Soothing Books for Anxious Times
From humble jellyfish anecdotes to straightforward self-help, three new titles offer resonant takeaways for these worrisome times
As far as I can tell, no one’s written the book specifically about dealing with anxiety during a global pandemic except sci-fi writers. But since an estimated 40 million American adults deal with serious anxiety in the best of times, there are lots of options for people seeking books that offer general mental-wellness help, from straightforward advice to relatable personal stories. Three recent nonfiction books take different approaches to the task. When it comes to deeply felt, personal experiences like acute anxiety, there’s no such thing as one size fits all. So take what resonates, and leave the rest—there’s plenty else to worry about.
‘Wisdom from a Humble Jellyfish and Other Self-Care Rituals from Nature,’ by Rani Shah
Shah’s book is pure self-help, but with a distinctive conceit: the author dishes practical advice through interesting anecdotes about creatures in the natural world. For example, you’ll read that sloths move an average of 123 feet per day. Your takeaway as a human: yes, we can move a lot faster than sloths, but slowing down to their pace can help us live longer.
Shah presents 18 well-researched examples that are accompanied by cutesy illustrations from artist Gemma Correll, pull quotes that tend to feature specific animal trivia, and gems of little koans at the end of each chapter. The presentation gives Wisdom from a Humble Jellyfish the vibe of a coffee-table or novelty book. It would be a great gift for a younger person or for anyone who likes advice delivered simply, like this lesson from a night-blooming cereus: “Knowing what time of day works best for you helps you truly bloom.” Or this piece of wisdom, courtesy of a porcupine: “You can’t control whether or not you get hurt…. But you can control how much you allow it to affect you.”
I’ve found that a good way to ingest annoying truths you know you should listen to is to come at them sideways. Shah does just that through highly specific facts about wombats and axolotls.
‘First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety,’ by Sarah Wilson
If you’d like to face anxiety head-on and yet vicariously, this book is a blend of self-help, memoir, and researched meditation on the author’s own experience with it. She also lives with a thyroid condition and bipolar disorder. First, We Make the Beast Beautiful is a helpfully messy reflection on what anxiety feels like for Wilson and an honest look at how she’s managed it. To Wilson’s credit, she’s not trying to sell anyone an easy fix. She emphasizes that anxiety tends to be a lifelong challenge, especially for those who suffer it acutely, and most of her advice is delivered in a sort of “I know, but it does work” tone. (The recommendations are all things you’ll have heard of before, but Wilson and probably scores of others have found them to be effective: meditation, breathing exercises, long hikes, and seeking long-term fulfillment instead of fleeting happiness.) It’s a meandering and conversational read, but many of the feelings, activities, and themes Wilson describes are likely to resonate, and her advice is worth considering in a cafeteria-style way: pick whatever seems compelling to you.
At one point in First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, Wilson evokes Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s saying that anxiety is the “dizziness of freedom,” that modern anxiety can stem from the realization that life is finite, though the world seems to offer infinite choice. There is an existential dread, Kierkegaard argues, that comes with not knowing which direction to take. Wilson writes: “More choice is meant to bring us more freedom (so says capitalism). And yet we’re happier when we’re bound. In fact, to be rendered choiceless is the ultimate freedom.” Those words were printed long before mandatory self-isolation became part of daily life, but I had to laugh while reading them in my house, where I now spend 95 percent of my time. They feel very precient right now.
‘Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life,’ by Lulu Miller
Not every book that helps you grapple with anxiety is branded that way. Lulu Miller’s latest release tells the story of taxonomist David Starr Jordan, who in the late 19th to early 20th centuries experienced both quirky success and devastating loss in nearly equal measure. His wife died, his child died, and then an earthquake caused severe damage to Stanford University, where he was the founding president.
Incredibly, as Jordan passionately collects fish specimens from around the world, they keep getting destroyed in freak accidents: fires, lightning strikes, earthquakes. Miller, cohost of the beloved human-behavior podcast Invisibilia, takes us along for the ride while cheerleading Jordan’s freakish capacity for resilience. The book feels well-timed if you can’t stop thinking about all the things in your life—and the world—that you just can’t control. Miller addresses chaos as though it’s a living, breathing character in the book. Maybe in another era that would’ve seemed dramatic. Right about now, it feels oddly relatable. This book is a great escape from contemporary examples of despair, but it’s also an extended reflection on how to weather the storm during trying times.