The Anxiety Project
My Journey to the Centre of our Deepest Fears
An insightful personal essay about a growing social phenomenon
When Dutch novelist and historian Daan Heerma van Voss finds himself in yet another break-up because he is just too anxious to be with, he sets out to unearth the roots of his deepest fears. He is not alone though: 264 million people suffer from anxiety, and this number is growing every day. Digging more deeply, Heerma van Vos wonders whether our genes have something to do with it. What is the link between anxiety and creativity? And how can you love another when you are in a constant state of fear?
To answer these questions and get a grip on this unpredictable ‘monster’, Daan delves into his memories and family history, and searches for explanations in the literature on fear. It will be a long journey that takes him abroad and introduces him to philosophers, artists, scientists and the fellow anxious. In the French countryside, he comes to understand the history of anxiety, and in particular the imagination’s unique role in human fear. Unlike other animals, we can fall prey to the fearful possibilities we constantly imagine. This inspires him to go to Jakarta, where he discovers that at least the last four generations in his family have suffered from the same anxiety but with varying medical ‘explanations’.
Our current medical label, ‘anxiety disorder’, was only coined in 1980 and turns out to have a disturbing history of its own. With the help of fellow patients in the Netherlands, Daan addresses the usefulness of such diagnoses and the accompanying therapies and pharmaceutical treatments. Ultimately, he links the international growth of anxiety to a marked cultural and economic shift, since the 1980s, away from communal dealings with anxieties and towards the individual. This isolation and pressure has only been heightened by the internet and social media: engulfed by images of success, we allow our expectations to grow while genuine opportunities are shrinking. More than raising awareness, Daan argues for acknowledging anxiety as a collective rather than individual matter.
The lived experience of fear, however, remains very personal and Daan importantly contributes an intimate portrait to what is most often a clinical conversation. As someone who has experienced panic attacks since the age of six, he not only seeks understanding of his fear, and his fear of fear (of ‘waking the monster’), but also self-reconciliation. Heartfelt and timely, The Anxiety Project combines a personal account, historical argument and investigative essay with a highly readable style.