An estimated 40 million American adults suffer from some type of anxiety disorder in any given year. Women are especially vulnerable; about 40 percent of them will have an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. And rates are increasing for young people—17 percent of college students were diagnosed with or treated for anxiety during the past year, up from 10 percent in 2008. Among those whose lives have been turned upside down by anxiety is Andrea Petersen. In On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety (Crown), Petersen harnesses her personal experience and expertise as a health reporter to explore the biological mechanisms of anxiety and the groundbreaking research that might point the way to new treatments.
During her sophomore year of college, Petersen experienced her first panic attack. After that, nothing was the same. She had spells of breathlessness, a racing heart, and uncontrollable fear that seemingly came out of nowhere. She worried that any twinge of pain was a sign that she was seriously ill or had an undiagnosed disease. She was afraid of driving on highways, touching dirt, using a new tube of toothpaste and even licking envelopes. Fear, she said, ambushed her. Forced to withdraw from school, she spent half her time on the sofa, the other half getting EKGs, blood tests, CAT scans, MRIs, EEGs, and a variety of other tests. Doctors suspected multiple sclerosis (MS), a brain tumor, Epstein-Barr virus, even chronic fatigue syndrome.
It took more than a dozen doctors and almost a year before she was finally diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and treated. Although having a name for her symptoms and fears was an enormous relief, identifying the problem was only the beginning of Petersen’s journey toward understanding it.
Petersen offers readers a crash course in what happens in the brain of someone with anxiety. She excavates the role of genetics and the environment in mental illness by visiting with top neuroscientists and by tracing her family history—from her grandmother, who plagued by paranoia once tried to burn down her own house, to her young daughter, who Petersen worries might have inherited a genetic propensity toward anxiety. She candidly writes about how anxiety has colored her relationships—with her family, friends, coworkers, and boyfriends—from the ones who were supportive to the ones who were overwhelmed and made a beeline for the exit. She writes about the history of how anxiety has been treated, and how anxiety has both bolstered and limited her own career.
Along the way, she illuminates the differences between anxiety in men and women; looks at promising new research and treatments, many of which she’s tried herself; and introduces us to the people whose support has allowed her to make her life her own.
On Edge is an important and timely book that shines a light on a condition that is too often invisible, or stigmatized. Brave and empowering, this is essential reading for anyone who knows what it means to live on edge.
Peterson is a contributing writer at the Wall Street Journal, where she reports on psychology, health, and neuroscience. She is the recipient of a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism and lives in Brooklyn, with her husband and daughter.