“Little Panic”: Amanda Stern’s Panic Disorder

This is the book for anyone who has dropped a beat, a week or a year, feeling afraid not just of the dark, but of life, of being left alone in this world. Writer A.M. Homes, regarding Amanda Stern‘s Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life

By its publisher’s own account, author Amanda Stern‘s brand new memoir Little Panic is “a gorgeously immersive, immediately relatable, and brilliantly funny memoir about living life on the razor’s edge of panic.” The critics don’t disagree.

Publishers Weekly points out that Stern “courageously lays open her excruciating experience with 25 years of untreated panic disorder in this brave memoir of mental illness.” Further description:

From the time she was a small child growing up in New York City, Stern found terrifying possibilities in everything—what would happen if she lost her mother or she herself was kidnapped, what if her family lost their house, what if the constant testing of her intelligence revealed what she suspects: that she is different from all other children. She is eight years old at the time her worst fears are made real in 1979, when six-year-old Etan Patz—who lived mere blocks from her family’s Greenwich Village rowhouse on MacDougal Street— disappears without a trace, and Stern’s close friend Melissa dies of a brain tumor.

Cocaine dependence, unhealthy relationships, low self-esteem, and continual worrying were some of the manifestations of her untreated panic disorder, which, as Kirkus Reviews reports, didn’t get identified until she was 25—“when a therapist finally provided the proper medical term for her outsized anxieties.”

Therapy helped, and significant progress has occurred over time, though gradually. “As an adult,” she recently related to website The Woolfer, “it took me decades to finally understand that my limitations and differences don’t mean I’ve failed at life. I can be a childless, unmarried woman with a panic disorder, who finds family in her community, and still be a valid and valuable person.”

Indeed, notes Kirkus, Stern’s cadre of support has included “a loving mother, a compassionate stepfather, stable siblings, admirable schoolteachers, and at least a couple of competent therapists.”

Of course, the disorder continues nevertheless: “…(S)he has had to battle anxieties nearly every day, with occasional patches of worry-free hours. In one of the chapters, Stern shares with readers a day-by-day account of a full week, conveying what it is like inside her head. At the end of selected chapters, the author includes actual paragraphs from the reports of multiple therapists she consulted, sometimes willingly, sometimes under duress.”

Stern, interested in helping others, has a Resource section on her website, which opens with this statement, FEELINGS ARE NOT FACTS—“the first best thing that helped me with my anxiety.” Other recommendations include a specific guided meditation, a breathing app, and a book by Dr. Robert L. Leahy called The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry from Stopping You.

In closing, just one of the many rave reviews of Little Panic, this one from author Sarah Manguso: “Little Panic is an intimate and sweeping story of hyper-vigilance. Cheeky and vivid and transporting, it’s also extremely funny. Stern’s book conveys just how isolating mental illness really is, how it creates almost a second existence for those who suffer it. As I read it I had the sense of someone living underwater, watching the world going on effortlessly above. I was swept up. I spend my life hoping to find books like this.”

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