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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.

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