Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Brief History of Anxiety (Yours and Mine) by Patricia Pearson

Though I've never considered myself laid back (or at least not since I faced a chorus of laughter this one time when I suggested that I was), I've never known anything like the anxiety I've faced during the last six months since finding out I was pregnant. Numerous times I've remarked how fortunate it is that I've had no real problems during my pregnancy, seeing as I've managed to drive myself absolutely crazy with the imaginary ones. Concocted, I think, because for some reason I'm unable to believe that things are going well without physical evidence of that fact, or any real control over its occurrence. That I've never been so powerless has sent me into a semi-permanent state of panic, and so I decided to read Patricia Pearson's book A Brief History of Anxiety (Yours and Mine)-- now out in paperback-- in order to make some sense of what I've been feeling.

It is sort of ironic, however, that I turn to a book in order to understand anxiety, a book whose thesis is that anxiety is so prominent in our society because rational thought sells us short. Because we're the kind of people who think our thoughts and emotions can be summed up and explained in a book, just say. But still, Pearson manages this. Her book's effectiveness partly due to its unique approach-- part memoir, part history, all readable and fascinating.

Pearson contextualizes her own experiences with anxiety through a close cultural and historical analysis of the phenomenon. And phenomenon does tend to be the right word-- incidences of anxiety are unprecedentedly high in the Western world at this point of time, and Pearson seeks to make sense of this. Suggesting the culprit might be that "implausible myth: that we can assume mastery over our fates." Which began out of the middle ages with the development of "reason as a new mechanism for keeping anxiety at bay... Reason-- or rationalism, more specifically-- evolved out of a need to impose order on a world that was both fraught with danger and haunted with ghosts."

But the ghosts creep in, or rather, the holes in rationalism are all too apparent. Life in its randomness can be absolutely terrifying, particularly for those of us privileged to have become far more accustomed to order and control.

Pearson's personal experiences colour this history-- she writes of her first breakdown, of childhood incidence of fear and anxiety (which occurs, Pearson explains, because of the amygdala ("which act as the sensory headquarters of mammalian fear, [sending] out five-alarm panic signals" to the cerebral cortex, which in a child is "a work in progress, [so] she cannot yet rationally assess the threat..."). She writes of our acknowledgment of anxiety disorders, which weren't diagnosed years ago, though there have always been people suffering from "nerves" (so-called to in order to make mental problems physical, and eliminate the stigma). Pearson uses her experience as a crime reporter to illuminate our relationship to fear, as well as our attraction to certain versions of it. She also deals with her reliance on anti-depressants, which became an addiction, asserting that these medications are over-prescribed by doctors who are sold by big drugs companies, and have no real understanding of what these medications do.

A Brief History of Anxiety made me feel better. Though hardly a self-help guide, or a typical memoir at all, it was such a pleasure to read, such a relief to see my own experience reflected, and to understand that it takes place in a context outside of myself. What a pleasure also to learn so much in general, a fascinating education. Plus, it's funny-- Pearson is an excellent writer.