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An anxiety-inducing read

Patricia Pearson’s personal narratives won’t put your mind at ease

The melting snow, sunlight, and fresh springtime smell convinced me to start reading Patricia Pearson’s A Brief History of Anxiety: Yours and Mine outdoors. I sat on the steps in front of the Redpath Museum, but only got a few minutes in before my irrational fear of birds forced me to move. I was convinced that the pigeons outside Redpath were about to swarm in.

Most people have silly anxieties – I can’t be the only one, right? Right? Maybe you have a fear of spiders, or you’re overanxious about school. But what differentiates “anxiety” from an “anxiety disorder”?
According to the American Psychological Association, a general anxiety disorder includes “symptoms of anxiety, fear, avoidance, or increased arousal due to direct physiological effects of a general medical condition.” They’re cited as “the most common of all psychiatric illnesses,” leading to “considerable functional impairment and distress.”

Clearly, living with an anxiety disorder is more difficult than dealing with everyday phobias, but Pearson’s History of Anxiety seems to have some trouble with this distinction.

As the title promises, the book addresses Pearson’s personal history of anxiety as well as “ours” – and of the two, she’s clearly more interested in hers. Western history is presented completely out of order – the sixties are mentioned before the middle ages – but Pearson’s personal narrative appears in perfect chronology. Admittedly, the book has some interesting moments, but they’re sparsely strewn among long, dull accounts of her struggle. Also, her self-pitying tone comes across as annoying rather than earnest.

Pearson cites a study claiming that Western parents often encourage children to over-analyze their feelings. Ironically, she herself seems to be a product of this overanxious culture.

That said, A Brief History of Anxiety was, at times, an intriguing read, and it made me want to learn more about the topic.

A Brief History of Anxiety is 208 pages long and available from Random House for $29.95.