What to Read When You Have Anxiety

If you are prone to anxiety (or know someone who is) you know how exhausting it can be; and also often physically painful.  Anxiety is sometimes frequently dismissed as “just stress,” something everyone experiences from time to time.  No doubt that having anxiety can be a challenging, painful, and isolating experience, but if there’s any good news to be taken from the decades-long increase in reported anxiety and depression, it’s that there is more and more good writing being published on the subject.

Here are six books that you (or an anxious person you know) might find illuminating, insightful, and even life-changing.

For a well-told history check out My Age of Anxiety, by Scott Stossel

In a tone both educational and deeply personal, Stossel takes readers back through decades of anxiety research and the numerous scientific and medical interventions considered “treatments” over time. Though he’s compassionate toward anxiety sufferers (especially being one himself), he also manages to make anxiety (or at least some of the popular thinking around it) funny. Though reviewers say the book’s historical research is “exhaustive,” they’re also nearly unanimous in their praise of its humanity and relatability. If you want a better understanding of your anxiety disorder, or are curious to learn more about how our culture understands and treats it, this is a must-read.

For a fun and fictional version check out Turtles All the Way Downby John Green

Inspired by his own struggles with anxiety (and obsessive compulsive tendencies), Turtles All the Way Down is John Green’s most recent beloved young adult novel. Like many of Green’s novels, Turtles is ostensibly about a zany plot between teenagers — this time, to “pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett” — but it’s also about so much more. The 16-year-old protagonist, Aza, suffers from anxiety and OCD, and is plagued by the kind of paranoia familiar to anyone who’s ever spent a panicky night Googling rare diseases. And, in typical Green fashion, her sometimes-sad story still manages to be funny, and charmingly told.

Sample lines: “There’s no self to hate. It’s like, when I look into myself, there’s no actual me—just a bunch of thoughts and behaviors and circumstances. And a lot of them just don’t feel like they’re mine. They’re not things I want to think or do or whatever. And when I do look for the, like, Real Me, I never find it. It’s like those nesting dolls, you know? The ones that are hollow, and then when you open them up, there’s a smaller doll inside, and you keep opening hollow dolls until eventually you get to the smallest one, and it’s solid all the way through. But with me, I don’t think there is one that is solid. They just keep getting smaller.”

Purchase it here.

For solidarity in the struggle try First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety, by Sarah Wilson

Taking her inspiration (and her title) from a Chinese proverb, author Sarah Wilson (who also wrote the best seller I Quit Sugar) culls from existing literature on anxiety, and interviews with fellow sufferers, to present readers with small, actionable advice on managing daily life with an anxiety disorder (these include “make your bed,” “just breathe,” and, simply, “eat.”) Wilson takes a more spiritual, self-help approach than some, and this book might prove more effective for more mild sufferers looking for guidance, inspiration, and a kindred spirit.

Sample lines: “I’d say anxiety creates resilience to thrive in this life. Anxiety is a beautiful thing.”

Purchase it here.

For practical tips and tasks read The Anxiety and Phobia Workbookby Edmund Bourne, Ph.D.

This one goes out to the anxious kid who loved spelling bees and worksheets who grew up into an anxious adult who loves order. (So, most of us?) My mom gave me a copy of an earlier edition of this workbook some 15 years ago, and I pulled it off my shelf whenever I was feeling helpless about my anxiety. It’s dry, obviously — it’s a psychology workbook — but it’s also informative, nonjudgmental, and full of different, scientifically backed approaches you can take to treat your anxiety, both short-term and long-term. And because author Edmund Bourne, formerly the director of the Anxiety Treatment Center in San Jose and Santa Rosa, California, has studied and written extensively on anxiety and phobias, you can feel confident you’re getting good information. It’s sort of an anxiety security blanket, except hard and slightly heavy.

Sample lines: “Taking responsibility means you don’t blame anyone else for your difficulties. It also means that you don’t blame yourself.”

“It is quite possible to overcome your problem with panic, phobias, or anxiety on your own through the use of strategies and exercises presented in this workbook. Yet it is equally valuable and appropriate, if you feel so inclined, to use this book as an adjunct to working with a therapist or group treatment programs. Whatever approach you choose, know that there is much help available.”

Purchase it here.

For a feminist take read On Edge: A Journey Through Anxietyby Andrea Petersen

While anxiety can affect anyone, it tends to affect women more than men, and in her book, Andrea Petersen delves into some of the possible reasons why — while also sharing her own personal experience with anxiety and panic disorder. Petersen’s case is severe, and her telling candid. She’s particularly insightful about the gendered components of anxiety, and writes convincingly about the ways women’s symptoms and experiences are so often dismissed.

Sample lines: “Women are twice as likely as men to develop one [anxiety disorder] and women’s illness generally last longer, have more severe symptoms, and are more disabling.”

“Anxious people aren’t just constantly on guard; they actually see more peril in the world. If a situation is ambiguous, they are more likely to perceive it as negative or threatening. That’s why when I have a headache, I think of brain tumors. And if my husband Sean is being quiet, I don’t consider that he might be tired — I think he’s mad at me.”

Purchase it here.

For a silver lining check out The Meaning of Anxietyby Rollo May

First published in 1950, and revised in 1977, The Meaning of Anxiety is a critical examination of then- (and still-)predominant assumptions about mental health — specifically, the idea that “mental health is living without anxiety.” May, an existential psychologist, argues that anxiety is actually essential to the human condition, and may even prove to be beneficial in certain areas of life. May writes that anxious individuals are likelier to be smarter, more creative, and more original than their non-anxious counterparts, which should be a welcome pep talk for anxiety sufferers, if nothing else. Though May’s book was written decades ago, his influence is still visible today: his argument that anxiety can be understood more positively, for example, is supported by recent studies that suggest we can reframe our emotions, and (sometimes!) change our anxiety into excitement.

Sample lines: “Anxiety has a purpose. Originally the purpose was to protect the existence of the caveman from wild beasts and savage neighbors. Nowadays the occasions for anxiety are very different – we are afraid of losing out in the competition, feeling unwanted, isolated, and ostracized. But the purpose of anxiety is still to protect us from dangers that threaten the same things: our existence or values that we identify with our existence. This normal anxiety of life cannot be avoided except at the price of apathy or the numbing of one’s sensibilities and imagination.”

Purchase it here.

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