Anxiety & Panic

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Undoing Perpetual StressReview - Undoing Perpetual Stress
The Missing Connection Between Depression, Anxiety and 21st Century Illness
by Richard O'Connor
Berkley Trade, 2005
Review by Minna Forsell, Ph.D.
Jul 3rd 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 27)

Pedagogical and encouraging, this book of 517 pages is a real gem for anyone who wants to know more about depression, anxiety and ways of handling these symptoms. Because symptoms they are, according to the author -- symptoms of the Western lifestyle in the 21st Century. This perspective permeates all eleven chapters and makes for an account of mental illness which is broader and more openly critical to society than psychotherapists usually are in the books they write. It is a quietly encouraging book, aiming to make sense of the stresses we are under in today's society and to provide support in constructively handling the consequences of the situation.

The stresses of the 21st Century make us ill. And yet we are constantly told that we should be happier than ever. This is the state of things that is O'Connor's main theme and the book's point of departure. Having dwelled on this matter for some 100 pages, explaining the connections between brain and body, society and our nervous systems,  contemporary life and mental problems, O'Connor goes on to his other major theme -- that we are not lost in stress for ever, but that we can in fact 'rewire' our brains. And we should. The vulnerability of our nervous systems, which makes us react to today's society with mental illness, is also what makes it possible for us to recover and heal. We can do something to feel better. And O'Connor, a willing guide, wants us to start doing just that.

It is a rich book, generous and varied, informed and humble, covering so many aspects and dimensions of depression, anxiety, addiction, PTSD etc that it definitely belongs to the genre 'All you need to know about...' In this case it's 21st century stress you need to know about, and how to handle its consequences. O'Connor's voice is the mentor's, the experienced and trusted forerunner's who has turned back to help us with what he has gained from experience, studies and work. It is a professional and personal, comforting yet demanding voice. There is no room in this book for illusions of the kind that self-help books so readily offer -- that change is easy. Instead O'Connor's voice is deeply rooted in realism and keeps returning to the brute facts of life -- that things are not often fair, easy or even possible.

However, there is a great deal of optimism in this book, or perhaps it is rather the kind of positivity that comes from a pessimistic acceptance of the real state of things. Instead of presenting something radically new, O'Connor brings back the age-old method of mindfulness as an effective way out of the stress trap that our society has become for us. And as he stresses relearning and continuous practice as the key methods of coping with damaging stress, the book also includes practical exercises.

However, the greatest strength of Undoing Perpetual Stress is not the advice nor the analysis of the connections between society and mental problems. Its greatest strength is the guilt-relieving, patient, kind attitude, rooted in personal experience and struggle, with which the story is communicated. O'Connor targets everyday-problems, that often seem chaotic, vague and 'just there' in our lives, and lifts them up into comprehendible metaphors. For example, 'the mind' is humbly presented as 'the music that the brain plays'. And music wasn't meant to become noise. In Undoing Perpetual Stress we are gently and tirelessly guided towards tuning our minds out of a state of noise and into a more harmonious mode. It is not an easy task, O'Connor admits, but more than worthwhile and our own responsibility. Inspiring, supportive, comprehendible and well-informed, this book is a well of encouragement in the direction of turning off the noise and starting to listen to and play some real music instead.

Furthermore, Undoing Perpetual Stress is, no doubt, worth reading not only for those of us who are deeply troubled, struggling with mental illnesses, but for anyone living in the 21st Century. O'Connor, writing with passion, compassion, clarity and humor, is the kind of psychotherapist who is readable for the sake of his writing, irrespective of the subject. There is simply a lot to learn and think about. Undoing Perpetual Stress is a synthesis of psychotherapy, advice, research and personal experience at its very best and I have a very hard time imagining it could be a disappointment to anyone interested in the widespread phenomena of depression, anxiety and stress and health. It is an offering from a dedicated psychotherapist on a subject that affects most people, whether we have the time to care about it, or not. Time spent on the pages of Undoing Perpetual Stress, I dare say, will not be a waste.


© 2007 Minna Forsell


Minna Forsell is a psychologist, recently graduated from the University of Stockholm. She currently works as a writer, translator and research assistant. She hopes to pursue a career as a researcher in the field of environmental psychology.


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