How 'On Edge' Completely Nails What It Feels Like To Have Anxiety

I have suffered from anxiety my entire adult life, but putting my experiences into words so the people around me can better understand what I'm going through has never been easy. That is, until I read Andrea Petersen's new book on the subject, because from the sticky dread that's always somewhere in the background to the paralyzing fear that can put your whole life on hold, On Edge completely nails what it feels like to have anxiety.

A celebrated science and health reporter, Andrea Petersen has been waging a war against her own anxiety disorder since childhood, one she describes in unflinching detail in her new book about the affliction affecting not only her but 40 million Americans every year. In On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety, the author unabashedly brings readers into her most intimate moments of panic and fear — from the attacks she suffered as a child to the physical symptoms of the disorder that took her out of college her sophomore year to the lingering paranoia that has stayed with her most of her life — and lets them route around in the deepest parts of her disorder in an attempt to help them better understand how anxiety works, and more importantly, how it feels.

More than just  memoir of mental illness, On Edge is a well-researched deep-dive into not only Petersen's own intense experiences with the disorder, but the biology, symptoms, treatments, and history of anxiety. A masterful blend of the personal and the scientific, of anecdote and hard research, it chronicles Petersen's experiences various treatment attempts — including several psychiatrists, yoga teachers, and the great outdoors — while simultaneously documenting the shortcomings of past therapies and the promise of modern medicine in the mental health field.

On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety by Andrea Petersen, $18.36, Amazon

For anyone who is coping with anxiety, On Edge will feel like a validation of every panic attack, every irrational phobia, and every uncomfortable feeling you've experienced. What's more, Petersen's book will serve as a great comfort to not only those trying to understand their own mental illness, but those trying to grasp the experiences of those around them who suffer.

Deft and affecting, heart-breaking and fascinating, On Edge completely captures what it feels like to live with anxiety, and these quotes show how.

1"There is no warning, no prodrome. The onset is as sudden as a car crash. Something in my body or brain has gone dramatically and irrevocably wrong. My noisy internal monologue —usually flitting from school to boys to a laundry list of insecurities — coalesces around one certain refrain: I'm dying. I'm dying. I'm dying."

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2"Anxious people aren't just constantly on guard; they actually see more peril in the world. If a situation is ambiguous, they are more likely to perceive it as negative or threatening. That's why when I have a headache, I think of brain tumors. And if my husband Sean is being quiet, I don't consider that he might be tired — I think he's mad at me."

3" 'I feel like my nervous system is on overload compared to normal people,' she says. 'Sometimes I just don't feel calm, don't feel present or as able to interact. I feel like I just drank coffee even when I haven't.' "

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4"I avoided eating anything that looked or tasted slightly weird (and weird was a very broad category). I was gripped by fears of salmonella, E. coli, listeria, or some other nameless bacterium. I worried about out-of-the-blue allergic reactions. When the fear was too strong, I didn't eat at all. More often the fear would surge after I'd swallowed a bite. Then I'd rush to a bathroom, scan for feet under the other stalls to ensure I was alone, and make myself throw up."

5"I began to think it would be easier to not wake up at all. I didn't want to die. I'd spent months terrified of dying. But I couldn't see any other way to escape how I felt. The doctors couldn't help me. Nor could my parents or friends. And I increasingly didn't feel strong enough to continue to slog through the days and nights."

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6"Then that fear curdled into psychosis. She became terrified of Catholics and 'bad spirits' [...] She was afraid of being poisoned. She tucked a screwdriver into her purse for self-defense. She also carried a pocket mirror and would tilt it to catch the sunlight, a habit she thought would protect her family. Once she tried to force Susan to take the pills she had been prescribed at Mendota."

7"I try to breathe slowly, deeply. You’re just having a panic attack, I say to myself. I keep driving down the dark highway, but the symptoms are getting worse. My hands sweat. The edges of my vision are fuzzy. Every muscle tenses. Then I see a sign with a capital H and an arrow. There’s a hospital nearby."

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8"Mental illness isn't like tuberculosis, which is always caused by one particular bacterium. Anxiety disorders almost certainly have multiple causes — from genetics to childhood trauma to how your parents interact with you. And for any given person, the mix of these factors will be as singular as a fingerprint."

9"The weight on my chest is constant. Sometimes it feels like my ribs have shrunk a few sizes. Other times I imagine the pressure as an anvil that eternally drops on Wile E. Coyote. I am too scared to sleep. If I sleep, I can't concentrate on breathing. In my mixed-up mind, sleep equals death."

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