Poe's Heart and the Mountain Climber: Exploring the Effect of Anxiety on Our Brains and Culture

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9780739313794: Poe's Heart and the Mountain Climber: Exploring the Effect of Anxiety on Our Brains and Culture

Are you bombarded by a constant media feed of global terrorism, war, and rising unemployment rates—and by a mind-numbing array of ads that urge you to “ask your doctor” about the newest anti-anxiety medications? If it sometimes feels as if this country is having a collective anxiety attack, then you won’t be surprised to learn that more than 19 million Americans suffer from some form of acute anxiety.

Poe’s Heart and the Mountain Climber tackles this situation head-on, with a fresh perspective and a straightforward approach to exploring and understanding our anxiety before it paralyzes us.

After interviewing many experts on anxiety, and reflecting on his own many years treating anxious patients (as well as experiencing more than a few anxious moments himself), Dr. Richard Restak has organized this book around one primary principal: the best way to manage anxiety in these anxious times is to learn about it and put that learning to practical use. His message is vital and empowering: anxiety is not a mental illness that must require medication, but often a normal, biological response to stress.

Anxiety is part of our genetic makeup. We wouldn’t be alive today if our ancestors had lacked the ability to anticipate dangers and threats. Anxiety is as natural a part of our existence as breathing, eating, or sleeping, and it is closely linked to our powers of reasoning. Unlike any other species, only we are able to envision future possibilities. As a result, we aren’t tethered to the here and now, but can imaginatively anticipate the good things that might happen to us. But we can also envision the bad things and, as a result, experience anxiety. We can’t have one without the other. Anxiety, therefore, isn’t something to be eliminated but, rather, something to be understood. Anxiety is only undesirable when it becomes extreme.

This groundbreaking book teaches us to view anxiety not as a burden, but as a stimulus for greater accomplishment and enhanced self-knowledge. We will function at our best when we stop working to deny our anxiety or trying to escape it and instead learn to accept its presence in our lives and transform it into the positive, creative energy from which it stems.
From the Hardcover edition.

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About the Author:

Richard Restak, M.D., is a neurologist, neuro-psychiatrist, and clinical professor of neurology at George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He is the bestselling author of thirteen acclaimed books about the brain.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

Our Anxious Culture

Triggers for Anxiety


Unfortunately, our brain isn't very proficient at probability estimation. Take an airplane phobia, for instance. Untold numbers of people suffer from a fear of flying, an anxiety condition that can range from the mildly discomfiting to the totally incapacitating. Most of us can bring to mind one or more acquaintances who refuse to step onto an airplane under any circumstances. More numerous are anxious flyers like myself who travel by air on a regular basis, but only in the absence of any reasonable or convenient alternative. Yet if you look into the statistics of air travel, behind all this you come up with a fairly astounding figure that logically should greatly reduce airline jitters.

Statistically, a specific air traveler would have to get on a commercial airplane daily for more than eight thousand years before falling victim to a multiple-fatality airplane crash. Death is much more likely to occur in the car used to travel to and from the airport. Car accident fatalities happen with a frequency of 1 in 18,800, with a significantly decreased risk if the traveler leaves the driving to a professional: Bus and train accident fatality statistics are 1 in 4,400,000 and 1 in 5,050,000, respectively. Motorcycles are associated with a 1 in 118,000 risk of death. Nor is walking the streets risk free (you have a 1 in 45,200 risk of being struck by a car).

While most of us experience some mild anxiety about travel risks, we tend to forget about the greater statistical risks involved if we confine our lives to the place where we feel the safest: our own homes. On lists of the world's most dangerous places, the home ranks second (the highway takes top honors).

In addition, we tend to be most anxious about grisly or horrific--albeit unlikely--possibilities. Think back a few summers ago when vacationers along East Coast beaches spent precious afternoon hours anxiously scanning the ocean waters for sharks. Death from a shark attack occurs at a rate of only about 1 in 94,900,000, a paltry number compared to death from drowning (1 in 225,000), skin cancer due to prolonged unprotected sun exposure (1 in 37,900), or even injuries from being struck by lightning (1 in 4,260,000). Despite these figures, many vacationers opted to play it safe by abandoning the beaches in favor of a few hours of boating--apparently oblivious of the fact that fatal boating accidents occur with a frequency of 1 in 402,000.

Even the most publicized of recent anxiety-provoking events involved more moderate risks than is commonly believed. While 2,801 people died in the World Trade Center attacks, about 15,000 people escaped the buildings; while 12 people died in 1995 after cultists released sarin nerve agent on three Tokyo subway lines, only 5,500 passengers out of the hundreds of thousands riding the trains that day required medical treatment; while 5 people died during the anthrax scare in the fall of 2001, infectious-disease experts estimate that many more people were exposed to the organism but failed to come down with the disease.

Here is a test (which I failed, incidentally) that can serve as a reality check on your own ability to accurately measure risk assessment. Please answer the following question about the likelihood of your becoming a victim of a terrorist attack: "If you won a free trip to one of the following places, which trip would you most likely pass up because of anxiety about personal safety: Israel, Istanbul, Bali, or New York City?"

Writer Wendy Perrin asked that question in late 2002 of 13,857 Conde Nast Traveler subscribers. Eighty-five percent felt Israel was too risky; 29 percent would avoid Istanbul, 56 percent wouldn't go to Bali because of the number of people killed there in the bomb blast earlier that year; but only 1 percent said they would pass on a free trip to New York.

While Israel scores highest in terms of perceived danger (only 15 percent of respondents would accept a no-obligation, no-strings-attached free trip) and New York seems quintessentially safe and universally desirable (99 percent of the respondents were ready to start packing their bags), statistics provide reasons for perhaps a more nuanced approach.

In the recent past, New York has seen more casualties from terrorism than anyplace in the world. In addition, most experts on terrorism place New York at the top of any list of potential terrorist attacks (Washington, D.C., comes in second, which, as a Washingtonian, I don't personally find reassuring). But despite the far more numerous casualties that accompanied the collapse of the Twin Towers, and the heightened risk of more attacks in New York in the future, almost all of Wendy Perrin's respondents said they would accept a free trip to New York.

Despite the meager 15 percent acceptance rate for a free trip to Israel, an argument can be made that even that conflicted and fragmented country is safer than New York--at least it was in 2002, when 202 Israelis had died at the hands of terrorists, compared to ten times that number of deaths in New York the previous year. Indeed, Israel's terrorism death toll--measured in fatalities per hundred thousand residents--is much lower than the annual homicide rate in New York and dozens of other U.S. cities.

What can explain these poll results? I suspect most people find New York less threatening than anywhere in Israel, Indonesia, or Turkey simply because New York is more familiar. As a rule, we tend to be most anxious when dealing with the novel or the unknown. This was true even before the emergence of terrorism; upcoming trips to new places creates in most people a mix of pleasurable anticipation coupled with a dollop of anxiety about whether events would proceed without a hitch.

In our more threatening world, it's only natural for us to envision something bad happening in unfamiliar rather than familiar places (one of the reasons videos of the fall of the Twin Towers still seem so nightmarish). The same thing holds true in regard to illnesses. We fear smallpox, anthrax, and SARS not only because they are so deadly, but also because we have no experience with such diseases. And the anxiety resulting from such uncertainty skews our thinking toward illogical conclusions.

Two factors determine the risks we're willing to take. The first is our risk perception--our estimation of the likelihood of a bad outcome. Access to information can influence risk perception, but only up to a point. For example, a year or so ago each of us was asked to decide this question: Should I take the smallpox vaccine? Experts on vaccines and public health weren't much help in deciding this question because of their disagreement about whether the remote threat of terrorist-initiated smallpox epidemic justified a mass inoculation.

As a result of this lack of expert agreement, each of us was left to decide on our own whether to find and take the vaccine. Most people didn't have a clue what to do and, as a result, felt anxious because they were being asked to make a potentially life or death decision about something they were professionally unqualified to evaluate or in many instances even understand. As a result, few American took the vaccine. Yet based on historical experience, such unwillingness doesn't make a lot of sense: The fatality rate from the vaccine can be expected to be no more than 1 in 750,000, a number that would be dwarfed by the fatalities and disabilities that would result from a terrorist-created smallpox epidemic.

Perhaps you consider a 1 in 750,000 chance of death unacceptable? If so, you should stop riding bicycles (1 in 341,000 chance of death) and stay out of swimming pools (1 in 225,000).

Risk tolerance, the second factor, is our willingness to accept foreseeable risks and move on. While two people may share a common risk perception (on many occasions a distorted one, as discussed above), one person may be willing to accept the risk, but the other won't.

For instance, several years ago I had an epileptic patient under my care who experienced frequent and life-threatening seizures despite trials on numerous anticonvulsants. Finally, I found a drug that worked. My patient's seizures stopped and, as a pleasing side effect of the new drug, she lost thirty pounds of excess weight. Everything was going swimmingly until six months after I started her on the drug.

While sorting through my mail one morning, I opened a letter from a pharmaceutical company sent to every neurologist in the nation warning of potentially fatal bone marrow and liver toxicity resulting from the use of my patient's drug. According to the letter, such complications were rare. Though troubling, the risk seemed acceptable to me; that is, if I were the patient, I would have continued with the drug. For one thing, regular checks on blood and liver function could detect these problems at an early stage. If the drug was then withdrawn, an affected patient would have a good chance for a complete recovery. But when I sat down with my patient and explained the situation to her, she opted to discontinue the drug because she considered the risks unacceptable. At her insistence, I switch her to another anticonvulsant. Over the next year, she experienced several seizures and regained the weight she'd lost.

What would you have done if you were in her situation? Would you have elected to remain seizure free and at an optimum weight for your age and height, but at a small risk for developing a serious side effect from the medication? Or would you have decided that the risk was simply too high? What would have been your risk tolerance in this situation?

In an attempt to gauge risk tolerance, Wendy Perrin asked the Conde Nast respondents a variation on her initial question: "How high a risk of a terrorist attack would you be willing to accept before canceling a pleasure trip?" More than half of t...

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