After 20 years of reporting on health and science for the Wall Street Journal, Petersen decided to devote a book to the often talked-about, rarely understood subject. On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety doesn’t just speak to her own experience, but takes a deep dive into the latest research on anxiety: How nature and nurture contribute, what the evidence says about existing treatments and where the science is heading now.
Chatelaine spoke with Petersen about when anxiety crosses the line from feeling to diagnosis, why women are twice as likely to experience it and how to deal with the fact that there’s no simple cure.
Everybody seems to diagnose themselves with anxiety these days. Do most people know what it means as a diagnosis?
The thing is, anxiety is a normal human emotion, and actually a certain amount of anxiety is a good thing. It motivates us to study for tests, prepare for presentations, or to go get a check-up if something seems a little off with our bodies. So you don’t want to eradicate it totally.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the diagnostic bible for anxiety disorders, defines a disorder as something that impairs your life in some way, prevents you from doing what you want to do when you want to do it. And that, I think, is the line we should look at in terms of what is normal anxiety and what’s an actual disorder.
In the book, you talk about how women are twice as likely to experience anxiety compared to men. Can you tell me how the research explains that?
When Canadian researcher Barbara Morrongiello was on maternity leave with her oldest son, she noticed huge differences in the messages boys and girls were given, what they were encouraged to do or not to do. She started doing these interesting studies looking at kids and parents in the playground.
In one study, toddlers were first observed freely playing. Then the adults were instructed to teach their kids how to slide down a firehouse pole. While both boys and and girls were able to navigate the equipment, parents more often warned girls about safety and the risk of getting hurt, but with boys they tended to encourage independence. They were also more likely to physically help girls, even when the girls didn’t ask for assistance. When boys asked for help, often they said, ‘No, we’re not going to help you, and, ‘Do it on your own,’ to the point where some boys would just tumble to the ground. Morrongiello conjectured that these messages typically gave way to feelings of vulnerability and self-blame in girls, and that could feed into experiencing anxiety.
You write that when it comes to your daughter, you’re actually the less anxious parent, but you still worry about whether she’s going to have similar issues to you growing up. How do you watch for that without going into overdrive?
I try to talk myself down, and keep my worries from her.
What parents with anxious children often do is respond to their children’s distress by being overprotective, and that sends off a message that allows them to avoid situations that scare them. We love our kids and we hate seeing them suffer, so it’s a totally logical reaction. But it can fuel anxiety in children, and it doesn’t give them the opportunity to approach what they’re afraid of and prove to themselves that they can handle it.
Research shows anxiety can be tough on relationships. How have you managed to mitigate the impact of it on your own relationships?
I have lost at least one friend, I think, because I have anxiety. And there are some people who I’ve encountered both in friendships and also in my romantic life who find it difficult to handle anxiety. Part of it is this thing called emotional contagion, where we literally think emotions are contagious. Like being around someone who is anxious can make you anxious. Some people are not comfortable with that.
After I had this disastrous relationship with someone who couldn’t handle my anxiety, I made a vow to tell every prospective boyfriend about my anxiety issue. I did not sugarcoat it; I said that it’s a chronic thing I deal with. I wanted to make sure that the person, in the beginning of the relationship, could handle it. I did that with my husband who was unfazed. Part of it’s that — choosing people and having people in your life who can handle it.
The subtitle of your book is “a journey through anxiety,” and I wondered if there was an element of getting through it and reaching some sort of magical beach-like place in the end. But of course, there is no beach. How did accepting that there is no escape from anxiety help you deal with it?
There was a time where I thought, OK, I’m going to be cured. But after all my research and all of my years of living with anxiety, I realized that I’m not going to be cured. But I also know that I have bad months and even bad years, and there are also a lot of good months and good years. So it’s really more cyclical.
And now I feel like I have the tools, so if I have a surge in my anxiety I know what to do — I gotta get back to therapy, I’ve got to go on medication. I also know that there are things I need to do every day, even when things are not bad, to prevent me from getting to that place — doing 15 minutes of yoga in the morning, nurturing my relationships, taking a walk in the park, baking, which I love to do — you know, anything that kind of grounds me. Anxiety is a future-oriented thing, so by virtue of that, it helps to do anything that can ground you to the present moment.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.