Fear Of Fainting, Flight And Cheese: One Man's 'Age Of Anxiety'

My Age of Anxiety
My Age Of Anxiety

Fear, Hope, Dread, And The Search For Peace Of Mind

by Scott Stossel

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Atlantic magazine editor Scott Stossel has countless phobias and anxieties — some you've heard of, others you probably haven't.

"There's a vast encyclopedia of fears and phobias," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "and pretty much any object, experience, situation you can think of, there is someone who has a phobia of it."

Stossel's own fears include turophobia, a fear of cheese; asthenophobia, a fear of fainting; and claustrophobia. His new book, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind, is both a memoir and a history of how medicine, philosophy and the pharmaceutical industry have dealt with anxiety.

Stossel says he wrote the book to help him understand and find relief from — or redemption in — anxious suffering. He's a very high-functioning anxious person and in fact, before this book, most of his colleagues were unaware of his problems.


Interview Highlights

On suffering from emetophobia, or a fear of vomiting

The fear of vomiting, which for me is one of the most original and most acute of my fears, is actually fairly common. Emetophobia, it's called, and by some estimates, it's the fifth most common specific phobia. ... There are these online communities where these people seek each other out.

Both in terms of the duration of the time that I've suffered from it and its intermittent acuteness, [it's] the emetophobia [that causes the most suffering]. It infects ... many of my other fears. For instance, the fear of vomiting, it makes me afraid of travel because I'm afraid I'll vomit far from home. It makes me afraid of flying not for the conventional reason that I'm afraid that the plane will crash, although I also have that, but I'm afraid I'll get motion sick and get nauseous. ... The fear of germs is obviously directly tied to that. The horrible kind of self-fulfilling vicious cycle of emetophobia is that if you're prone to acute anxiety and nervousness, as I am, it often manifests itself with stomach symptoms.

... I haven't [vomited] since ... 1977, March 18.

In an Atlantic essay adapted from his book, Scott Stossel writes, "I have, since the age of about 2, been a twitchy bundle of phobias, fears and neuroses." i i

hide captionIn an Atlantic essay adapted from his book, Scott Stossel writes, "I have, since the age of about 2, been a twitchy bundle of phobias, fears and neuroses."

Michael Lionstar/Courtesy of Knopf
In an Atlantic essay adapted from his book, Scott Stossel writes, "I have, since the age of about 2, been a twitchy bundle of phobias, fears and neuroses."

In an Atlantic essay adapted from his book, Scott Stossel writes, "I have, since the age of about 2, been a twitchy bundle of phobias, fears and neuroses."

Michael Lionstar/Courtesy of Knopf

... With the rational part of my brain I realize how completely irrational this is. I mean, the amount of time since I was 7 years old that I've spent worrying about something ... that I've spent 0 percent of the last 30 some odd years doing, it makes no sense. I know it makes no sense, and yet here I am.

On his panic attacks

A lot of times I can talk myself into what's known as limited symptom panic attack, where I'll have some of the symptoms, whether I'm sweating or having a little bit of stomach distress or what have you, but I can kind of keep myself from going into the full-blown, all-consuming mind-hijacked-by-panic. I can do that with self-talk and armed with the knowledge that I have about how panic attacks work.

On colleagues describing him as calm

Some people say that in stressful situations I can seem unflappable, and I think that's partly because I'm always kind of internally flapped. And so ... when there's actually something real to be concerned about, it's actually less anxiety-provoking than these irrational things. It's also fairly typical ... of certain kinds of anxiety-disorder sufferers, particularly people with panic disorder, [they] are exceptionally good at hiding it. They're able to convey an impression of competence, calmness and confidence, which is maybe substantially real ... but there's an internal fear. ... The gap between that and this façade where people see you as competent and effective — you're always afraid of being exposed, which is in itself anxiety-producing.

One of my more recent therapists calls this phenomenon impression management. Impression management is not only a symptom of anxiety, because you're worried about being exposed, but it's also a cause because you're constantly worried that the house of cards that is your outward image ... is going to come crashing down.

On anxiety and genetics

The family tree is sort of stippled with people who have anxiety, which is quite common in the literature. In my research, not just in my own family, ... I've come to the conclusion that there is a rather large genetic component to one's underlying temperament. That doesn't mean that you're doomed to grow up to have an anxiety disorder or be nervous all the time, but you will be disproportionately prone to developing an anxiety disorder. Nothing is ever purely genetic. There are identical twins, one of whom will develop panic disorder and the other one is much more likely to develop panic disorder than a random person in the population, but they're not guaranteed to do it, which is sort of proof that it can't be wholly genetic because they have the same genome.

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