Worry, anxiety, nervousness, freaking out: These common and interrelated states have been puzzled over and analyzed for a long time. As early as 1950, psychologist Rollo May could write of anxiety, “For the past hundred years…psychologists, philosophers, social historians, and other students of humanity have been increasingly preoccupied with this nameless and formless uneasiness that has dogged the footsteps of modern man.”
Worry and anxiety had their own diagnoses, from George Beard’s nineteenth-century neurasthenia to Freud’s psychoneuroses. They were the subject of literary and philosophical reflections, from Kierkegaard’s dread to Sartre’s anguish to Auden’s anxiety, and of numerous self-help books, from Haydn Brown’s Worry, and How to Avoid It (1900) to Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (1948). Around the time May made his observation, new classes of sedatives for everyday worries were about to burst onto the market, and in subsequent years the literature and treatments would multiply beyond counting. We now have scientific papers, books, workbooks, memoirs, eight types of anxiety disorder, Xanax, cognitive-behavioral therapy, mind-body relaxation techniques, and chamomile tea.
Given all this, can anything new possibly be said about worry? Francis O’Gorman, a professor of English at the University of Leeds, thinks there can. He claims that worry, as a subject of reflection and as an everyday experience, has actually been neglected. It is, he argues, a “hidden, resistant topic that’s kept itself largely out of print.” “To think about worry now,” he continues, “is to be an investigator of the known-yet-almost-unknown, of the paradoxically familiar but almost undiscussed.”