“Baristas at My Coffee Shop Know When I Have a Deadline: I Order the Chocolate-Chip Muffin for Breakfast!”

Interview: Andrea Petersen.

Andrea Petersen is a news editor and feature writer for the Wall Street Journal — she writes about everything from science to health to aging to family.

I know Andrea because we’re in a non-fiction writers’ group together. Over the years, I’ve heard a lot about her book on anxiety as she was writing it, and I couldn’t wait for her to finish so that I could read it.

That book has just hit the shelves: On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety. In it, she deftly combines an honest, wry account of her own challenges with anxiety with a thorough examination of contemporary research.  So many people struggle with anxiety — or are close to someone who does — so this book is a terrific resource.

I love this kind of book — what I’d call a “reported memoir,” when writers use their own experience as a lens through which to investigate the research, history, and thinking around a subject.

You can watch a fascinating interview with Andrea on the Wall Street Journal website here. She describes her first panic attack and about her struggle with anxiety disorder — and she reviews what she’s learned about anxiety disorder, and what the research shows.

You can also read an excerpt from On Edge here.

I was eager to hear what she had to say about how she happiness, habits, and anxiety.

Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Andrea: Every night I read with my 8-year-old daughter. Sometimes she’ll read to me; sometimes I’ll read to her. Right now, we’re just starting the first Harry Potter book. I love knowing that, even if the day is super hectic, I’ll have that special evening bonding time with her. It often carries over into the morning, too. On the city bus on the way to school, we’ll discuss our favorite characters and what happened during the previous night’s reading.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Now I know that while screw-ups happen, they don’t need to permanently waylay me. In order to establish a good habit, I’ve found that I often need to keep trying—and failing and trying and failing—before it will stick. I used to think it was all or nothing. So if I promised myself that I was going to work out every day and I missed a day, I’d throw in the towel. I also know that I need to make goals more realistic now. So I’d probably start with the goal of working out once a week. Once I established that, I’d move to twice a week. And so on.

Which habits are most important to you?

I prioritize sleep. I need eight hours a night to function well. I’ve also found that sufficient sleep is critical to keeping my anxiety under control. (There’s a significant body of research showing that lack of sleep can fuel anxiety.) I also make a habit of setting aside at least a half hour each week to phone a friend or two. Between work and family, life can get so busy and friendships can often be neglected. I get so much joy and support from my friends that I try to take the time to nurture those relationships.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

I wanted to establish a regular yoga practice. (Research is finding that yoga can ease anxiety symptoms.) And even though a lovely yoga studio was just a few blocks from my home, I found it difficult to get there more than once a week. The classes were an hour to an hour and a half long and it was tough to carve out that chunk of time. Then a friend of mine recommended online yoga classes. Some of these are only 15 minutes long. And I can definitely find 15 minutes in a day! So, now most mornings I start my day with a short online class. During the week, I’ll keep it to 15 or 20 minutes. On the weekends, I’ll explore longer ones. These little bits of yoga may not seem like much, but I can definitely see results. I have more upper body strength and feel calmer and more focused.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I’m a Questioner (Though I think I have strong Obliger tendencies, too.) I do a great deal of research before I undertake a course of action. [Hmmmm…Questioners and Obligers are the opposite of each other, so Andrea, I don’t think you’re a mix. We will discuss another time.]

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

Work deadlines are the biggest culprit. If I’m staring down a big one, I’ll sometimes skimp on sleep, skip yoga and ditch my healthy eating habits. The baristas at my neighborhood coffee shop know when I have a deadline: That’s when I order the chocolate chip muffin for breakfast!

  • HEHink

    The idea of a questioner with obliger tendencies resonates with me, because I really felt that way when I first started reading about the four tendencies. The graphic with the labeled circles has helped me see how they really don’t mix, though! I believe the confusion happens when you have (or are) a questioner who chooses to prioritize other peoples’ needs over their own. I also think “chooses” is the key word, here. In many cases, a questioner truly values caring for others, and deliberately acts on that value. And, if you have children or elders to care for, or others at your job require specific things from you in order to their jobs, certain things for them just have to take priority. Other times, I think we unconsciously (or maybe consciously) choose to take care of others’ needs first, to avoid making a decision about what would best meet our own needs (for a variety of reasons). It seems to me that indecision is the bane of the questioner’s existence, but once we can get past it, we can meet the expectation(s) we have chosen.

    Looking forward to checking out On Edge!

    • Ryan Langrill

      I agree. Early on, I couldn’t tell whether I was an Obliger or a Questioner. If someone asked me to do something, I would always do it; if someone set an expectation for me, I would always meet it. However, I can also stick to things myself–provided I have sufficiently convinced myself that the thing has value.

      I feel this tension, sometimes, with rules. I don’t like when people violate rules. But also, I don’t like rules that I don’t see value in. It’s like my ‘System 1’ (intuitive) self is an Obliger and my ‘System 2’ (reasoning) self is a Questioner.

      I’ve settled on me being a questioner, and other people’s expectations have force because I believe in those people. If my wife asks me to do something, I don’t need to convince myself of the thing, because I’ve convinced myself that my wife is someone for whom I should do things. If I don’t respect the person, I don’t respect the expectation.

      • gretchenrubin

        Yes, that’s the right way to think about it. The Questioner’s question is “Why should I listen to you?”

    • Gillian

      I had the same confusion initially – I tend to prioritize the needs of others over my own. However, as long as no-one else gets in my way, I can follow through on my own expectations without needing to be accountable to others, which is the key obliger trait, so I consider myself a questioner (although in my youth I was an upholder).

  • HelveticaTheBold

    I think women are socialised to sometimes behave as obligers even if they aren’t an actual obliged. Not always and not every woman obviously but with the huge pressure in society for women to do “wifework” I think it can confuse how we see ourselves. You could argue that a questioner only does X because she sees the value in following societies rules but I think it can be very hard to see The Patriachy when you’re living it!