April 18, 2013


Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You: Retrain Your Brain to Conquer Fear, Make Better Decisions, and Thrive in the 21st Century. By Marc Schoen, Ph.D., with Kristin Loberg. Hudson Street Press. $25.95.

     Here is the latest repackaging of old wine in new bottles, old advice in new form, old thinking in new guise – yet done with enough élan and stylishness to make the whole presentation attractive and to refresh some ideas that have been around for quite some time. Marc Schoen, an assistant clinical professor at UCLA’s Geffen School of Medicine, focuses in his classes on mind-body relationships and performance under pressure. Extending those notions to life outside the university, he talks in Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You about the often-invoked fight-or-flight response, here called Survival Instinct, and the fact that it is ill-suited to the modern world. Our bodies, integrally designed to perceive physical threats and automatically alter somatic processes so those threats can be faced head-on or escaped, nowadays exist in a nearly perpetual state of threat-related arousal, because so many events of everyday life are perceived as dangerous in non-physical ways – and our hormonal and nervous systems have no way to distinguish emotional or mental discomforts from genuine life-or-death emergencies.

     This perception is nothing new; it underlies many studies, medical and self-help and pop-culture, of stress, relaxation, hormonal balance, and so forth. But Schoen and Kristin Loberg – whose specific contributions to the book are not enumerated, but presumably involve making the whole thing coherent and as presentable as possible – come up with some new ways to evaluate the state of chronic discomfort that they call “agitance” (the word itself being one of those new elements). There is, for example, the “agitance checklist” of 32 questions designed to measure “activities or behaviors that typically stoke” this state of perpetual, albeit often low-level, discomfort. The questions are perfectly reasonable: “Do you find it difficult to slow down?” “Are you uncomfortable in idle time without structure?” “Do you find it difficult to turn off your mind at bedtime?” “When you think about food, do you find yourself wanting to eat, even though you aren’t hungry?” And so on. A losing score on this test is 31% – that is, if you answer yes to 10 or more questions, “your agitance is increasingly more [sic] palpable” and you are heading for physical or mental discomfort, if you are not there already.

     Schoen dresses up his discussion of this sort of imbalance with recent research, and it is this that lends Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You a somewhat updated feel while clothing it in medical terminology. For example, Schoen says, “A great way to illustrate the limbic brain’s overpowering quality is to consider post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” and then cites research showing “an exaggerated amygdala response” with a “diminished cerebral or prefrontal lobe response” in PTSD sufferers, coupling this with the very well-known finding that many people say they would rather face a cancer diagnosis than speak in front of a large group. Elsewhere, Schoen writes of the inflammatory response – which has been repeatedly linked to a host of bodily ills, including cardiovascular disease – and explains how the “conditioning of maladaptive habits…can actually occur…at the cellular and biochemical levels.” Schoen’s discussion of inflammation is in fact balanced – he points out that it is a way the body mounts defenses against attack, although his way of putting this is rather inelegant: “So the intentions of inflammation are salubrious.” But his basic point is that the mind-body connection has fundamental flaws nowadays for people who live, as so many of us do, in a constant state of at least low-level anxiety – and that the resulting “agitance” has become a foundational problem of everyday life.

     What to do about it? That is the key here, as in all the other studies of similar issues: the prescriptive part of books like this is even more important than the descriptive part. Schoen offers “fifteen proven ways to help you gain control of your agitance,” and like the recommendations in other “slow down and take it easy” books, they are attractively presented – but rather more difficult to put into practice; just how difficult will depend on each individual, of course. The 15 ideas are to take periodic technology time-outs, stopping all interactions with work-related technology regularly; valuing and tolerating imperfection; limiting sensory input by periodically “focusing on stimulating one or two sensory channels at the same time”; calming down at bedtime; slowing down in general (“S-L-O-W Down” is the way Schoen puts it); ending procrastination; no longer trying to get everything done; accepting and embracing uncertainty; letting go of anger; keeping a regular schedule; enlarging one’s comfort zone; learning to “take a breather” using “the Schoen Breath Technique”; delaying gratification; practicing just hanging out; and exercising. There is considerable overlap among many of these recommendations, and in a number of cases a presentation designed to sound new is just a repackaging: the Schoen Breath Technique, for example, is simply the well-worn notion of controlled breathing. To Schoen’s credit, he says again and again that his recommended approaches need not be time-consuming, and need not all be done in order to reduce “agitance.” He also shows ways to “manage your discomfort by boosting your tolerance for it” if “you’re already in the red zone” – notions such as identifying things for which you are grateful and engaging with a social network. And he dresses these concepts up in language with a vague New Age feel: “The Creation of Alignment” and “Achieve Duality” are two subheads in a chapter called “Taking the ‘Dis’ Out of Discomfort.”

     There is nothing wrong and a great deal right in much of what Schoen recommends. And his underlying analysis is certainly reasonable: “As long as our survival instinct rushes to stand up and shield us from anticipated emotional pain, we find ourselves entrapped by our instinctual primitive responses, such as anger, paralysis, overeating, illness, aggression, and withdrawal.” But Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You overreaches both by trying to handle all those negative elements at one time and by attempting to come across with a revelatory approach that is really nothing particularly new or special, however useful it may be for those who are able to practice it (and it is not as easy to put into practice as Schoen suggests). A well-meaning book with some good advice, Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You has an unnecessarily negative title – its positive-sounding subtitle is actually more indicative of Schoen’s approach and attitude, and the book might have been more attractive if it were called Retrain Your Brain to Conquer Fear. The title, though, is a marketing decision; the contents are an authorial one. And Schoen’s contents, however carefully presented and cleverly labeled by him and Loberg, are ultimately not revolutionary or even particularly unusual. His ideas are good, but they have been good when offered by other authors in the past and will be good when they are no doubt offered by still others in the future. Choosing Schoen’s particular presentation of these concepts will therefore be a matter of whether or not you like his style, not whether or not he has something genuinely new to say.

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