Reading About Anxiety Made Me More Anxious

Keep calm and read onI’ve been on a quest to learn more about myself – an uncomfortable, chest-tightening, breath-quickening, sleep-preventing part of myself – by reading books about anxiety.

Reading is how we come to understand things, we book lovers. Reading = knowledge = power, right? And when you understand something, it’s easier to control.

When my therapist recommended I read Daniel Smith’s Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, I was initially relieved. Reading about anxiety sounded like the perfect way to handle the issues I was having. I’ve always been a good student. I would read some books, learn to understand anxiety completely, take away its power, and move on. Simple enough, right?

I already knew that I tend to emotionally mirror the characters in whatever book I’m reading, but I didn’t realize the full extent of the effect that could have on me until I tried reading about anxiety.

When Daniel Smith described his anxiety quickening his breath, my breath quickened too. When his jaw clenched and his chest tightened, mine did too. When he felt like a shard of ice was piercing his heart, I felt it too. When I read about Smith’s anxiety attacks, I felt them right along with him, because I knew the same truth from my own life.

And when I put the book down, the feelings remained. I wasn’t empathizing with the story of his distress, I was experiencing my very own incarnation of it firsthand.

The harder it was to get through Monkey Mind, the more determined I was to try. (I’m a stubborn, Type-A kind of anxious person.) This made my reaction worse, of course, until I had to take a break from reading every 10 pages or so to do breathing exercises because my fear of the book triggering an anxiety response was triggering an anxiety response.

I tried stopping for yoga breaks. I tried telling myself to read the book from a distance, to not let myself feel what Smith was feeling as he described it. I did my best to get through that book, to follow my plan of dealing with anxiety by reading about anxiety, but it never got any easier. Eventually, I gave up.

Monkey Mind is probably a great choice for anyone without anxiety issues of their own who is interested in reading about anxiety. But to someone dealing with anxiety, reading that book was like hitting a broken leg with a hammer to show someone with a broken leg what a broken leg feels like.

My mom recently bought me a copy of My Age of Anxiety, which is supposed to be a great resource and I appreciate the thought, but I’m not going to touch it (sorry, mom – thanks anyway!). I’m done with reading about anxiety.

I’m not satisfied, though. Is there a way forward?

How does a reader learn to understand something she can’t handle reading about? I’m genuinely asking. Have any of my fellow anxiety-sufferers found a book about our mutual nemesis that made you feel calmer instead of crazier? Maybe I should just color and call it a day.

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