Are you anxious to the point you’re incapacitated and woefully unwell? Then this one’s for you.
Much-published neuropsychiatrist Restak (Brainscapes, 1995, etc.) rings changes on all the meanings of anxiety, “at every level from the molecular to the behavioral.” Restak’s point is that today, much more than in Auden’s post–WWII “Age of Anxiety,” we live in a nervous-making world, hyped by the media and cajoled by Big Pharma, ever ready with pills to soothe our troubled souls. But that should not be necessary, the author hastens to add, except in extreme cases like “GAD” (generalized anxiety disorder), “PTSD” (post-traumatic stress disorder), and a few other nasty states at the extreme end of the anxiety spectrum. Restak distinguishes between fear, which is based on something concrete like the rattler in your path, and anxiety, which is a more sustained concern about things that are uncertain and over which you have no control. These two emotions have their own circuits in the nervous system for good adaptive/survival purposes: to make you aware of danger and to prompt appropriate actions. It is only when they come to dominate behavior, taking over from your frontal lobes, that they become phobias or destructive anxiety disorders, illustrated by Restak’s own case studies (and the title reference to Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart,” whose needlessly fearful narrator betrays himself). The text also surveys the literature on the cortex and the amygdala (a major subcortical emotional center), describing animal and human studies that have led to the development of anti-anxiety drugs. Restak concludes each chapter and ends with some self-help tips on coping with anxiety. Most of these offer good common sense: learn to repress those catastrophic scenarios; try to maintain perspective; avoid too much free time.
Certainly a lot of useful information, but a small voice must still ask: Doesn’t writing a book touting today’s world as the Big-Time Anxiety Age count as a bit of hype in itself?