[REVIEW] On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety by Andrea Petersen

As always I’ll start the review by saying how I came upon this book: I was looking for more mental health memoirs/non-fiction to read and stumbled upon this book in the publishers catalogue. The very first thing that attracted me towards this book is the subject matter it deals with: anxiety. The reason why that interested me is because I, myself am an anxious person and have always been one. Anxiety before a test, check, Anxiety whilst going to the supermarket, check, Anxiety while talking to people face to face, check. I still haven’t learned how to control my anxiety and I often avoid social situations but I guess that in time I’ll learn how to better cope with anxiety and anxious thoughts.

The author of this book is a journalist who has been suffering from anxiety disorders since she was a child but has been officially diagnosed in her twenties. We enter the mind of Petersen and experience her life filled with anxiety, panic attacks and more anxiety. This book is half memoir half psychology/science book combined together. It is divided into nine chapters with each one concentrating on different aspects of anxiety which is really fascinating. Example:

  1. THE ANTICIPATION OF PAIN: DEFINING ANXIETY
  2. SCARY CLOWNS AND THE END OF DAYS: ANXIETY IN CHILDHOOD
  3. MY GRANDMOTHER’S MADNESS: THE GENETICS OF ANXIETY
  4. and more..

In On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety the author offers insight into new research, history, effects of anxiety, drugs, treatment as well as her experience with it. While reading this book I’ve learned a lot more about anxiety in general but also the correlation between anxiety, depression and suicide:

Depression is the mental illness most strongly associated with suicidal thoughts, but it doesn’t often lead to suicidal acts. Recent research has found that it is anxiety disorders and other illnesses, like problems with impulse control or addiction, that are more likely to lead to suicide attempts.’

I have also learned the origin of the post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which Jacob Da Costa, an American physician discovered during the Civil War – an American soldier was complaining about ‘lancinating pains in the cardiac region, so tense that he was obliged to throw himself upon the ground’ which were resurfacing every so often. As a result of this he has named the soldiers condition ‘irritable heart syndrome’. Freud has called anxiety disorders ‘The Anxiety-Neurosis’ and he paved the way for better understanding of anxieties and panic attacks (even though his approaches always had a connection with the unconscious and repressed urges).

I very much enjoyed reading about Petersen’s experience with anxiety and panic attacks – we also got insight into her life, family anamnesis with mental illness. The author compares gender roles – focusing on women’s and how having an anxiety disorder and its treatment was handled in the past.

‘The writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman has described her experience with the rest cure in the autobiographical short story The Yellow Wallpaper…

Deprived of distraction and any intellectual life, the heroine [of the short story spends hours staring at the yellow wallpaper in her room, gradually descending into madness

...The rest cure was primarily prescribed to women. When Theodore Roosevelt was diagnosed with neurasthenia, his doctor sent him to a dude ranch in the Dakotas for a spell of riding and hunting.’

There were also harrowing facts that show how more and more people in the US suffer from anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses. Nowadays there are many focus groups, group therapies and other resources that can help prevent and manage many disorders. Petersen describes her experience with therapies such as CBT, ACT and many other but what mainly helped her was yoga with its calming effects on the mind of the one who’s doing it. What stayed with me when I finished this book is that nowadays scientists are trying to find better ways to control/ease anxiety in people and that is done by doing MRI scans on the brain while the brain is exposed to the source of the phobia/anxiety (e.g. arachnophobia: people are shown pictures of spiders, moving spiders are shown in virtual reality..) and they are trying to find ways to make people more comfortable with their phobia/anxiety.

In one particular chapter of the book we learn about medications which are used in order to treat disorders and their origins. Petersen compares drugs and therapy and gives us the ups and downs of both. She also shares her worries about her pregnancy and the fear of her daughter having  an anxiety disorder. A wide range of studies, research, effects of anxiety on the brain and the body are described in this book and getting further into them would make this review an essay.

The final chapter of the book focuses on her present living and coping with anxiety and also at what is causing anxiety in young people today. The main reason for anxiety in young people is academia and academic achievements also the pressure that young people feel over getting good grades and making their parents proud. What we are left with is the knowledge that there are many sources of anxiety but what we should know is that we shouldn’t shy away from asking for help and support in dealing with something that’s causing us anxiety or mental health problems.

Some (not all) research and information may not be new to readers who study/have studied psychology/psychiatry but a person approaching this book without any knowledge will be left with information which will surely widen their knowledge on this subject.

A very well researched book filled with tons of useful information for anyone interested in anxiety disorders and psychology/psychiatry.

Release date: May 16th 2017 by Crown Publishing

I would like to thank the publisher Crown Publishing (Penguin Random House) and NetGalley for providing me with a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review of the same.

My rating: 

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Andrea Petersen

ANDREA PETERSEN 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, NY with  her husband and daughter.

Find her on: Author profile (publisher)  and Twitter.