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If the fluorescent cover doesn’t catch your eye, the title will. In Anxiety for Beginners, Eleanor Morgan tells us what it’s like to live with anxiety and why it’s so important to identify and learn to manage it. She leads off with a raw account of her own experiences, then explores what anxiety is, why it happens and what can be done about it.
Morgan reassures us that feeling anxious need not be a life-sentence – that it is possible to get on top of it and that we can learn to deal with the intrusive chorus of ‘What ifs?’ that roll through our minds. She reminds us that some anxiety is okay, even essential – especially in situations that are in some way threatening, where anxiety prepares us to act. It’s when anxiety takes over and our response is disproportionate to the threat that it causes distress. That is the point that we should seek help – or support someone else to seek help if we see that anxiety is dominating their life.
I share her belief that spreading knowledge about what anxiety is – and the different forms it may take – is beneficial not only for people living with anxiety, but also for their partners, families and friends. She’s quite frank that anxiety can ‘creep or crash’ into anyone’s life without warning. This means that even if we are not living with anxiety ourselves, there’s a good chance that someone we know is: someone we live with, someone we study or work with, a friend, neighbour or colleague.
Morgan tackles a serious topic with empathy and humor – and a generous smattering of f-words. Her first experience with anxiety was at age 17. She describes feeling that she was about to detonate or crack down the middle like an egg – her legs hollow, her breathing ragged, her guts fizzing. She’s open about the challenges she continues to face – although she has, over time, learned how to manage her anxiety on an ongoing basis. Even so, she admits that – like many of us – she’s still searching for that elusive ‘sweet spot between allowing [herself] to relax and pushing [herself] to do more’.
Morgan does a good job of helping us to understand what’s going on inside the brain and body, the physiological basis of anxiety. In exploring the causes, symptoms and consequences of anxiety, she’s spoken with psychologists, psychiatrists, behavioral neuroscientists and academics, as well as others, including several well-known people, who live with anxiety disorders. Morgan is based in East London and so draws primarily on material from the United Kingdom, although there’s a sprinkling of information from other countries too. She’s written a well-researched book with information and resources drawn from diverse sources, although none of it from Aotearoa/New Zealand. There are plenty of references throughout most chapters, as well as a bibliography and a detailed index. It’s a book you can go back to if you want to learn more or point a friend towards resources.
Morgan makes it clear that although there are common symptoms, there can be tremendous variation in how each individual experiences anxiety. She’s a firm believer that people should be offered a choice about how to manage their symptoms, although cautions that it’s easy to get swamped by information during the search for relief. Despite knowing the importance of finding good, informed care and support, some of her own experiences with helping professionals have been of variable quality.
There’s a surprisingly brief chapter on how to help someone else with anxiety. It points to a range of websites, as well as reminding us to be patient and non-judgemental.
Morgan tells it like it is. She wants readers to understand that although there’s no perfect antidote for anxiety, there are a number of things that are likely to help over time. For her, cognitive behavioural therapy has made a world of difference. For some people living with anxiety medication will be effective, for others it may be therapy, exercise, meditation or mindfulness – or a combination of different approaches. (Dogs may have a role to play too: the single photo in the book is of Morgan’s re-homed schnauzer-cocker spaniel cross, Pamela – a Hairy Maclary lookalike bringing ‘joy, routine and purpose’ into Morgan’s life.)
I appreciated Morgan’s honesty, humour and optimism. She’s encouraged by society’s gradual shift towards considering mental health problems as less of a stigma and more a part of what it means to be a human being: ‘a bump in the road, rather than the end of it’. She stresses the importance of improving public education and awareness of anxiety and other mental health problems, so that all of us know what is available and what might help. Her book is an excellent place to start.
Reviewed by Anne Kerslake-Hendricks
Anxiety for Beginners
by Eleanor Morgan
Publisher: Bluebird (a Pan Macmillan imprint)