February 16, 2012


Freeing Yourself from Anxiety: 4 Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create the Life You Want. By Tamar E. Chansky, Ph.D. Da Capo. $16.

The Book of Drugs: A Memoir. By Mike Doughty. Da Capo. $16.

     In his 1977 comedy High Anxiety, director Mel Brooks plays a doctor who takes over administration of “The Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous.” The most surprising thing in the intervening 35 years is that the institute doesn’t exist yet. At least not under that name. For the feeling of undifferentiated nervousness, of pervasive anxiety, has increased dramatically in recent decades, fed both by external events and by a generalized internal feeling that things are somehow coming apart, changing and moving too quickly to be handled, with people falling farther and farther behind every day, if not every hour. A simple method of handling free-floating anxiety would be most welcome, and that is what clinical psychologist Tamar Chansky says she is offering in Freeing Yourself from Anxiety. And the book makes some good points, even if it does not quite deliver on its over-optimistic title. Chansky’s “4 Simple Steps,” as mentioned in her subtitle, turn out, unsurprisingly, not to be so simple after all. Step One involves attaching the right sort of label to each concern – that is, determining whether it is merely a worry blown out of proportions or is something that your internal voice of reason wants you to handle. Step Two requires specificity: narrow down the real issue you need to deal with instead of “awfulizing” it or blowing it up to an undeserved gigantic size. Step Three, “optimizing,” involves backing up from a problem and getting expert views or other people’s perspectives to help you handle it. And Step Four is getting moving to deal with the issue – not allowing it to paralyze you, but taking what actions are necessary to manage it. This is fine advice in the well-reasoned pages of a book, but how many times per month, per week, per day will people be able to implement it? One of the greatest provokers of anxiety today is the unending flood of items requiring coping skills – work-related, societal, family-intensive, entirely personal and internal, technological, and so on. Chansky’s ideas are more practical in small doses than in the never-ending stream of anxiety provocations faced by so many people. For example, she notes “how conjuring absurdly bad versions of your situation can release the grip of anxiety,” and explains how to do that; then she points out that going “to the other extreme, to the absurdly good,” can be equally useful in defusing anxious thinking – and she suggests a chart listing worst-case and “ridiculously best-case” scenarios to help you get to the most likely outcome of an anxiety-provoking situation. As long as you encounter such situations only occasionally, or at least only run into significant ones from time to time (and can easily separate the important ones from the less significant), this approach can help; but it is scarcely practical to use incessantly. Much of what Chansky recommends is an improved form of self-relationship: “Just like [sic] children need to learn that when they make a mistake, their parents may be upset with them temporarily but still love them, we need to remember that bad moments don’t make a dent in the bigger picture of who we are.” Chansky is fond of encapsulating concepts in section headings such as “Dispensing with the Guilt Tactics to Look Beyond Yourself,” “Creating Safe, Resilient Expectations,” and “Keeping Open the Lines of Communication with Yourself.” She does her best to show how her ideas would work in real-world situations (in “Try This” sections), and she contrasts “Bottleneck Beliefs” with “Better Beliefs” and otherwise shows how self-defeating thoughts and behaviors can be managed more effectively. All these ideas, taken individually, are worthwhile; but as a group, they are something of an indigestible lump, especially for people so stressed and time-pressed that trying to apply a coping strategy even from time to time, much less constantly, will end up being yet another source of anxiety.

     A highly popular current medical approach to anxiety is medication, and Chansky mentions some drugs in passing, but clearly considers them only a partial and temporary solution. For some people, though, drugs – not only medically prescribed ones but also the illegal type – become the answer to just about everything in life. The pop-music world and other parts of the entertainment industry are notorious for this. But anyone who thinks The Book of Drugs by Soul Coughing musician Mike Doughty will be an apologetic memoir on the importance of rejecting drug-addled living will be disappointed. Yes, Doughty talks about being clean (or pretty much clean) nowadays, and yes, he discusses some of drugs’ depredations on his body and mind. But far from feeling that his drug experiences ruined him or his career, Doughty considers his drug years to be formative for his later life and music (which, by the way, he now considers wholly separate from his Soul Coughing work, which he does not like to remember or discuss). And even when talking about his decision to stay off drugs such as Ecstasy, he does so mildly: “(I don’t do E anymore. I’ll hang out with you while you’re on E. But if you start rubbing your face and telling me how amazing your face feels, I will make fun of you.)” Like most pop-music biographies and autobiographies, The Book of Drugs is aimed entirely at fans, with no attempt to reach out to people who do not already know Doughty – or to teach lessons with generalized applicability. The assumption is that the more detail readers get about Doughty’s life and observations, any observations, the better they will like the book: “There was a guy sitting alone in the corner of the coffee shop with a bong. He looked to me like an American who had come to Amsterdam on vacation to get high for a week or two. He took bong hits and lolled back in his chair. A Portishead record was playing, and every time a chorus sounded, he pumped his fist in the air, oblivious to those around him, anguished joy on his face.” What passes for self-revelation here is, for example, “My lungs weakened. I had so little breath that I would routinely have a panicked, choking fight for air just by standing up from a chair too quickly. …I couldn’t stand all the way upright; I shuffled, half bent. It took me ten minutes to cross my tiny apartment, piss, and return to bed. It took half an hour to go down the stairs of my building – I walked backwards, gripping the rail, as if I were descending an Alp. I never connected this with the $300 worth of dope I was sniffing daily. I was twenty-nine, and I thought, Well, twenty-nine, you know, getting older, the body starts shutting down. Seriously, I thought this.” If thinking at this level is what you want, and you are a fan of Doughty and want to hear his version of how he became a better musician and better person through and beyond drugs, then The Book of Drugs is for you. There is no particular reason for it to be for anyone else.

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