The Story Of An Anxious Mind
By Clark Miller | May 13, 2017
By many important measures, reporter Andrea Petersen has a good life — an understanding husband, a young daughter she adores, and an enviable career with The Wall Street Journal.
There is another, unexpected side to her story.
Petersen will appear at the National Writers Series on Friday, May 26 to discuss her new book, On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety, which traces her battles with anxiety disorder, the toll it has taken on those around her, and the various drugs and self-help tools that have helped her (and others) manage the disorder. Award-winning Interlochen Public Radio reporter Morgan Springer will host the event.
Anxiety appeared early in Petersen’s life, then hit full force in 1989 during her sophomore year at the University of Michigan. It descended upon her without warning or discernible cause. Her heart rate skyrocketed, her thoughts became muddled, her vision blurred. The crisis lasted more than a month. She spent weeks on her parents’ couch, barely able to function, her mind simply locked down.
Her description of that period as “very impairing” can be considered an understatement.
As the disease progressed, she developed some unique dislikes, including an aversion to licking an envelope or standing in line at a theater. Other symptoms, though, were far more serious. A sense of impending tragedy might descend upon her without notice. In those years, anxiety crises led her to dozens of emergency room visits.
A Restless Voice Inside
Petersen described the roiling, inner dialogue of those with anxiety disorder as “the endless refrain of the anxious mind.” Professionals have called the disorder “the anticipation of future threat” or “sustained uncertainty.”
Whatever the definition, anxiety is an unpredictable disease that can take over entire lives. Episodes sometimes lessen in severity as one ages. But not always. There is no real cure – only various ways to mitigate the fears and cope with their psychic and physical aftermath.
Petersen’s episodes affected not only her but also her family and friends. Her parents were bewildered by it all, but tried their best to cope with frantic calls in the night. At a certain point, most boyfriends just lost their patience. In other cases, she ended the romance for reasons maybe even she didn’t understand at the time.
Help – Slow In Coming
Petersen speculates about how her life might have been different with a clear diagnosis and a better knowledge of techniques to manage symptoms.
But such lifelines took years to find.
A working clinical definition of anxiety disorder had emerged only a few years earlier before Petersen’s first major episode. There were few resources available on campuses or elsewhere during her student years. At the time, a genetic element was suspected but not well understood.
High Functioning Despite Anxiety
These days, Petersen experiences fewer extreme episodes. “I’ve had easy years and tough years,” she told the Northern Express. “The key is that now I know what to do when my anxiety worsens. I redouble my efforts to get enough sleep, exercise, [and] reduce stress.”
Occasionally, that’s not enough. She restarts cognitive behavioral therapy or medication when necessary.
“Those things can usually pull me back from a relapse.”
A reading of On Edge raises the question how someone who at times has been so tormented by anxiety attacks could step back and report on herself with such clarity. She admitted it was not an easy book to write.
“It was definitely out of my comfort zone to write something so personal,” she said. “Until now, I had only written one or two first-person pieces during my entire journalism career.”
It helped, perhaps, that she had a greater purpose in mind.
“My hope in writing this book was to give some understanding and insight to those who struggle with anxiety,” she said. “I also wanted to share the exciting scientific research that is happening now. Advances in neuroimaging and genetics are starting to unravel some of the mysteries of anxiety and could pave the way for new and better treatments.”
There is at least one other reason why, despite her disorder, Peterson is able to handle many of life’s pressures — even a recent personal health scare. Anxieties that mysteriously spring to life in her mind can defeat her, but she responds better to challenges from the outside world.
As she explained it, “Real peril, I have found, galvanizes me. I make decisions and get stuff done. It’s fear — not danger — that shuts me down.”
Petersen returned to the Ann Arbor campus recently to see if today’s students find the help they need. She found encouraging signs, especially in the support given by Michigan’s Counseling and Psychological Services, known a CAPS, and other organizations.
She also noted that much of the stigma around mental disorders has disappeared or at least lessened since her student days.
“I can tell how much the cultural climate has changed when I interview college students and they let me use their names, pictures, and the details of their illnesses in my stories,” she wrote.
At the same time, she said the University of Michigan is an outlier. Despite a dramatic rise in reported cases of anxiety disorder in recent years, only about one-third of campuses around the country provide any sort of help.
One Positive Side
Despite her long struggle, Petersen can find at least one positive effect of her disorder.
“It has given me a point of connection with other people in pain, [and] that has made me more empathetic. That is especially true now that I’m more open about it.”
Tickets to National Writers Series events can be purchased online at the City Opera website, at the box office 106 East Front St. in Traverse City or by calling (231) 941-8082.