Take the Stress out of Your Life: A Medical Doctor’s Proven Program to Minimize Stress and Maximize Health. By Jay Winner, M.D. Da Capo. $20.
Lifting Depression: A Neuroscientist’s Hands-On Approach to Activating Your Brain’s Healing Power. By Kelly Lambert, Ph.D. Basic Books. $26.
Putting the healthcare credentials of the authors in the subtitles of these books is supposed to give readers confidence in the authors’ prescriptions. The authors’ recommendations may indeed prove effective for some people – and Kelly Lambert has certainly come up with an intellectually interesting mind-body connection – but it would be a mistake to believe that either of these books offers an easy answer to some very vexing and difficult concerns of modern life.
When it comes to beating (or at least lowering) stress, everyone has the same basic recommendations: take it easy; slow down; don’t let little things get to you; regard frustrating situations as opportunities to practice patience, understanding and other virtues; think about whether something stressful will matter 10 years from now; go to a mental “happy place” when under stress; and so on. All these ideas appear in Jay Winner’s Take the Stress out of Your Life, and all will have value for some people under some circumstances. What Winner , a family physician and stress specialist, offers that goes beyond the standard stress-reducing ideas and techniques is a pair of CDs that you can use to guide yourself through meditative exercises that should make you feel less stressed. There are five “guided tours” per CD, with such titles as “Letting Go Meditation” and “Loving-Kindness Meditation,” and the book’s text shows how to use each CD element as a stress reducer. The CDs are a nice bonus, but the core of the book is its written ideas, and they are nothing particularly new or special. As with other frustrating elements of life – overeating, for example, or alcohol addiction – there are known ways to cope with the problem of stress, and those methods are effective…provided that a person wants them to succeed. Personal determination is ultimately what matters for stress reduction as for other physical and emotional challenges. Whether Winner’s book is a winner for you will depend on whether his style of explaining what are essentially well-known stress-reduction techniques strikes a responsive chord in you and makes you want to do what he suggests. “Turn everyday routines into special moments of relaxation,” Winner suggests at one point. “Make a bath or shower into a meditation: Feel the warm water on your body, enjoy your fingers massaging your scalp as you shampoo, notice the soap lather, and feel the texture of the towel as you dry off.” If this mindfulness regarding ordinary events attracts you, so will Winner’s book; if you find it silly or inapplicable to your life, Winner will seem simplistic. “When you have spent time noticing that all things change, the car breaking down is not the end of the world – it’s expected.” Does that sort of thinking work for you during a rush-hour freeway breakdown, or not?
Lifting Depression deals with stress as well, but only as part of Lambert’s overall discussion of depression avoidance or cure. Lambert understands that depression is a serious condition, and she does not take it lightly or confuse it with “having the blues” occasionally. She chairs the psychology department at Randolph-Macon College and specializes in research using animals – specifically rats, whose brains resemble human brains in many ways and whose behavior led Lambert to the ideas in this book. What she found, and what she subsequently discovered in other animal research as well, is that purposeful physical activity appears to be an effective way of lifting or warding off depression. In humans, whose brains have a disproportionate number of links to hand movement, physical work involving the hands – whether ditch digging or knitting – seems to provide depression protection. This is a fascinating finding, and one that goes against the trend of therapeutic emphasis on mental activity as a way to combat depression. But there are flaws with Lambert’s concept, not necessarily for depression avoidance (she may well be right that earlier generations were less depression-prone because they had to do far more manual labor) but for depression mitigation. A person who can barely get out of bed to face the day cannot be expected to gather the internal energy to undertake manual labor; and the techniques that get rats going (food deprivation if they fail to start moving, for instance) simply do not work on humans. There are also writing flaws, from the niggling to the substantive, in Lambert’s book – and they may well call into question the accuracy of her analysis. For example, she praises Bill Watterson, creator of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, as “one of society’s great neuro-philosophers” for his “running commentary on the human condition,” but she refers to Hobbes as a “talking stuffed cat” – when anyone who has ever read even a single Watterson strip knows that Hobbes is a tiger. More significantly, she talks about the parts of the human brain, including the reptilian portion and “the more recently evolved mammalian brain (bringing onboard more complex responses such as parental behavior, play, and rudimentary communication)” – apparently not knowing that certain reptiles exhibit all the characteristics that she attributes to mammalian brain development (alligators, for example, guard and protect their young and communicate with them, and the hatchlings play together). What Lifting Depression offers is a very interesting alternative to the type of depression treatment that focuses purely on mental processes – and a possible new approach for people to try in an attempt to avoid becoming depressed in the first place. It is unlikely that this is the solution to depression, but it may well be a solution; and to the extent that it helps even a small number of people, it will be a large contribution to the field.