I was predisposed to like Dr. Marcey Shapiro’s new book Freedom from Anxiety: A Holistic Approach to Emotional Well-Being (North Atlantic Books, 2014) and it has more than met my expectations.
It’s a great – actually, relaxing – read. I read it from start to finish. And it’s also a reference work, the kind of book one wants to keep on the shelf and consult from time to time. It’s a compendium of techniques and daily life practices and potions to alleviate anxiety, and a guide for discerning which of the innumerable choices is best for you or me.
Full disclosure here: Dr. Shapiro is one of my own doctors and a person I admire.
Reading her book was a bit like sitting in her office, seeking advice for my own health. As an M.D., she suggests more than she prescribes, though she’s happy to write a prescription when that’s advisable, for a conventional medication or, more likely, for a combination of practices: good food, walking in nature, use of herbs, supplements.
Freedom From Anxiety follows on the heels of Dr. Shapiro’s first book Transforming the Nature of Health (North Atlantic Books, 2012). The two are companions, actually the beginning of a series as Dr. Shapiro is at work on future books about digestion, menopause, men’s health, among other topics.
Both of the already published books are grounded in Dr. Shapiro’s holistic philosophy of medicine: We are spiritual beings in physical existence, and the bridge between the spiritual and the physical is contentment, happiness.
What stands in the way of happiness and, by implication, good health, is often our deep sense of anxiety. Fear is a primal emotion that may have had its evolutionary purposes. Anxiety seems to be a deeply ingrained response to external stimuli. It also makes us miserable, and sick.
I learned in this book that almost 20 percent of people in our society suffer from a diagnosable anxiety disorder. This is not the usual jitters anyone may get before a stressful event. The National Institute of Mental Health defines a diagnosable anxiety order – including post-traumatic stress, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic attacks, phobias and general anxiety – as “sustained feelings of fearfulness or nervousness.” About three-fourths of those affected by anxiety disorders have their first episode before their 21st birthday. Anxiety disorders are implicated in other mental health problems such as substance abuse and depression, and probably in a lot of physical ailments from auto-immune diseases to cancer. Perhaps many or most of us, even without a diagnosable anxiety condition, still suffer from anxiety frequently.
Nothing, then, could be more important for our collective health and happiness, than finding freedom from anxiety.
Dr. Shapiro explains for a non-scientific reader the happiness-to-health connection. “Our cells’ immune system is strengthened by internal biochemicals of happiness. The immune system creates many of these biochemicals in response to our emotional state.” Immune cells are equipped with receptors to receive information. Ninety percent of these receptors are for endogenous (made by our own bodies) opiates (endorphins) and cannabinoids. Much research shows that Dr. Shapiro writes that endorphins are key to optimal immune function, which protects us from all sorts of illnesses, including cancer. Research into cannabinoids is underway and has been slowed by the politics of cannabis prohibition. Dr. Shapiro writes that autoimmune diseases – which affect millions – “may one day be proven to be caused to a large degree by a deficiency of endorphins and cannabinoids.” We need to feel good to be healthy.
If anxiety and stress in general are bad for our health, what are we to do about it? Dr. Shapiro repeatedly tells us to consult our own inner guidance in choosing from a banquet of stress-reducing practices that begin and end with being kind to oneself. Certainly, she says, don’t worry about worrying.
From there, the book packs an amazing amount of technique into 300 pages. She discusses meditation, exercise, numerous breathing practices. She offers her non-dogmatic approach to nutrition. She’s not out to convince anyone but she does introduce readers to the idea that eating adequate fat and protein, along with lacto-fermented foods, goes a long way toward health. Again, her advice is: experiment and see how you feel.
The medium is the message here, and a big part of her message is: have fun and enjoy. She has a page on the stress-reducing properties of chocolate, followed – surprise – by her own recipe for a sugar-free confection made with cacao, coconut butter and nuts.
There are lengthy sections on the use of nutritional supplements, herbs and traditional Chinese medicine, including acupuncture. I found these three sections to be the strongest information-wise, not surprising to me since Dr. Shapiro emphasizes these areas, along with food as medicine, in her practice.
There is an invitation to the reader to try all sorts of things from aromatherapy to homeopathy to using color and light, flower essences, rocks and crystals. Yes, crystals. Some of what Dr. Shapiro suggests for reducing anxiety is way off the beaten path, and she acknowledges that. No claims for efficacy are made as she reiterates her theme of individual experimentation. What works for one may not work for others. (Personally, I include daily knitting in my health program. I know Dr. Shapiro would agree that handcrafts, gardening, playing with pets, playing in general are all helpful in reducing anxiety and stress.)
Her agenda in this book is to present what she knows to date and what has worked in her own life and with patients. It’s not about whether something has been peer-reviewed in journals or popular with the American Medical Association, or covered by insurance. That’s not how she operates.
Some of the techniques she mentions seem way-out (now) because not enough research has yet been conducted, and because our culture has become dependent on pharmaceutical solutions. Emotional conditions such as anxiety may be amenable to a broad range of treatments because anxiety has a lot to do with how we think and feel about ourselves, as well as with what we eat and whether we get enough exercise and relaxation. Teasing out all the variables would not be easily measurable with standard scientific tests.
At the end of the book is a chapter called “Putting it All Together” which encourages readers to develop their own systems for reducing anxiety, not excluding the use of psychotherapy and medication when appropriate.
This is a doctor who believes that all healing ultimately involves self-healing. Freedom from Anxiety is good medicine.