As a longtime health reporter for The Wall Street Journal, Andrea Petersen was perfectly positioned to write a book on anxiety. But that wasn't the only thing motivating her to come out with the new book, On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety. Since Andrea’s college years, she herself has suffered from chronic anxiety. In On Edge, she deftly combines straightforward reporting on the history and current state of anxiety research with a candid memoir of her own pain and perseverance.
We caught up with Andrea to ask her a few questions about the book.
LIVE HAPPY: What made you want to write this book?
I wanted to put something out in the world that would have helped me when I was 19 and had my first panic attacks, and I had no idea what was going on with me. The book is meant not only to provide information, but also to offer a sense of understanding.
I have been a health reporter for a long time. So while I had this personal goal that I wanted to offer empathy and solace, I also realized this was a very exciting time in anxiety research. With advances in neuroimaging and genetics, scientists know so much more about what’s happening inside the brains of anxious people than ever before, and those breakthroughs are already starting to lead to new treatments. I realized there is a good story here, and I wanted to combine the two. I wanted to provide recognition for people who suffer, but also take my reporting experience and put that to work.
LH: Who do you see as the primary audience?
There are 40 million Americans who will at one point have an anxiety disorder, so that’s a pretty big group of people. It is written for people who suffer from anxiety, but also for the people who love them. It was always difficult for me to explain to someone what it feels like to be anxious. We all get anxious to a degree, but the persistence of it, the relentlessness, the inability to be reassured, can be incredibly maddening to someone who hasn’t experienced it—almost incomprehensible. I wanted to explain to the spouses, the parents, the friends, what it feels like.
LH: Is anxiety getting worse in our society, or does it just seem like it?
That’s the complicated question. Anxiety has been with us forever. It is laid over our ancient inner threat-detection system, which evolved to keep us alive [fight or flight]. But when I spent time with students at the University of Michigan while researching the book, I had a realization that it’s much harder to get into a top college than it used to be. It’s more expensive; there is a lot more pressure to keep grades up. And a college degree is no longer a guarantee of a good job.
These kids came of age during the recession and that is top of mind for them. They have to get the right internship, the right job... The summer after my freshman year, I worked as a waitress at an Irish bar. That would not play well today. Those kinds of things do add a lot of stress.
Then again, there is also just less stigma today. When I was in college, I didn’t know a single person who was seeing a therapist. I didn’t know one person who was taking a psychotropic drug. Now students talk about going to therapy, even having a mental illness, without fear of how people will see them.
LH: Anxiety is often closely tied to depression, but in your book you stay clear of depression. Is it possible to have one without the other?
It’s true that anxiety and depression are often linked. For me, I felt that depression had been covered already by some wonderful books, like Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, and others, while anxiety was a little bit less explored.
I definitely have had episodes of anxiety when I was also depressed. During my college years, I got to a certain point in my anxiety when I felt like couldn’t live like that anymore. And the comorbidity is strong. But I had to focus the subject for the book, and anxiety is such a big and unwieldy topic already.
LH: What would you say to someone in college today who is suddenly hit with panic attacks as you were?
Go get help. Go talk to someone at your college counseling center. Get appropriate help.
I ended up in a psychiatric emergency room—I was suicidal, and they gave me several sessions of psychodynamic therapy. I am a huge fan of psychodynamic therapy, but I thought it was so irrelevant at the time whether or not I was angry at my father!
Now, CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) is the first-line treatment. It gives you skills, such as how to ratchet down the negative thoughts. Mindfulness is also a great tool. I am terrible at meditating, but I love yoga. But for acute panic disorder, I would recommend medication and CBT.
LH: Are you concerned about becoming ‘The Anxiety Person’?
Yes, and that was why I am in awe of these young people I met at the university [of Michigan] who let me use their full names and even their pictures. And I do worry a little how they will fare in the world. I asked them, “Do you worry about how being so candid about mental illness will play out in the working world?” And they say, “A company that would discriminate against me—that’s not a place I want to work.” I have confidence that these same young people who are transforming their college campuses along with the faculty and staff will also transform the workplaces in terms of the taboo.
Personally, it took me this long to “come out” and tell my story because I feel like I have a 20-year track record as a reporter at the Journal. My whole goal of doing this is to help other people who are in the same shoes I was in. I don’t know what the blowback will be, but I can handle it.
On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety is available at Amazon and wherever books are sold.
Emily Wise Miller is the web editor for Live Happy.