I’d bought the kindle version of ‘Anxiety’ by Sonali Gupta earlier this year and posted a brief review across social media. I truly felt it was a book that was timed well. 2020 is a year like no other what with the pandemic upending our lives. And anxiety levels are on the rise.
I opted for the paperback of this book when Blogchatter offered me a choice of books to review for their Book Review Program. I wanted to re-read the physical copy of this book.
Sonali Gupta, the author, is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist with sixteen years of experience in the field of mental health. She writes a weekly column for Mumbai Mirror titled ‘Terms of Engagement’. She currently runs a private practice in Khar and South Bombay.
Jerry Pinto has penned a beautiful foreword to the book. He says there is a lot to be anxious about, so one is not alone in feeling anxious. He says in today’s world of social media, we curate our world and decide what’s instafriendly just as much as the other person does. What’s on our feed may be giving anxiety to the person viewing it in the same way that someone else’s feed gives us anxiety.
“This book will help you make a good servant out of an emotion that was built into us so that we might survive. For when it takes over, say in the middle of the night, when it’s often at its worst, you can ask yourself in a stern voice: “What have you got to be anxious about.”
He goes on to say “I believe that if you use this book, rather than just reading it, if you make it your own, it will help resolve some of the questions you’ve been asking yourself, the most disturbing of which often is ‘Is this normal or am I going nuts.’
Sonali, in her introduction, says, ‘I have begun to realise that while we all are so different as people, at the core, we are similar and possibly connected to one another through our shared vulnerabilities. Maybe we are all together in this collective anxiety.’ She adds, ‘The idea of writing this book is for people to have an emotional toolkit that can help them take care of themselves.’ She adds, ‘I suggest that as you read this book, keep a diary and pen next to you so that you can do the activities mentioned in the book and use them to introspect and become aware of your patterns.’
The book is divided into three parts and 20 chapters. The first part is ‘ Understanding Anxiety.’ In the first chapter, ‘Age of Anxiety,’ the author explains anxiety, details how it manifests itself and talks about triggers.
She lists some common triggers of anxiety:
- Getting engaged/planning a wedding/marriage
- Death in the family
- Ending a relationship or a divorce
- Moving/Renovating a house
- Changing a job or a promotion
- Moving cities or countries
- Planning a holiday
- Paperwork and finances
She also dispels some common myths around anxiety.
Myth 1: Some people never experience anxiety.
Myth 2: Anxiety is a negative emotion, and we need to rid ourselves of it.
Myth 3: Happy events don’t lead to anxiety.
Myth 4: Development milestones are a fact of life. We don’t need to reach out to qualified mental health professionals even if we feel overwhelmed by them.
In the second chapter, ‘What’s Normal Anxiety and What’s Not,’ the author gives us a checklist to help us determine the level of anxiety we face. She essentially says that it is best to understand anxiety in the context of a spectrum. She also says some people are highly sensitive and touches upon the work of American psychotherapist Dr Elaine Aaron, whose book ‘The Highly Sensitive Person’ was first published in 1996. The author also differentiates between anxiety, fear, depression and stress.
In the third chapter, ‘High-functioning Anxiety,’ the author talks about clients who are doing very well, but if you scratch beneath the surface, you hear stories of psychosomatic illnesses and anxiety. The author also touches upon ‘Productivity Guilt’ and ‘Imposter Syndrome’.
In her fourth chapter, ‘Anxiety and the Brain,’ the author talks about a movie called ‘Inside Out’ from Pixar Animation Studios. I’d watched this movie a couple of years back. She discusses the fight-flight-freeze response and explains how anxiety affects the brain. She also describes how anxiety medication works. She gives us a checklist to see if we would be at risk for anxiety.
In Chapter five, ‘Thinking Anxious Thoughts,’ she explains cognitive or mental manifestations of anxiety. She also touches upon rumination and overthinking. She then explains six common cognitive distortions like catastrophising, minimisation, over generalisation, all-or-nothing thinking, jumping to conclusions, and labelling and mislabelling. She draws upon the work of Dr Aaron T Beck and his book ‘Feeling good: The new mood therapy.’ Dr Burns pioneered Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT.
In Chapter six, ‘Investigating irrational beliefs’, the author touches upon the work of Dr Martin Seligman, the American psychologist who is considered the father of the Positive Psychology movement. She quotes from his book ‘Learned Optimism: How to Change your Mind and your Life.’
Part Two of the book is called ‘When Anxiety Strikes’. Chapter seven, ‘Am I Having a Panic Attack’ describes what a panic attack is, how it may manifest, how to overcome it and deal with it.
Chapter eight or ‘Work, Work, Work’ is about workplace anxiety and how to cope with it. The author quotes from Brene Brown’s book ‘Daring greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead.’ Sonali Gupta writes about coping with anxiety at work.
Chapter nine is about ‘Taking a Mental health Sabbatical’. She talks about how to plan a mental health sabbatical when one experiences a burnout.
Chapter 10 ‘Too Wired and Too Tired’ talks about social media and setting digital boundaries. In Chapter 11, she talks about how social media is fuelling our anxiety. It is much-needed in today’s world when the boundaries between personal and professional lives keep blurring, and everyone is online 24/7.
In Chapter 12, she talks more about productivity guilt and ‘perfectionism, procrastination and anxiety’ She also explains imposter syndrome and errand paralysis.
In Chapter 13, she talks about ‘Anxiety in Love.’ She talks about behaviour like ‘ghosting’, ‘orbiting’, ‘stashing’ and ‘breadcrumbing’ that result in anxiety for the parties involved.
In Chapter 14, ‘Connected Yet Disconnected,’ the author explains how in some cases, anxiety leads to loneliness and in others, loneliness leads to anxiety. She also talks about binge behaviour and offers a test to readers to check their binge behaviour.
In Chapter 15, ‘Social Anxiety is Real’, the author touches upon clinical psychologist Dr Ellen Hendriksen’s ‘How to be yourself: Quiet your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety.’ She explains the difference between social anxiety, introversion and shyness. She talks about the factors that increase the risk of social anxiety and explains social anxiety disorder and how to get help for it.
Part three of her book (Chapters 16 to 20) is about Managing Anxiety. Chapter 16 touches upon soothing rituals and how to use the five senses as a grounding ritual. She talks about behaviours that aggravate anxiety.
In Chapter 17 or Pause Rituals, the author talks about the power of pause, journaling, reading, exercise, focused breathing and mindful meditation.
In Chapter 18, ‘How Therapy for Anxiety Works,’ she discusses anxiety from a therapist’s lens. She also talks about neuroplasticity, why it’s important, cognitive restructuring and cognitive techniques.
In Chapter 19, ‘Befriending your inner critic’, the author talks about tools to help us build self-compassion in our life. She quotes from Stanford-based psychologist Carol Dweck’s ‘Mindset: The new psychology of success.’
In her final chapter, Sonali Gupta writes about how to help others with their anxiety. This book is an important read, especially in the wake of the pandemic and all of us leading digital lives. It is set in an Indian context and serves as a go-to manual for anxious Indians, especially Gen Z and millennials.