Monkey Mind

You know how your mind sometimes races around in conflicting directions? Or how you sometimes can't stop obsessing over something that some part of you knows isn't worth all that distress? I can certainly relate to such anxiety, though my own is nothing compared to that of folks who experience those feelings intensely, nearly all the time.

Out of two new anxiety memoirs, I loved one, while I felt cool toward the other. I'll begin with the one whose author, Daniel Smith, is going to be added to my "Look for anything he writes" list.

Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety has a couple things going for it: Daniel Smith's superb writing, and its marvelous humor. Smith, whose previous book is Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Hearing Voices and the Borders of Sanity, has also written for The Atlantic, Granta, The New York Times Magazine, and Slate, among other top publications. I found no superfluous words in the book, suggesting both a careful revision process and a respect for his audience. The humor is often black and sharp, sometimes mind-blowingly funny, as in the sex scene that opens the book.

Smith studied the subject of chronic anxiety in order to deal with his own. He treats his mother with respect even as he describes how she contributed to his problem (by means of her own genetic predisposition to anxiety, and probably by providing an anxiety-provoking environment). Smith saw numerous therapists and shares details about what worked (not much) with each one's approach.


The therapeutic approach he resonates to, and why I so liked this book, is cognitive therapy. That's where you enlist the more sane part of yourself to argue the anxious part out of its wrongheaded analysis of the situation. You ask yourself, in the moment of discomfort, what your thoughts are that are making you so miserable. For word people, that's a useful action. Sometimes it even works.

Smith had a serious sweating problem (still has, I suppose). When he worked at The Atlantic, that problem made life really challenging for him. As did the early years of his one serious love relationship (now his wife). I wonder how the challenges and anxieties of parenthood are treating him? He's so brutally honest about his life and his flaws that you can't help but care.

If you're chronically anxious and want to better explain to a loved one what you're going through, hand them Monkey Mind. When they laugh as they're reading it, remember: they're not laughing at you.


The other book about anxiety, Learning to Breathe: My Yearlong Quest to Bring Calm to My Life by Priscilla Warner is revealing too, but it feels more contrived to me. It's one of those "let's try something for a year and then write about it" books. Some of those are funny and enlightening, but the ones that purport to solve a major life question don't work for me. I guess I have trouble believing in neat and tidy conclusions.

Warner's final chapter features pictures of her brain before and after a meditation course. Apparently there was enough change to prove such meditation works (as it has for monks being studied). She tries Ayurvedic oils, Kabbalah lessons, Trager therapy (a kind of massage), and EMDR (moving your eyes to lights to overcome trauma), and when she can't sleep, she still pulls out her Tibetan mala cord and makes prayer necklaces, or reads a Sufi poet, or takes a Klonopin, or just breathes.

Proven, unproven, spiritual, alternative, wishful thinking, hopeful, or simply silly strategies: all are treated equally by Warner. If I didn't think such an unanalytic approach to health was worrisome, I might have laughed more at Warner's anecdotes.

Copyright (c) by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.

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