The tumult of the past 15 months has exacerbated common mental health concerns, among them trauma, anxiety, grief, and isolation. PW spoke with authors and editors about the emotional scars of the pandemic, and how their forthcoming books offer empathy, community, and guidance.
The body remembers
The Covid era has seen an escalating series of events upend social, physical, and emotional lives. For many, authors say, this has resulted in real trauma.
Kati Morton, a marriage and family therapist and YouTube personality (one million–plus subscribers), explores the links between trauma and social media in Traumatized (Hachette Go, Sept.). “Because of social media”—the circulation of videos documenting police brutality, for instance—“we’re exposed to trauma more often than we would have been pre–social media,” she says.
In late 2020, Morton rewrote parts of her book to include references to Covid-19 and the summer’s uprisings in response to systemic racial violence. As her practice and her online presence have shown her, people often don’t know they’re experiencing trauma. “I want readers to understand what they’re going through in a compassionate and helpful way,” she says. “The book gives people words to what’s going on. Instead of thinking, ‘I’m just crazy,’ the reader can now say, ‘I think I’m anxious.’ Having terms can be healing and validating.”
Psychiatrist Paul Conti also hopes to build a better understanding of this mental health issue, with Trauma: The Invisible Epidemic (Sounds True, Oct.). Though he doesn’t address Covid-19 directly, he presents an encompassing view that takes in types of trauma and post-trauma syndromes, the shortcomings of psychiatric health care, and the physical and mental effects of trauma. Nearly every chapter ends with what he terms an “antidote,” or a prompt to alleviate pain or prevent further trauma, such as limiting screen time and other media, avoiding quick fixes, and rewriting personal narratives.
Everything is fine
Americans have been consumed with anxiety since the start of the pandemic, and now that the country has begun to open up, reentry anxiety—regarding socializing or returning to the office, for instance—is making headlines.
“Suddenly everyone is experiencing anxiety in one way or another,” says Marian Lizzi, v-p and editor-in-chief at TarcherPerigee. “There’s a lot we can learn from long-term anxiety sufferers about how to cope with it and be present for our lives alongside it, rather than letting it keep us from the people, places, and activities we want to enjoy. These are life skills we all need now.”
Lizzi acquired The Anxiety Sisters’ Survival Guide (Sept.) by Abbe Greenberg and Maggie Sarachek, which builds on the authors’ blog, podcast, workshops, and coaching services; their online community has 169,000 Facebook followers. “The book presents science-backed information on what anxiety is and how it affects the mind and body,” Lizzi says, “but it also offers first-person testimonials and ‘aha moments’ from women. This sharing of experiences eases what the authors call ‘shrinking world syndrome’—that is, the isolating, limiting effects of anxiety. The motto of the Anxiety Sisterhood is, ‘Don’t go it alone.’ ”
Other books are more prescriptive, including another TarcherPerigee title, Becoming Aware (Oct.). In it, Daniel J. Siegel, a psychiatrist and cofounder of the Mindsight Institute, introduces readers to what he calls the “wheel of awareness”—a guided meditation practice that the author teaches in corporate settings and via his website. The book is a 21-day course for reducing anxiety, providing guided meditation instructions, exercises, and tools and techniques for getting through the day.
Similarly, The Ultimate Anxiety Toolkit (Kingsley, June), written by therapist Risa Williams and illustrated by Jennifer Whitney and Amanda Wey, contains 25 lighthearted, actionable, anxiety-busting tools, such as “task-extractors,” “brain bouncing,” and “shrink-rays.” Williams roots her approaches in cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, narrative therapy, and positive psychology.
Wendy Suzuki, a professor of neural science and psychology at New York University who specializes in neuroplasticity, introduces a new view in Good Anxiety (Atria, Sept.). She draws on her academic expertise and her struggles with anxiety after the deaths of her father and brother in an attempt to shift thinking around the emotion. “We’re going to flip ‘bad anxiety’ to ‘good anxiety’—an anxiety you could live with, that can be helpful to you,” she says. “Anxiety can be positively generative. That’s a big idea to swallow, but I walk through the logic and science.”
Suzuki also takes care to distinguish between “everyday anxiety” and clinical anxiety. “Anxiety exists on a spectrum,” she says. “I don’t profess to treat serious, clinical levels of anxiety. I’m treating anxiety that you deal with every day, like an odor that never leaves you.”
Bearing the unbearable
Grief has been all-consuming for many—lost jobs, lost opportunities, and unfathomable losses of life—and new books suggest ways to get through it.
The Grief Handbook by blogger Bridget McNulty (Watkins, July) focuses on the immediate aftermath of a loss, providing, among other resources, a list of essentials for the days after, instant strategies for self-care, and journaling space. It offers, PW said, “an empathetic perspective that is both comforting and motivating.”
In Self-Care for Grief, an August release from Adams Media, journalist Nneka M. Okona gathers 100 ways to cope while grieving, such as “cook a meal to honor your loss” or “scream to release the weight of grief.” “Nneka helps you rethink your existing self-care practices and modify your rituals to help you work through different situations,” says Julia Jacques, acquisitions editor at Adams. “The book isn’t specific to the grief over losing someone; it can be over losing something you expected to happen.”
Storyteller Susan Perrow offers a resource for parents and educators with Stories to Light the Night (Hawthorn, June), a collection of 90 vignettes, written by Perrow and others, that address various scenarios—for instance, the loss of a loved one or a pet, loss of health and well-being, or environmental grief, which is a psychological response to loss caused by climate change. Extension activities for educators accompany some of the stories.
Other books address the evolution of grief, which may be cyclical, unpredictable, or ongoing. In Finding Refuge (Shambhala, July), activist, social worker, and yoga teacher Michelle Cassandra Johnson identifies a pathway through personal and collective grief using yogic and Buddhist teachings, such as mindful breathing and the recitation of mantras (“I feel my heart./ I acknowledge my heart./ I feel my heartbeat./ I acknowledge my heartbeat.”). She also explains cultural trauma and systemic oppression, drawing on critical race and feminist theory.
In How to Be Sad (HarperOne, Oct.), journalist Helen Russell, author of The Year of Living Danishly, mines personal experience—the loss of her sister, her parents’ divorce, her struggles with infertility—and illuminates how to embrace sadness and joy simultaneously, and why sitting with such dualities is key to living a full life. “As a culture we’re so obsessed with the pursuit of happiness, we’re almost phobic of being sad,” she says. “There’s a real reluctance to experience these so-called negative emotions. I wanted to address that.”
Russell incorporates psychological and historical research on sadness, as well as the experiences of a variety of people, such as a former medic, a polar explorer, journalists, and comedians. “I want readers to understand how to look after ourselves when we’re sad,” she says, “and how to talk about it.”
You’ve got a friend in me
Months of isolation and distancing have disrupted relationships. Some friendships have dwindled; others have been discarded. As Americans begin to socialize again, connection is, for many, front of mind.
In Ensemble! (North Atlantic, June), Jeff Katzman, a professor of psychiatry, and Dan O’Connor, a theater artist, explain what they call “ensembling,” a therapeutic modality rooted in psychology and improvisational theater. Building on ideas they explored in 2018’s Life Unscripted, the authors offer additional tools to combat loneliness. Katzman and O’Connor “draw on psychological research, case studies, and personal examples to demonstrate how opening up to vulnerability is the first step to developing deeper connections,” PW said of the new book. “Those looking for a prompt to get out of their shell a bit should take a look.”
Social researcher Maggie Hamilton, in When We Become Strangers (Murdoch, Aug.), amplifies the refrain that while people are constantly connected to streaming services and social media, true connection is only possible through disconnection—deleting apps, turning off the TV. Hamilton, whose previous books include the parenting titles What’s Happening to Our Girls? and What’s Happening to Our Boys?, imagines what a truly engaged community might look like, directing some of her advice to parents and educators, as in the chapters “IGen Kids” and “Parenting Right Now.”
With Radical Friendship (Shambhala, Aug.), Kate Johnson “draws on her experiences as a multiracial person living in the Midwest as well as meditations on Buddhist concepts,” PW said, “to offer insight into how friendships can help overcome differences.” The book is also inspired by the author’s interests in community organizing and social justice. “Mindfulness isn’t just for optimizing your productivity at work or creating more clarity and focus; it’s also about uprooting the ways in which we are all biased, which is making us all suffer,” Johnson says. As she became more engaged in social justice causes, she explains, “I found that there was a way in which we could use our meditative superpowers to strengthen our relationships. And in order to form stronger social justice movements, we needed stronger friendships. The book flows from there.”
Johnson offers simple meditations and scripts for socially just interactions, and encourages readers to bring the curiosity, compassion, patience, and equanimity that they cultivate in their practice to their friendships, especially in difficult times. She emphasizes, as others PW spoke with did, the fundamental importance of connection. “Totalitarian political regimes use loneliness to make people easier to control,” she says. “Big businesses are benefiting from us being isolated. How can a friendship subvert these societal and systemic forces that are making us less free than we could be? Friendships are not ‘nice to have’—they’re essential.”
Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.
Below, more on mental health books.
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