Story Tools: PRINT | Text Size: S M L XL | REPORT TYPO | SEND YOUR FEEDBACK

In Depth

Mental Health

Q&A: Patricia Pearson on her book A Brief History of Anxiety

Last Updated April 4, 2008

Patricia Pearson, writer of CBC.ca's "A little good news" column, is a novelist and award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Maclean's magazine and the National Post, among other outlets.

As a novelist, her subject matter has run the gamut from the violent women featured in her true-crime book When She Was Bad to a designer-clad "accidental" mother in the novel Playing House.

In her latest book, A Brief History of Anxiety, just published by Random House, she tackles the history of anxiety, her own and everyone else's.

Pearson spoke with CBC's Amil Niazi about the book, which is part memoir, and the cultural forces behind our collective neuroses.

What inspired A Brief History of Anxiety?

It came out of my own desire to research it. At the time I started researching, I just had the biological model to go with and actually had no idea how much interesting analysis there was out there, going all the way back to Kierkegaard. It was like discovering the missing library of Alexandria. You know, we buried our own insight into the subject, which I found fascinating.

So that's primarily why I did it. Of course, in the aftermath I had to actually write the book.

The book addresses the idea of a culture of anxiety. What does that mean? Do you really think cultural forces are making us more anxious?

International health data suggests that Mexicans are relatively low in anxiety and depression compared to Canada and America and that their anxiety levels shoot up when they cross the border. Once they go to Arizona and Texas, they have comparable rates of alcohol and substance use and anxiety and depression. Why is that? What's the difference?

I went down there last winter and spent some time talking to people and realized there are some fairly key differences in the way the cultures play out. The most important one is the isolation we all have in much of North America.

You know, most Mexicans still live within the communities they were born in, they still have their extended families surrounding them, they are very much connected to the Catholic church, very much connected to the unions, the rituals and fiestas that go on through the unions and the churches. There are always parades and fiestas. And those kinds of rituals really anchor them.

So it's not that they're not less genetically prone to anxiety as we would be and, God knows, they have more anxiety-provoking experiences. But they're more buffered.

Then it becomes a case of realizing that the degree to which we've made ourselves vulnerable to anxiety and depression in this culture happened by taking away the resources that, culturally, have always kept people collectively engaged and surrounded.

We are all floating islands. It's an existential anxiety that we essentially have.

Is that the only issue?

There are other factors, too, that have to do with materialism.

We in North America and Europe have a very strong idea that we have to rise and fall on our own merits. It's virtually your duty to fulfil your ambition or pursue your dream. Whereas a lot of cultures don't have that, they don't think that way. They don't think 'I'm a failure if I'm not a millionaire.' It just doesn't even cross their minds.

There's far less pressure on them to live like that. The cultural forces are against us right now. It's the flipside of being so proud of our freedom and our human rights. Those are all great, progressive things but the flipside, the sort of shadow side, is this anxiety.

How did those around you react when they heard you were writing a book on anxiety?

Right out the gate, as soon as people knew what I was doing, they'd go blathering away about their own situations. Which has never happened to me on a book. It's amazing, for some reason it is something people just burst forth with. I don't know whether it's because it doesn't come up in conversation that much.

I found the same thing when I was being interviewed in Montreal and Ottawa last week. These radio people were personally interested in the subject. Which I've also never experienced with a book. Usually it's sort of an idle, professional interest in what I'm doing, but this was like a fervent curiosity.

Why do you think that is?

People have a stereotypical vision of the depressive lying on the couch. Anxiety can be so invisible that people want to finally be able to say this is what it looks like.

Do you think there is a lack of understanding in the general public about what anxiety is or how it affects people?

Oh yeah, definitely. In my experience, people either get it or they don't. When they don't get it, they really don't get it and they're quite unsympathetic.

I know I've put myself out there to kind of give an example of it, which also means putting up with people thinking I'm a complete flake. It's funny because when I was fashioning an excerpt for More magazine in the States, they wanted to look at the angle of financial anxiety. The editor-in-chief didn't have any anxiety and she just didn't get it. She thought I was being completely ridiculous. She was saying, 'what are you talking about? How could you have a fear of Revenue Canada envelopes?' She had no patience at all for it. You just have to put up with that.

Did writing this book teach you anything about your own anxiety?

Yeah, it did. I mean for me, it was like waves of epiphanies. Once I got into all this material that was out there, then suddenly it was like 'Oh, OK, that's why I behave this way and that's why this happens.' This is the root of some of my fears.

I think from that point of view, I tried to distil a lot of that research for other people because I'm convinced that they'll have the same kind of reaction. We're all dealing with the same scarcity of information right now. We're all just being put on Paxil or whatever.

You treat the subject, though, with quite a bit of humour.

There are a couple of things on that. One, when I decided to make it a personal memoir I had to be funny with the subject because I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me. Because I don't feel sorry for myself particularly.

There have been a couple of books written about the experience of anxiety. There was one written last year called Notes from a Phobic Life.And when it isn't funny, then the person comes across as a bit plaintive and I didn't want that to happen, so that was partly why I did it.

And second, the material just lends itself to humour because you get yourself into such ridiculous predicaments.

For example?

Well, what I wrote in the book about going and buying $500 worth of freeze-dried food and stashing it in my basement like a demented squirrel because I thought I was going to have to go into self-quarantine because of the avian flu.

I was also remembering the other day that when I was in university I had a lot of social anxiety, which at the time I didn't realize what it was. I would get myself into the stupidest situations. One time I was sleeping in my apartment and the landlord knocked on the door because he had to come in and fix something and I was too embarrassed by the fact that it was 11 in the morning and I was still in bed, to open the door.

So I ignored him and he used his master key and he came in and then I was even more embarrassed so I hid under my duvet and tried to go really still. And then he came in to the bedroom to use the phone and he sat, he parked his butt like inches from my nose and I'm lying there thinking what am I doing? Now I really can't admit that I'm lying here, so I had to go like completely stiff like a possum under the thing while he talked on the phone.

My whole life is riddled with these preposterous situations that I get into.

Go to the Top

Story Tools: PRINT | Text Size: S M L XL | REPORT TYPO | SEND YOUR FEEDBACK

World »

Anita Hill to chair new Hollywood commission on sexual misconduct and industry inequality
The biggest figures and institutions in entertainment have established a commission to be chaired by Anita Hill that intends to combat sexual misconduct and inequality in the industry in the wake of the huge wave of revelations spurred by allegations against Harvey Weinstein.
New coalition government shifts Austria to the right
Austria's centre-right People's Party, led by Sebastian Kurz, and the anti-immigration Freedom Party, led by Heinz-Christian Strache, have agreed to form a coalition government after two months of talks.
Myanmar journalists to protest over arrest of Reuters reporters
A group of Myanmar journalists said they would begin wearing black T-shirts on Saturday in protest at the detention of two Reuters reporters accused of violating the country's Official Secrets Act, as pressure builds on Myanmar to release the pair.
more »

Canada »

Updated Jury finds Millard and Smich guilty of 1st-degree murder in death of Laura Babcock
A jury has found Dellen Millard and Mark Smich guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Toronto woman Laura Babcock.
'If this happened to my baby I would be very devastated,' says teen who killed 6-week-old Nikosis Cantre
The teen testified Friday, saying she's "truly sorry" for what she did. Her lawyer is arguing for a youth sentence.
Apotex founder Barry Sherman and wife, Honey Sherman, found dead in North York home video
Canadian pharmaceutical giant Apotex confirms its founder Barry Sherman and his wife, Honey Sherman, are dead, amid reports that two bodies were found in their Toronto home.
more »

Politics »

Analysis Trudeau and his ministers seem to miss the Senate's old rubber stamp: Chris Hall audio
Transport Minister Marc Garneau arrived at the Senate this week spoiling for a fight. And he got one. What the normally even-keeled minister didn't expect was to lose his bid to get quick approval of his bill that sets the stage for an airline passengers bill of rights.
Liberals' new pro-Canada procurement caveat still being figured out
The Liberal government has a new rule book for judging procurement competitions — it's just not sure how it will read yet.
Firm that investigated Ghomeshi claims now probing allegations of inappropriate behaviour in PMO
A high-profile employment law firm has been tapped to investigate claims of inappropriate behaviour within the Prime Minister's Office. Janice Rubin's firm, Rubin Thomlinson will be leading the probe. Rubin is known for investigating the CBC, following the dismissal of radio host Jian Ghomeshi.
more »

Health »

Sorry - we can't find that page
 
CBC.ca

Sorry, we can't find the page you requested.

  1. Please check the URL in the address bar, or ...
  2. Use the navigation links at left to explore our site, or ...
  3. Enter a term in the Quick Search box at top, or ...
  4. Visit our site map page

In a few moments, you will be taken to our site map page, which will help you find what you looking for.

more »

Arts & Entertainment»

Director Peter Jackson alleges Harvey Weinstein blacklisted Mira Sorvino, Ashley Judd
Director Peter Jackson says he is now realizing that Harvey Weinstein's advice to avoid working with Mira Sorvino or Ashley Judd was likely part of a smear campaign against the two actresses.
Florida Project producer steps down after harassment claims
The Florida Project producer Andrew Duncan has been accused of sexual misconduct by a dozen anonymous women and is stepping down from his company June Pictures.
Bruce Gray, Traders and Big Fat Greek Wedding actor, dead at 81
Canadian actor was a prolific presence on the stage and screen with roles including an investment banker on the series Traders and the hapless father of the groom in the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
more »

Technology & Science »

Analysis The internet can be a powerful tool for good, but only if everyone can get online
One of the internet's greatest attributes is its potential to be a democratizing tool. But everyone needs to have access to it, and currently, too many people don't, including women, children, marginalized people and Indigenous populations.
SpaceX launches 1st recycled rocket to space station
SpaceX has racked up another first, launching a recycled rocket with a recycled capsule on a NASA grocery run.
Analysis Scientists mobilize for a fight over powerful gene-editing technology
A volatile scientific debate is quietly simmering, with echoes of the controversy over genetically modified organisms. The Gates Foundation and the U.S. military are among the groups funding gene drives, a powerful new genetic technology.
more »

Money »

Bell says CRTC promise of free phone unlocking doesn't apply to everyone
Canadians were supposed to be freed from cellphone unlocking fees come Dec. 1, but some with a Bell-locked phone have found they've had to fight for their freedom.
Bombardier, Boeing prepare to make final arguments in bitter trade dispute
The hearings mark the last chance for all sides to appear before the commission before it issues a final ruling, likely early in the new year, which will determine whether every C-Series jet entering the U.S. is hit with a hefty duty.
Apotex founder Barry Sherman and wife, Honey Sherman, found dead in North York home video
Canadian pharmaceutical giant Apotex confirms its founder Barry Sherman and his wife, Honey Sherman, are dead, amid reports that two bodies were found in their Toronto home.
more »

Consumer Life »

Sorry - we can't find that page
 
CBC.ca

Sorry, we can't find the page you requested.

  1. Please check the URL in the address bar, or ...
  2. Use the navigation links at left to explore our site, or ...
  3. Enter a term in the Quick Search box at top, or ...
  4. Visit our site map page

In a few moments, you will be taken to our site map page, which will help you find what you looking for.

more »

Sports »

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Breaking Spencer O'Brien soars to gold in snowboard slopestyle at Dew Tour
Canada's Spencer O'Brien won gold on Saturday in the women's snowboard slopestyle at the Dew Tour. O'Brien, from Courtenay, B.C., laid down a 95-point monster second run that lifted her into first place in the eight-woman final.
Coming Up Watch Best of 10 video
Join hosts Signa Butler and Rob Pizzo on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET for Best of 10, a countdown of some of the greatest moments and stories in Canadian high-performance sports history.
Live Watch Canadians compete at luge World Cup video
Watch live action from the luge World Cup in Lake Placid, N.Y., as Saturday's action continues with the sprint competitions starting at 12:05 p.m. ET.
more »

Diversions »

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
more »