Book Review: Understanding Anxiety to Help Alleviate It

Anxiety is a paranoid parent. It keeps us on the well-intentioned road to hell. The paranoid parent, for example, teaches us abstinence from sex. Anxiety, in a similar fashion, teaches us abstinence from elevators, hospitals, and from coming out of our rooms to greet our parents’ friends.

Instead of teaching us coping skills to manage situations, it plays on fear to teach us to avoid them. And here’s where Sonali Gupta’s Anxiety: Overcome It and Live Without Fear (HarperCollins India, May 2020) offers respite. She suggests that there is a silver lining; that we can if we so desire, learn to manage our anxiety. The world can be a threatening place, and that isn’t going to change, but we can learn to be braver.

Gupta takes us on a journey through anxiety on which every stop highlights a different facet of the emotion. She meticulously covers the spectrum, explaining anxiety from the perspective of both nature and nurture: the interpreted physiological response to perceived threats, and a product of how modern-day society is structured. Gupta uses personal vignettes from her counselling practice, which make abstractions come to life. Her stories might be the glue that helps bind concepts to reality, leaving a deeper imprint on the readers’ minds.

In the modern world, with the growing abscission of religion, we’ve traded in our Bibles and Qurans for self-help books. Yet we’re not very different from the godman who establishes the purity of his being by reciting sermons, only to go out and get his hands dirty later. Many a time we read, but do not absorb. Gupta’s book is a breath of fresh air. It encourages readers to actively participate by providing space in the book for us to write, setting it apart from many other self-help books. It transforms what might have been a flash in the pan, into a deeper level of engagement.

Gupta invites us to write down, among other things, our anxiety triggers, the significance of our birthdays and the possibly limiting beliefs we hold. Each exercise works to enhance our self-awareness and lift the mist from the perplexing nature of our anxieties: a greatly therapeutic exercise. No, one cannot listen to this as an audiobook on the train on one’s way to work, but it makes for a slightly more laborious and infinitely more rewarding weekend read.

The book is divided into three parts: Part one is understanding anxiety, part two is the moments when anxiety strikes and part three is on managing anxiety.

In the first part, Gupta touches upon several schools of psychotherapy; from psychosomatic manifestations of anxiety informed by the psychodynamic perspective, to the thoughts, feelings and behaviours surrounding anxiety from the cognitive behaviour perspective. She also refers to evolutionary psychology and clinical literature. Each school of thought contributes to serving us a full-bodied understanding of anxiety.

By understanding anxiety, we are playing a role in alleviating it. When we examine in a clear-sighted manner why our hearts flutter and our palms sweat upon the seemingly innocuous prospect of, say, going to a party, we are no longer entangled or mired in it, but are in some sense and for some time, an ‘outsider’. We take some distance to understand it, dispassionately. This segment invites us to do the same.

In the second part, ‘When Anxiety Strikes’, Gupta highlights how social media, relationships and our workplace can become triggers. She also addresses the predicaments COVID-19 brings with it highlighting her own anxieties upon having to see her clients cry and not pass them a box of tissues.

The author condemns the growing culture of shame surrounding newer generations. She speaks of how millennials have a desire to ‘leave a mark’ on the world which might be interpreted as ‘narcissism’. Millennials and more so, Generation Z, have been raised in seemingly the most economically prosperous times our nation has ever seen with a burst of new technology and many other innovations, even though they are also among the rare generations to have been witness to two economic global meltdowns, in 2008 and 2020.

Our grandparents may have fleetingly imagined loftier and more whimsical ambitions, but most didn’t have the luxury to entertain such thoughts due to the urgency of basic needs and requirements. It is also what kept them engaged and away from certain anxieties. Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard astutely describes anxiety as being the “dizziness of freedom”.

Gupta describes how aspects of the modern world like social media fuel anxiety. It traps us in external validation, mires us in ‘blue ticks’ and is set up for addiction. Social media has made sure that our social lives infiltrate the private realm. Earlier, we had to deal with the anxiety, and the rigmarole work brings with it but eventually unwind and take off our Jungian personas within our homes. But now, the private space has become strangely public, as we have to keep up a performance via our Instagram accounts.

In a style reminiscent of a kind parent, Gupta exposes us to the problem, our own anxious natures, then reels us in by hand-holding us through the issue and providing a call to action. The exposure-strategy method adopted by her ensures acquaintance with the problem and then establishes a strategy for the road ahead: a deeply therapeutic approach.

In the final part on ‘Managing Anxiety’, we are well and truly acquainted with the emotional ‘tool-kit’ Gupta spoke of at the beginning. One such ‘tool’ which stuck with me is writing letters to oneself as if one were writing to a person one loves dearly. Gupta reifies her ideas with scientific theories such as neuroplasticity, our brain’s ability to rewire itself throughout our lives and thereby builds her case. Investing in training our minds to work for us can be a rewarding endeavour.

Perhaps the only aspect that proves to be contentious for me is the idea from clinical literature which believes that there exists a line separating the normal from the disordered. This line is arbitrarily drawn in my opinion because I view human beings as being somewhere on the ‘spectrum of insanity’, ridden with irrationality and oftentimes unamenable to reason.

As Jerry Pinto says in the foreword, “You could do some of the things that Sonali Gupta suggests and you could argue with her over some of the others.” I’ve done just that, and I invite you to pick up the book and form your opinions.

I would like to end on a more personal note: I have spent most of my life dealing with intense social anxiety. My antidote to anxiety is something my father would say to me as a child in response to my fear of bugs: “Always remember, he’s more scared of you than you are of him!”

Raeyan Thapar has an MSc in Counselling from the University of Edinburgh. The tools of her trade are between the couch and the pen.