Andrea Petersen: On Edge–A Journey Through Anxiety

A celebrated science and health reporter offers a wry, bracingly honest account of living with anxiety

A racing heart. Difficulty breathing. Overwhelming dread. Andrea Petersen was first diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at the age of twenty, but she later realized that she had been experiencing panic attacks since childhood. With time her symptoms multiplied. She agonized over every odd physical sensation. She developed fears of driving on highways, going to movie theaters, even licking envelopes. Although having a name for her condition was an enormous relief, it was only the beginning of a journey to understand and master it—one that took her from psychiatrists’ offices to yoga retreats to the Appalachian Trail.

Woven into Petersen’s personal story is a fascinating look at the biology of anxiety and the groundbreaking research that might point the way to new treatments. She compares psychoactive drugs to non-drug treatments, including biofeedback and exposure therapy. And she explores the role that genetics and the environment play in mental illness, visiting top neuroscientists and tracing her family history—from her grandmother, who, plagued by paranoia, once tried to burn down her own house, to her young daughter, in whom Petersen sees shades of herself.

Brave and empowering, this is essential reading for anyone who knows what it means to live on edge.

I’ve been reading a lot of fiction lately, and it’s been a little while since I’ve reviewed any psychology nonfiction. I was excited to read Andrea Petersen’s On Edge–it’s always so encouraging to hear success stories from people who have had similar battles with anxiety that I have had.

However, I was confused right away, because On Edge is supposed to be Andrea Petersen’s memoirs…and it is not that at all. But neither is it exactly an objective journalistic history of psychology.

On Edge smothers us with too much information. In an effort to explain her diagnosis, Petersen gives a complicated back story of mental illness, pulling the reader in too many directions all at once. We are with her grandmother in the institution, we are with Petersen in a mid-flight panic attack, and then we are deeply entrenched in an incredibly boring History of Psychology class. I couldn’t figure out what end was up!

I would love to read Andrea Petersen’s memoirs. And I would love to read a book written by Andrea Petersen giving me detailed information about anxiety and mental illness. But to try and combine the two, and still keep the history sections objective just were not happening. Maybe that wasn’t the point, but it sure made it hard on me to switch gears so often. She needs to pick one and stick with it. This was a DNF–I made it halfway and then just couldn’t keep going. That’s highly unusual for a book of this subject matter.

NetGalley and Crown provided this ARC for an unbiased review.

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Damion Searls: The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing

The captivating, untold story of Hermann Rorschach and his famous inkblot test, which has shaped our view of human personality and become a fixture in popular culture

In 1917, working alone in a remote Swiss asylum, psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach devised an experiment to probe the human mind. For years he had grappled with the theories of Freud and Jung while also absorbing the aesthetic of a new generation of modern artists. He had come to believe that who we are is less a matter of what we say, as Freud thought, than what we see.

Rorschach himself was a visual artist, and his test, a set of ten carefully designed inkblots, quickly made its way to America, where it took on a life of its own. Co-opted by the military after Pearl Harbor, it was a fixture at the Nuremberg trials and in the jungles of Vietnam. It became an advertising staple, a cliché in Hollywood and journalism, and an inspiration to everyone from Andy Warhol to Jay-Z. The test was also given to millions of defendants, job applicants, parents in custody battles, workers applying for jobs, and people suffering from mental illness—or simply trying to understand themselves better. And it is still used today.

Damion Searls draws on unpublished letters and diaries, and a cache of previously unknown interviews with Rorschach’s family, friends, and colleagues, to tell the unlikely story of the test’s creation, its controversial reinvention, and its remarkable endurance—and what it all reveals about the power of perception. Elegant and original, The Inkblots shines a light on the twentieth century’s most visionary synthesis of art and science.

So often when we think about study psychology, we talk about different methods–but we rarely think about the people who dedicated their lives to figuring out the science behind those methods. Aside from Freud and Jung, how many psychologists can you name? Not many! We see inkblots everywhere in our culture, and not even just as the tests themselves anymore. They are mimicked in art and on album covers, on tshirts and in the media. But I never knew who Hermann Rorschach was–when he lived, how he died, where the inkblots came from.

It’s all pretty fascinating, actually. Rorschach had a troubled childhood, but he was a good person, and genuinely wanted to help people. Medicine wasn’t enough, he wanted to see them for who they were. He worked his whole life with schizophrenics in asylums, trying to determine whether it was a life sentence or not, how he could get inside their heads and bring them back. He didn’t create the first Inkblot Test, but he perfected the cards used today.

The Inkblots is a very dense book. It is not only a biography of Rorschach himself, but also a biography of the Inkblot test. Hermann died young, and so the Searls shifts halfway through to the modern history of his test (WWII-current). The discussion of the Nuremberg trials and how the Rorschach test was used there stopped me in my tracks. Some of the results were so surprising…and poignant to today. I’ve certainly put more reading on my TBR surrounding that subject!

This isn’t a book to be missed for anyone interested in the history of psychology. As I mentioned before, it is dense–definitely not a fast read or something you’re going to fall in love with on vacation–but certainly fascinating. Also, Hermann Rorschach was HOT, and that’s all I have to say about that.

Blogging for Books and Crown Publishing provided a copy of this book for unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body

Have you ever felt a surge of adrenaline after narrowly avoiding an accident? Salivated at the sight (or thought) of a sour lemon? Felt turned on just from hearing your partner’s voice? If so, then you’ve experienced how dramatically the workings of your mind can affect your body.

In Cure, award-winning science writer Jo Marchant travels the world to meet the physicians, patients and researchers on the cutting edge of this new world of medicine. We learn how meditation protects against depression and dementia, how social connections increase life expectancy and how patients who feel cared for recover from surgery faster. Drawing on the very latest research, Marchant explores the vast potential of the mind’s ability to heal, lays out its limitations and explains how we can make use of the findings in our own lives. With clarity and compassion, Cure points the way towards a system of medicine that treats us not simply as bodies but as human beings.

I’ve talked before about how big an effect anxiety and depression can have on the body. There are the obvious changes, like fatigue and a racing heart, but there are other things too, like joint pain and nausea that really mess things up sometimes. I was really pleased to receive Marchant’s book because she is writing about that exact relationship–psychology meets physiology. What effect does depression have on the immune system, and visa versa?

I found Cure to be incredibly interesting. She starts by exploring the Placebo Effect and how it works surprisingly well, even when the recipient knows they are taking a placebo. Then Marchant covers a variety of topics from meditation to electrotherapy. Many disorders pop up over and over in her chapters:  autism, MS, anxiety/chronic stress. She uses short anecdotes and case studies as examples, which makes everything super easy to understand.

Cure is definitely a book for those already interested and possessing at least an amateur’s knowledge of psychology and the workings of the brain. Because I am that person, I liked it immensely and would thoroughly recommend it to anyone wanting to study more on the connection between the brain and immune system.

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Blogging for Books provided a copy of this book for an unbiased review. Released Jan 19.

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After I wrote this review, Kati Morton posted a video about this exact subject–the mental illness connection to physiology. I couldn’t resist including it here.

Lying

Psychology has always been one of my favorite subjects of study. The brain is such a complicated infrastructure that I never cease to be amazed by its never ending facets. There’s just so much to learn and to discover. I have often wished I were more scientifically inclined so I could study it as more than just a hobby and interest.

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Lauren Slater’s so called memoir makes a fascinating case study. At first, she writes simply as a girl with epilepsy, learning how to balance her disorder with puberty. But the further into the book you get…the more you start to realize something is just off about Lauren. Maybe the epilepsy isn’t real. Maybe it is, but she’s exaggerating, as she claims herself to be doing…or maybe you are just trapped in a completely different fantasy of Lauren’s brain.

By the end of the…memoir…it is hard to tell what end is up. What kind of story did I just read? There’s even a chapter to the publisher with instructions on how to market it. Should it be fiction? Nonfiction? Faction?

It makes me think of David Sedaris–who I hate, by the way, because his “nonfiction” is so clearly exaggerated in a very disgusting manner. But this is different, somehow. Lauren is completely upfront with the fact that her fiction is not altogether fact. It’s almost as if she’s trying to figure out herself if her brain is making up her life or if her life is making up her brain.

Either way, if you are interested in the field of psychology at all, this book is definitely a great read. Be prepared for a wild ride that will twist your brain all over the place!

Flowers for Algernon

Holy crap, I’m dying. If you have not read Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, run out and get a copy right now.

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I’ve always been fascinated with the way our brains work, with mental handicaps, illness, psychology, etc. If I were smarter and more focused, I would have gone into that field. I settle for reading as many books about it as I can.

I think, although it is a very vague memory now, that we read this in middle school. I was thinking about it the other day when I was going through the list for one of the challenges I’m doing, and I was glad when my local library had it available.

This is a story of a man with a lifelong mental handicap, who undergoes an experimental operation in hopes that it will increase his intelligence. The book is written in journal form, “Progress Reports,” for the experiment.

Try not to fall in love with Charlie. I dare you. Be prepared to cry, and have a book-throwing reaction worse than TFIOS. I guarantee it.