It’s official: everyone is stressed out these days. Anyone who doesn’t feel anxious is either a saint, not paying attention or just kidding. The unprecedented frequency of clinical anxiety disorders arises out of a neurotic stew of economic uncertainty and our increasingly hectic day-to-day lives. BookPage has rounded up five new books, each presenting its own set of strategies for overcoming stress.
BEATING STRESS, NATURALLY
Paul Huljich knows about stress in ways that most of us can never imagine. The victim of a nervous breakdown in 1998, he suffered a terrifying loss of freedom and self-determination. But Huljich courageously constructed a happy sequel to his own Kafkaesque story. He researched various avenues for regaining his mental health, and now serves as one of the world’s leading spokespersons on mental wellbeing. In Stress Pandemic: The Lifestyle Solution, Huljich presents “9 Natural Steps to Survive, Master Stress and Live Well.” With matchless authority, he diagnoses the causes and defines the effects of our culture’s submission to stress, and then lays out his ninefold program of self-awareness and recovery. The simplicity of Huljich’s “natural steps”—including the obvious triad of exercise, nutrition and sleep—is balanced by the author’s complex account of his experience with psychiatric medications of all sorts. Here is a guru of organic healing who can be trusted, someone who has returned from the inferno of stress-induced insanity in order to reaffirm the power of the individual will.
A MEDICAL APPROACH
A clinical psychiatrist will naturally address stress in a very different way from Huljich’s holistic program. Dr. Joseph Shrand, a Harvard psychiatry instructor, provides a more dispassionate approach in Manage Your Stress, part of the Harvard Medical Health Series published by St. Martin’s Press. With a scientist’s clarity and restraint, the author, writing with Leigh M. Devine, presents a set of definitions of stress, locating it properly in its biological framework and then proceeding to an understanding of its physiological consequences. “Your body has reacted to the event of being cut off in traffic almost in the same way as if a rhinoceros had charged you,” Shrand writes, describing an individual’s response to stress. “When you experience a stress trigger your heart beats quickly, your palms and body sweat, blood rushes to your face, and your breathing quickens.” We all know the feeling, though we’re often unsure how to deal with it. Shrand draws a careful line between what a person can do for herself to overcome stress and what she must properly lay at the psychiatrist’s door when the problem becomes too large to handle. He saves his most striking (and, alas, newly stress-inducing) statement for the conclusion of the book: It turns out that our prolonged experience of stress can be epigenetically(!) passed down through our genes to our children. Thanks a lot, Dr. Shrand. Do you have an opening next Tuesday?
STRATEGIES FOR ANXIOUS YOUNGSTERS
No parent needs the looming prospect of epigenetics to understand how stressful life can be for kids nowadays. Donna B. Pincus wants to help us help our children build an entire toolbox for dealing with stress. In Growing Up Brave, Pincus, who serves as director of the Child and Adolescent Fear and Anxiety Treatment Program at Boston University, offers parents “expert strategies”for helping their children cope. By treating almost every conceivable configuration of family dynamics, the book provides a comprehensive array of do’s and don’ts, supported by well-assembled clinical evidence and numerous case studies. Whatever the problem your child is suffering—fear of the dark, fear of dogs, fear of school, or Charlie Brown’s unforgettable state of pantophobia (fear of everything)—Pincus delivers both philosophical principles and pragmatic steps for helping your child climb “the bravery ladder” and then happily throw it away at the top.
LIFE AFTER TRAUMA
We have saved the worst-case scenarios for last. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not only one of the world’s fastest growing maladies, it has also served cultural commentators as a good metaphor for the state of our nation since 9/11. On the individual level, the after-effects of a life-threatening trauma can cripple a person physically and emotionally. In two new books on the subject, the crucial idea for confronting the enormity of trauma is resilience. Both books go so far as to claim that there is a science of resilience. For psychiatrist team Steven M. Southwick and Dennis S. Charney, Resilience is nothing less than The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges. These two physicians are not content with providing clinical data or pharmacological solutions (which are relegated to a brief appendix). They are genuine philosophers—lovers of wisdom—bent upon uncovering all possible sources of empowerment for the resilient human being, including a courageous confrontation of the moral and spiritual dimensions of the still-untapped traumas of 9/11.
Journalist Laurence Gonzales has the award-winning journalist’s knack for telling a vivid story. His Surviving Survival is filled to the brim with tales of survival, of traumas suffered and overcome. It is a gallery of terrible life-and-death moments that arrive and depart with shocking suddenness, but then linger forever in the victim’s mind—from the death of a child to a bomb blast in Iraq. The author argues that it is necessary to cultivate both “The Art and Science of Resilience,” his subtitle. Without a doubt, the first stage of this process will have been achieved by any reader who can survive the relentless litany of trauma and resilience Gonzales so vividly catalogues.