Dan’s Top 10 Stress and Anxiety Book Picks

There’s a wonderful piece in todays New York Times MagazineThe Manic in Me: If I Couldn’t Conquer my Anxiety, the Least I Could do was Understand It by Daniel Smith.  He writes:

“There are two types of anxiety sufferers: stiflers and chaotics. Stiflers are those who work on the principle that if they hold as still, silent and clenched as possible, they will be able to cut the anxiety off from its energy sources, the way you cinch off the valve from a radiator.  Chaotics, by contrast, work on no principle whatsoever.  Although chaotics are sometimes stiflers when alone, when they are around other people, and especially intense interpersonal situations, they are brought into a state of such high psychological pressure that all the valves pipes open of their own accord, everything is released in a geyser of physicality and verbiage, and what you get is a kind of shimmery, barely stable equilibrium between internal and external states, like in those rudimentary cartoons where the outlines of the characters continuously squiggle and undulate”.

Smith captures some of the panicked nature of anxiety sufferers.  But he’s not describing the anxiety that’s a normal part of life.   Anxiety can even be useful when it alerts us to danger. But for some people, anxiety is a persistent problem that interferes with daily activities – – just as depression does – – such as work, school or sleep. This type of anxiety can disrupt relationships and enjoyment of life, and over time it can lead to serious health concerns and other problems.

Scientists know there is a high degree of comorbidity (i.e. the presence of a disease in addition to the primary disease) with anxiety and depression:  up to 60% of patients whose primary diagnosis is anxiety also suffer from depression and vice versa.  Check out my earlier blog, How Stress and Anxiety Become Depression.

All this being said, and without further adieu, here are my top 10 picks. Feel free to suggest your own.

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases and Coping – Robert Sapolsky, Ph.D.

Why don’t zebras get ulcers–or heart disease, clinical anxiety, diabetes and other chronic diseases–when people do? In a fascinating that looks at the science of stress, Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky presents an intriguing case, that people develop such diseases partly because our bodies aren’t designed for the constant stresses of a modern-day life – – like sitting in daily traffic jams or racing through e-mails, texting and running to pick up our kids after a tough day at work. Rather, humans seem more built for the kind of short-term stress faced by a zebra–like outrunning a lion.

This book is a primer about stress, stress-related disease, and the mechanisms of coping with stress. How is it that our bodies can adapt to some stressful emergencies, while other ones make us sick? Why are some of us especially vulnerable to stress-related diseases and what does that have to do with our personalities?”

Sapolsky, a neuroscientist, concludes with a hopeful chapter, titled “Managing Stress.” Although he doesn’t subscribe to the school of thought that hope cures all disease, Sapolsky highlights the studies that suggest we do have some control over stress-related ailments, based on how we perceive the stress and the kinds of social support we have.  Watch this fantastic National Geographic Documentary featuring Dr.Sapolsky explaining Stress and Anxiety.

Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness – John Kabat-Zinn, M.D.

As a busy lawyer, I was immediately attracted to the title Full Catastrophe Living. It literally leapt of the bookshelf and cracked me on the head.  Who doesn’t live a life so jammed with stuff to do that it feels like a catastrophe?

Chronic stress saps our energy, undermining our health, and making us more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and disease.  The heart of the book is based on Kabat-Zinn’s renowned mindfulness-based stress reduction program at the University at Massachusetts Medical Center.  Check out this video clip of Dr. Kabat-Zinn.  The author takes the phrase “full catastrophe living” from book and movie Zorba the Greek.  If you’ve never seen it, an Englishman Basil – – who is half-Greek – – inherits a run down mine in a small Greek town.  To help him restore it, he hires  a local character named Zorba to be the foreman of the local laborers. Zorba, full of the zest of a life truly lived, is asked by Basil, “Do you have a family?” Zorba responds “Wife, children, house – – the full catastrophe!!!”

The Mindful Way through Anxiety: Break Free From Chronic Worry and Reclaim Your Life – Susan M. Orsillo, Ph.D.

Anxiety isn’t the same thing as stress. You can’t just “get over” anxiety. In fact, the very things most people do to try to feel better–avoiding feared situations, pushing worry out of mind–only make the problem worse. This book presents a powerful new alternative that can help you break free of anxiety by fundamentally changing how you relate to it. Mindfulness, a simple yet powerful way of paying attention to your most difficult emotions and life experiences, seems like it is everywhere these days and being offered as a solution to much of the mental distress that ails modern society.  Yet, in my own limited experience, it is worthy of such attention because it works.

Undoing Perpetual Stress: The Missing Connection Between Depression, Anxiety and 21st Century Illness – Richard O’Connor, Ph.D.

Author of my favorite book on depression, “Undoing Depression”, Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., has written another simply brilliant book on the consequences of “perpetual” stress in our lives – the alarming and escalating rates of clinical anxiety and depression.   This was the first book I read that made clear to me the connection between stress, anxiety and depression. It formed the basis for my blog on the topic How Stress and Anxiety Become Depression. The human nervous system was never meant to handle this many stressors. It’s as if the circuit breakers in our brains are blown by too much stress running through our brain’s circuitry.  This book is a perfect fit if you want to learn a lot about the brain and physiology of stress – I found it fascinating.  If you’re looking for a quick read and pick-me-up, this isn’t it.  Read the Book Review.

The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques – Margaret Wehrenberg, Ph.D.

Medication, once considered the treatment of choice, is losing favor as more and more sufferers complain of unpleasant side effects and its temporary, quick-fix nature. Now, thanks to a flood of fresh neurobiology research and insights into the anatomy of the anxious brain, effective, practical strategies have emerged allowing us to manage day-to-day anxiety on our own without medication. Addressing physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms, Margaret Wehrenberg, Ph.D., a leading mental health clinician, draws on basic brain science to highlight the top ten anxiety-defeating tips. Everything from breathing techniques to cognitive control and self-talk are included.   I really like that the 10 chapters are highly readable and short. Dr. Wehrenberg is also a frequent blogger at the Psychology Today website.  Here’s one of her blogs, The One-Two Punch of Negativity and Fear.

Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong: A Guide to Life Liberated from Anxiety – Troy DuFrene

This book approaches the problem of anxiety a little differently than most. Instead of trying to help you overcome or reduce feelings of anxiety, it will help you climb inside these feelings, sit in that place, and see what it would be like to have anxiety and still make room in your life to breathe and rest and live, really and truly live, in a way that matters to you.  This approach is based upon a research-supported form of psychotherapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, also known as ACT which starts with the assumption that the normal condition of human existence is suffering and struggle, ACT works by first encouraging individuals to accept their lives as they are in the here and now. This acceptance is an antidote to the problem of avoidance, which ACT views as among the greatest risk factors for unnecessary suffering and poor mental health

Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life – Steven C. Hayes

This is another book that uses the ACT approach. It’s different than the book above because it offers a five-step plan for coping with painful emotions such as anxiety and depression.  How I love plans!  I also liked the wisdom contained here: the recognition that painful feelings cannot be controlled will open you to the possibility of fully emotional living.  When anxiety arises in our bodies and minds, we erroneously believe that we have the power to rein these in, stop them and thus effectively eliminate it.  However, this approach only leads us further down into the well of panic.  Anxiety is not the problem.  It is our attempts to squash and control it that strengthen anxiety and prevent us from coping with it effectively.  Learn what steps you can take to approach anxiety differently.

The Worry Cure – Robert L. Leahy

For “highly worried people,” or those who suffer from the “what-if disease,” this book presents a systematic, accessible self-help guide to gaining control over debilitating anxiety. Leahy is an expert in changing thought processes, and he walks worriers step-by-step through problems in the way they think, with pointers on how to change these biases. The author then outlines a seven-step worry-reduction plan (remember, I love plans!) beginning with identifying productive and unproductive worry, progressing to improving skills for accepting reality, challenging worried thinking and learning to harness unpleasant emotions such as fear or anger.

The Anxiety and Worry Workbook – David A. Clark, Ph.D.

Like many of the other books I’ve recommended, this one is also grounded in cognitive behavior therapy.

I like this book because included in it are carefully crafted worksheets, exercises, and examples that reflect the authors’ decades of experience helping people who really, really struggle with anxiety. Learn practical strategies for identifying your anxiety triggers, challenging the thoughts and beliefs that lead to distress, safely facing the situations you fear, and truly loosening anxiety’s grip–one manageable step at a time.  Like depression, coping effectively with anxiety involves learning  helpful new and constructive ways of thinking about the problems we all face.  So often, it isn’t the reality of a situation that makes us anxious, but the stories we tell ourselves about the events that happen moment-to-moment.  

Self-Coaching: The Powerful Guide to Beat Anxiety – Joseph J. Luciani, Ph.D.

This is a good book for those who don’t want to see a therapist or, if they do, need extra doses of encouragement and practice to overcome their anxiety. The author advises readers to identify themselves as specific personality types (e.g., “Worrywarts,” “Hedgehogs,” “Perfectionists”) and then gives specific instructions on how to change the particular thought patterns associated with this type of personality.  So many people who struggle with anxiety never got what they needed while growing up – – enough love, encouragement and affirmation.  Lacking these core experiences, we develop can develop particular maladaptive strategies to cope with people and situations that push our buttons.  This is the only book that I’ve read that pairs specific coping recommendations with particular personality types.

Healing Anxiety and Depression — Daniel Amen, M.D.

Dr. Amen is a true pioneer in uncovering the connections between the brain and behavior.  In this excellent book, he provides an overview of how the brain works and how medication, diet, supplements, exercise and social and therapeutic support can help anxiety.  Check out this video clip of Dr. Amen talking about his comprehensive approach. As science’s understanding of how anxiety and depression work has grown, there is an emerging picture that both of these conditions are “whole body” problems that demand whole body solutions.  Like depression, we can’t just take a pill.  Rather, we need to look at every aspect of our lives so that we can address anxiety on multiple levels.





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