects.” Tell us about that dinner party and how that really opened your eyes to things.

SCOTT: Yes. So, as you say, I’m 45 years old now and I developed anxiety when I was 5 or 6. I was first diagnosed when I was 10 and for the first three decades, I would go to great lengths to hide my anxiety. I would keep my pills hidden away and I would go to elaborate lengths to conceal—make up excuses for--why I was disappearing for therapy appointments. And then, as I was working on the book, I was at this dinner party, as you alluded to and I sort of, for the first time, gingerly mentioned that it’s an intellectual and scientific history of anxiety, but it’s also kind of a memoir about my own experiences and to my astonishment…It was a dinner party. We were there with probably 12 other people at the table and about 6 within earshot and all those 6 immediately came forward and shared their own experiences of anxiety which were not limited experiences. I think 4 out of the 6 of them had taken medications of various kinds, some had had panic attacks, some of them had been hospitalized, some of them had similar phobias. Some of them were completely different and that was at the point I realized, when they came forward and shared with that sort of enthusiasm and sympathy, I realized, “Well, maybe coming out with this will not be shameful and isolating as I feared it might, but actually kind of empowering and, you know, create solidarity between me and my fellow anxiety sufferers.”

LISA: Yes. I think it makes so much sense to come out and talk about it. Another thing, too, you write is, “I don’t have to look far to find evidence of anxiety as a family trait.” You write about your great-grandfather. You know, I look at my daughter who has anxiety and Autism spectrum and ADHD and a couple other things. I look at my family--my husband’s family and my family. I’m like, “Oh, yeah. Okay. This makes sense.” So, that was something that I think I really do see that genetic link.

SCOTT: Yes. Absolutely. I mean, kind of going into the book I had a sort of intuitive sense of that because I knew, as you said, that my mother and father’s father had, despite having a very successful career for many years, he’d always been an anxious person and in his 50’s, which was in the late 1940’s, in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, he spent much of his time in and out of psychiatric hospitals undergoing all kinds of therapies. Then, my mother kind of had…I always assumed I learned from watching her a lot of my anxious temperament and some of my specific phobias. Looking at the scientific literature, there are piles and piles of research now accumulating about what different genes and constellation of genes contribute to anxiety disorders. So, I never want to say, and no one should ever conclude, that our genes are our destiny or that your heredity is going to doom you to being eternally anxious or blessed you with immunity to it, but it’s a strong contributing factor. Then, of course, that interacts with the nature of your upbringing and the kinds of things you go through in life--trauma and so forth-- and sort of helps determine whether you will develop an anxiety disorder or be relatively serene.

LISA: You know, here on Naturally Savvy, we talk a lot about natural health and using alternative medicine, but I have to be quite frank. I think medication is great for some things and I think that if that’s something that somebody needs and they might do it in conjunction with or they’ve tried the natural remedies and there’s a certain point in their life where they’re like, “You know what? This medication’s really helping me,” I have nothing against that. So, I just want to throw that out there. It might be shocking to some listeners, but I think it’s really important to keep an open mind and not be judgy.

SCOTT: Yes and what I would say is--and I talk a lot about medication in my book and I have mixed feelings about it myself. I think all things being equal, you’re better off not having to rely on medication for anxiety or whatever your psychological ailment may be. There are side effects associated with them and dependency issues and sometimes the drugs are just masking or treating symptoms but not the underlying problem and they’re actually keeping you from addressing the underlying problem.

But, all that said, if you are in acute distress, for many people, including myself at times, taking a pill is the difference between the ability to lead a kind of normal, functional life and being rather debilitated and housebound. So, I agree with you.
LISA: Scott, the time goes by way too fast. I say that all the time. My Age of Anxiety, Fear, Hope, Dread and the Search for Peace of Mind. You can learn more about Scott by going to www.ScottStossel.com. That’s one “L” in Stossel.

I just want to thank you. This book really is so incredible and the research and your own personal story. So, thank you so much for coming on Naturally Savvy.

It’s been such a pleasure.

SCOTT: Well, thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

LISA: So, be sure to listen to Naturally Savvy here on RadioMD. You can like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter at Your RadioMD and at Naturally Savvy.

Stay well. Take care of yourself and have a great day.