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Anxious days indeed: An interview with Patricia Pearson

By Bernard Chapin
web posted March 3, 2008

Patricia PearsonPatricia Pearson is a writer who possesses a plethora of interests. A great deal of information concerning her can be found at her website, called "Pearson's Post." She has won numerous awards and is a regular contributor to The USA Today, and Canada's National Post. Her work has also appeared in Spy, Chatelaine, the New York Times, the Times of London, New York Observer, Redbook, the Guardian, Nerve, Shift, and Saturday Night. Mrs. Pearson has authored several books such as Believe Me, When She Was Bad: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence, and Life on a French Poster. At present, she lives with her family in Toronto, Canada. The release of her latest book occasioned my second interview with her.

BC: Congratulations on A Brief History of Anxiety [Yours and Mine]. Auden dubbed his time "The Age of Anxiety," but can a better claim be made to it being true of our time?

Patricia Pearson: Rates of clinical anxiety are extremely high in North America right now. I think historians will look back and consider us to have been a part of Auden's Age. We are still in the maelstrom of clashing cultures and shifting values. Modernity has thrown us for a loop. Primarily, it is an age of uncertainty. Humans have always coped with hazard, but their rituals and beliefs were intact, and acted as buffers against personal anxiety. In our Age, we have tossed out faith and ritual and social rules and common cause, and rendered ourselves isolated. In my opinion, this is why our rates of anxiety and depression are soaring.

BC: Would you say that the great size of our governments directly impacts the public's mood along with the prevalence of anxiety within the general population?

Patricia Pearson: I'm not sure what you mean by this, Bernard. Government can certainly play at fear-mongering, whatever its size or character, just as media does. I am a journalist, a former crime reporter, and I know for a fact that I participated in fanning flames by encouraging readers to pay what psychologists call "selective attention to threat." We're all going to be murdered by serial killers! Or terrorists! Media has a huge role to play in enhancing people's sense of powerlessness and unease. This is why I now write a column devoted solely to good news. (For CBC.ca) It may not be as dramatic or as sexy, but it's just as real -- the constructive and positive efforts being made by good-hearted and ingenius people all over the world to solve critical problems. 

BC: Might we regard anxiety as being holdover from our evolutionary past which was once a very good thing but now, like cravings for salt and fat, potentially disabling?

Patricia Pearson: I think so, yes. Neuroscience has shown that the ‘fight or flight response' our brains trigger in response to menace, such as the prowling leopard our distant ancestors darted away from, can also be triggered by threats that resist interpretation. I'm no expert on this subject, but it has to do with the neurobiological interplay between the amygdala and the cerebral cortex. From an evolutionary perspective, our brains need to interpret the source of menace before the amygdala stops sending out alarm signals. But if we cannot interpret the source of menace, in other words if the culture itself feels threatening or bewildering or too complex, then the alarm continues to sound. 

BC: Do you agree that "preparation is the remedy for anxiety?"

Patricia Pearson: No. Fear is the remedy for anxiety. What I mean by that is that dealing with a clear and present danger will displace the more paralyzing and helpless sensation that is anxiety. Since I wrote my book, a family member has grown very ill. No time to be anxious. Time, instead, to be working the phones, finding cutting-edge treatments, battling doctors. This is what Virginia Woolf called ‘extreme reality.' Anxiety is more about what T.S. Eliot wrote: "What shall we do now, what shall we do? Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door."  

BC: Along these lines, do you think that the "hypothetical analytical planning" you mention is just preparation gone mad? I think the word hypothetical tells us much about its usefulness.

Patricia Pearson: People cope with anxiety in a number of ways. In my case, I have often engaged in what psychologists call "hypothetical analytical planning." Basically, I convince myself that if I can just foresee every conceivable contingency in the future and plan for it, I will somehow have control over my fate. It's a delusion, a form of anticipatory worry that eventually just makes your head spin.

BC: When you note that "the essence of the condition is an intolerance of uncertainty" are you really referring to symptoms arising from an individual's lack of realization that life cannot be controlled? That we never will be the masters of our world?

Patricia Pearson: There are two threads to this. Anxiety disorders are characterized by an intolerance of uncertainty because people who are prone to this neurologically and through childhood experience really are incapable of coping well with uncertainty. This has been shown with mice in a lab at Columbia University. If you knock out a certain gene, the mice are much less able to navigate ambiguous (changing) lay outs in a maze.
The other thread is cultural. America lives by the myth of the supercompetent individual who can rise above all challenges –American Idol-style—with enough grit and persistence. In reality, we have very little control over fate. Most cultures in the world are completely aware of this lack of control, but Americans are not. So it is that much more anxiety-provoking when life doesn't proceed in a predictable way, according to plan. 
(Mice, Men and Best-Laid Plans...)

BC: Do you think that most writers possess higher than normal levels of anxiety?

Patricia Pearson: Creative people in general, both scientists and artists, have been found to have higher than average levels of mood disorder. Not just anxiety but also depression. The thinking now is that there may be a neurological correlation between mood and creativity.

BC: You cite a statistic claiming that 28.8 percent of the overall population in America suffers from anxiety and it is mentioned in the context of world health problems. This strikes me as being rather absurd. Isn't measurement error a more likely cause? Or possibly a result of the World Mental Health Survey mislabeling normal behaviors such as occasionally feeling stress as indicators of pathology?

Patricia Pearson: The stat refers to a lifetime prevalence rate. In other words, over the course of their lifetimes nearly one third of Americans will have experienced some form of "clinically significant" anxiety, ranging from phobia to panic attacks to a bout of post-traumatic stress disorder. Let's say you have ten people in a room. Ask them their stories: one of them might have been in the Armed Forces, a second lost their husband in a fire, a third was once sexually assaulted. All those events could have generated acute anxiety. There's your 30 per cent. The difference with the rest of the world is that people also have traumatic life events, but they are more buffered by their faith, their extended family, their rituals and beliefs. In tearing down all of our customs and traditional institutions in favour of more freedom, we are actually making ourselves less resilient. 

BC: Lastly, the book is an extremely personal account of anxiety and the way it impacted your life. We find Patricia Pearson front and center. What would you say in response to someone who found it too self-indulgent?

Patricia Pearson: I'd tell them not to read memoirs. This book is driven by the narrative arc of my experience. So is William Styron's self-portrait of depression, Darkness Visible, and Kay Redfield Jamison's account of her bipolar illness: An Unquiet Mind.

I don't think it's self-indulgent to offer up one's own tale as a basis for conversation about an overarching human conundrum. What is self-indulgent is drinking too much Port.

BC: Thank you, Mrs. Pearson. ESR

Bernard Chapin is the author of Women: Theory and Practice and Escape from Gangsta Island and a series of video podcasts called "Chapin's Inferno." He can be contacted at veritaseducation@gmail.com.


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