‘…that’s what it feels like when you’re on your knees with anxiety: like everything has come loose.’
Eleanor Morgan’s Anxiety for Beginners presents itself on the cover as ‘a personal investigation’. Morgan, a journalist and author who has suffered from severe anxiety since her teens, weaves her personal experience of mental illness with well-sourced and well-executed research to present this part-autobiography, part-self-help-guide to those whose lives are pulled taut by this debilitating illness.
I expected to be most taken by the former sections, where Morgan describes her experiences through the years of suffering from an anxiety disorder, but it was actually the chapters focusing on her interviews with neuroscientists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and other researchers which I found most captivating. Morgan is an experienced and proficient journalist and this shines through in these chapters, which look at everything from the possible causes of anxiety disorders, to how hormonal changes can seriously impact women’s day-to-day lives. (Her new book, Hormonal, which I am yet to read, focuses on this last topic in further depth). The breadth of Morgan’s research is really impressive, and I learned a huge amount, not only about anxiety specifically but other areas of psychiatry and psychology.
In her sections on the potential causes of anxiety, Morgan delves into how individuals’ experiences as children or even while still in the womb can affect their mental state years down the line, heightening their propensity to things like anxiousness. The section on tracing mental illnesses through generations, and how individuals’ genetics can be impacted by their parents’ or grandparents’ experience of trauma, was particularly enlightening. I was stunned reading about studies which have shown that the brains of people with anxiety are physically different to those without, being more resistant to regulation than that of a person who goes through life without feeling like ‘[t]he volume on every sense got dialled up a notch’. Throughout, Morgan takes complex scientific language and theory and distils it into a way that is not only readable but understandable, and regularly entertaining.
One chapter in particular has stuck with me for months after I first read it. ‘More Than a (Gut) Feeling’ looks in depth at the way that the digestive system interacts with the brain, outlining research which suggests that bowel-focused illnesses can directly trigger mood changes. I’ve often joked that I suffer from ‘hangxiety’, where going too long without eating leads me to struggling with anxiousness, so I was taken aback to find Morgan use exactly the same phrase before going on to discuss research which suggests that this is a legitimate response to continuing to ignore hunger – some researchers understand it to be ‘our body trying to get our attention a different way’. What really stunned me was learning that in some cases, treatments such as SSRIs (a type of antidepressant) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (often used to treat depression, anxiety, OCD, and other mental disorders) are at times prescribed to help bowel disorders, because this link is so strong.
That feeling of seeing my own feelings or phrases right in front of me followed me throughout all 350 pages of Anxiety for Beginners. In truth, I am no ‘beginner’ at anxiety; always a shy child, I first encountered what I class as ‘actual’ anxiety in the run-up to my move to York for university, and it’s ebbed and flowed within me ever since. I picked up Morgan’s book last October while I was in the middle of my graduate employment search and hitting a low I hadn’t felt since my first year at uni, and her words were an enormous comfort, both in helping to explain why I might feel the way I did, and reminding me that understanding that didn’t mean the feelings would go away – because, no matter how much you might try to reason with it, ‘anxiety doesn’t believe in evidence’.
Moments like these are threaded all the way through Anxiety for Beginners, where Morgan distils an incredibly complex feeling or emotion into the simplest of phrases which I find myself returning to over and over when things are more difficult. Her talent as a writer is palpable, and while reading I was continually floored by her eloquence as she articulated feelings I’ve never been able to capture in words, such as her description of disassociation as being like ‘you’re living between two layers of double glazing’.
Mental illnesses (despite their romanticisation in various contemporary films or television programmes – I’m looking at you, Thirteen Reasons Why) are far from pretty, and Morgan is exceptionally candid as she details her experiences. I hugely appreciated this; mental illnesses are often invisible because so much of how they impact a person takes place inside, so while being so upfront and honest can at times make for less-than-comfortable reading, it’s incredibly powerful and emotive. This is so important, because it’s extremely difficult to comprehend what having a mental illness is like if you’ve never struggled before.
Although she is writing specifically on anxiety, the nature of mental illnesses and the way they interact with one another means it’s virtually impossible to discuss one in isolation. Morgan navigates this deftly, touching on many different disorders while never losing her primary focus of anxiety. As well as discussing her experience of depression, which she and her partner have coined ‘The Bad Time’, she also touches on obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, trichotillomania (suffering a compulsion to pull out one’s own hair), and more.
In another demonstration of Morgan’s impressive ability to weave multiple strands together across her whole book, she regularly touches on the way that mental health – and all health, really – intersects with politics. In her chapters on women’s hormones, for example, she uses the example of pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) to consider the ways in which women’s concerns about their health are often not taken seriously enough. PMDD, an extremely severe type of PMS with life-threatening consequences, was defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders as ‘depressive disorder not otherwise specified’ until 2013.
Anxiety for Beginners isn’t a self-help book, but Morgan does work to explore as many different kinds of treatment as possible which may support sufferers in finding the best path for them. From medication to mindfulness, therapy to exercise, she suggests a wide range of options for someone in need of some help to consider, and encourages readers to find a combination which works for them, as well as some guidance in finding the right options for you. She herself is not a doctor or qualified therapist (though she is now training as a psychologist), and the book never reads as though she’s trying to be. Instead, it is friendly and comforting; to me, it felt all the way through like a safe, entirely hands-off peer-support group.
Her chapters on stigma and the media consider how we are conditioned to view mental illnesses as different to physical ones, which has the effect of ‘othering’ those with mental disorders, treating them as outsiders – despite one in four of us experiencing a mental illness every year. As well as her section on women, she discusses the impact of this stigma on men in particular, alongside the high cost of private therapy in an era of NHS cuts. Public health is inherently political, Morgan is admirable in her refusal to shy away from this throughout her book. (I also appreciated how many women she interviewed throughout the book – whether this was intentional or not, it was great to see so much representation of women in STEM!)
I’d recommend this book to anyone whose lives are touched in some way by anxiety and/or depression. For sufferers, it is supportive and reassuring, helping you to understand why you might feel how you do and ways to help yourself feel it a little less. For those who are friends, family, or partners of someone with anxiety, it may help you better understand what your loved one is going through and how to help while they find it impossible to explain in their own words. I encourage you to (at a safe time) ask them questions, try to understand, and not to judge. I think that this book can help you do that, just as much as it may help a sufferer to better understand and articulate themselves.
You can buy Anxiety for Beginners here.