book review

Review: The Book of Angst by Gwendoline Smith

21 February 2021

Gwendoline Smith: The Book of Angst
Allen & Unwin, 2021
ISBN: 9781988547695, $22.99, 312pp


content warning: discussions of mental illness 

When faced with this book (subtitled “Understand & Manage Anxiety”), I braced myself to read a drawn-out version of those pamphlets in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. I don’t have a diagnosed anxiety condition myself, but I do have loved ones affected by it, and I’ve found that such books, though useful, can provide run-of-the-mill reading since after all, the main aim is to educate rather than entertain.      

To my pleasant surprise, and despite its blindingly bright orange cover and ominous title, “The Book of Angst” was a very gentle and fun reading experience. There are many quirky drawings, from useful diagrams to inexplicably two-headed giraffes. Its sentences are a blissful refuge for the university student accustomed to long-winded academic essays and journal articles; any remotely complicated concept is explained using metaphors and potentially challenging words are sensitively described (for instance, “neurobiological disorder” is “when the brain functions differently [than usual]”). The author, Gwendoline Smith, narrates with such a conversational and casual voice that it’s almost hard to believe she has such an impressive list of credentials (B Soc Sci, M Soc Sci (hons), Dip Clin Psych).

“The Book of Angst” is divided into three parts, each more engaging and informative than the last. Smith has a fondness for anthropomorphism, and in the spirit of the book, I too feel obliged to indulge in this.

Part One is like a well-meaning and unusually mature child who holds your hand and guides you through numerous concise definitions and treatments. It does its job without bells and whistles, and I can see how this may be appreciated. However, for those with a general grasp of the anxiety disorders, its simplicity may border on simplistic—also, it borrows phrases from Wikipedia, and MayoClinic, which I feel detracts from the book’s gravitas (call me a source snob, call me a decent student who knows how to get easy points for bibliographies). Smith’s charming personal interjections, tangents and anecdotes shine, and they provide a fresh relief from otherwise standard explanations one Google search away.

Part Two is like a smart, albeit eccentric, professor who gets a bit intense when you’ve led him to his absolute favourite topic to talk about, yet you still manage to keep up with him because he breaks it down for you generously. The topic is social anxiety. The section is full of a broad range of tangential bite-sized knowledge that Smith fleshes out beyond definition and treatment. For instance, it touches on the evolutionary theory of social anxiety, the different biochemistry of introverts and extroverts, and perfectionism. Smith does well in making the content digestible and light, in spite of its complexity.

Part Three is the highlight of the book to me—a wise, no-nonsense mentor who keeps you grounded in reality. Chapters are structured as therapy sessions, immersing the reader in hypothetical patient-therapist dialogue whilst explaining strategies based in CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). It was only at this point that I identified bouts of high anxiety I’ve had which could’ve been avoided, and my own unhelpful thought and behaviour patterns. (Wow, there’s another way to deal with being all in your feelings other than gritting your teeth and waiting for it to pass???) These strategies are not just for people with an anxiety disorder, but anyone who experiences stress—so, everyone. I do, however,  wish that it was mentioned earlier and more emphatically that everyone can and does experience anxiety.  

If you are looking to broaden, rather than deepen, your understanding of anxiety, then this is the book for you—especially if you don’t particularly enjoy reading, or have much time or a great attention span. It is a straightforward guide, skimming painlessly over the surface of the various disorders and wading knee-high into the depths of social anxiety. The cognitive-based therapy strategies for managing anxiety were truly enlightening, and I’d recommend the book particularly for that reason.

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