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‘On Edge’: A Memoir About Life With Panic Attacks

May 16, 2017

As a health and science reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Andrea Petersen is broadly knowledgeable about a lot of mental health issues. But her knowledge of acute anxiety is as intimate as it gets: She has struggled with crippling panic attacks since she was a child. And she’s written a terrifically candid book about her experience. 

In On Edge, Petersen writes vividly about what her panic attacks feel like and what treatments have worked (and not worked) to curb them. She describes the latest thinking on the causes of anxiety disorders, the newest approaches to treatment and initiatives to prevent anxious children from developing full-blown disorders. 

But her personal story is what compels you to keep reading. Her anxiety is a wily opponent, surprising her with new and different symptoms and inflating minor complaints into life-threatening crises. By the end of the book you have stopped counting how many emergency rooms she’s visited and specialists she’s consulted in the throes of anxiety. And you understand viscerally that being a smart, savvy person who knows she has panic disorder does not necessarily stop you from being fully persuaded that, unlike all those other times, this time it’s the real thing.

Not that Petersen lets her anxiety stand in the way of an ambitious career, marriage and motherhood, and plenty of adventurous travel. On Edge is a testament to the tenacity of both the anxiety and Petersen herself, and a reminder of how many seriously accomplished people do what they do despite great emotional pain. One particularly eye-opening chapter chronicles the effect of her anxiety on her personal relationships over the years, and the range of responses it elicits from friends and, especially, romantic partners. Suffice it to say that some of them bolt. 

I can’t say how useful On Edge would be to someone who has panic attacks — I’ve never had one — but it’s quite enlightening if you haven’t. And it would be immensely useful if you haven’t but are close to someone who has the disorder. 

Tagged with: Mental Health