Book review: Resolving the anxiety dilemma - Dylan M. Kollman

by Tom Cloyd - 6 min. read - (reviewed 2023-03-31:1758 PT)

book cover

Dylan M. Kollman. (2015). Resolving the anxiety dilemma (First edition). Beach Light Press LLC. $24.95 hardcover - Amazon


Anxiety is your friend…until it isn’t, at which point you will do well to have this book at hand. Think of anxiety as a kind of global watchdog. When it barks, you do well to pay attention. Storm coming? Better close the windows. Knock at the door? Better consider who it might be before opening. This just makes sense.

But how exactly do we “pay close attention” in a way that is helpful? Psychologist Dylan Kollman offers a highly readable, practical, evidence-based answer to that question. But what if you are anxious simply because the weather is variable, or because your house has a door? This dysfunctional anxiety achieves no useful purpose. You have two choices at this point: suffer or address the issue.

As a therapist myself, I know that dysfunctional anxiety tends to make us irrational. We respond to it in ways that do not serve us well. In so doing we compound the problem. Kollman first shows us the foolishness of our usual response, and then helps us to take it apart and replace it with responses that are based on solid research and successful clinical experience.

He states that one person in four at some point in their life will have a formal anxiety disorder. A much larger group of individuals (about half of us he estimates - the “worried well”) will have non-trivial subclinical anxiety disorders. Both groups can benefit considerably from the evidence-based interventions this book offers.

Kollman’s first major idea is that our intuitive response to the anxiety of daily life is often wrong and actually makes the problem worse. The real problem with most anxiety is the avoidance it provokes in us. We naturally tend to focus on what makes us anxious and then generally seek to avoid it. This surely can work. If you don’t like lions, avoid zoos! But in most real-world situations mere avoidance isn’t much of an option.

We must do something else: turn toward our anxiety and work out a new relationship with it. I understand and affirm his point. As a runner who is often out on country roads, I have found that the best response to aggression by free-roaming dogs is to turn and run toward them, not away (you’ll never outrun a dog!). This counter-intuitive response usually solves the problem, especially if you carry a “dog stick” for use in this situation. Once the dog is the object of the chase it’s all over.

Kollman advises the same sort of response to anxiety. Replace your avoidant behavior with the right type of engagement behavior and you begin to get control back in your life. And he surely does offer us some good “sticks” to carry on our run toward what is making us anxious!

He does a wonderful job of putting our anxiety in a natural context - accounting for the fact that we have it at all. Ditto for our tendency to be avoidant. But we don’t all have the same degree of anxiety, and Kollman explains how this variable tendency to be anxious emerges both from our biology and our life experience. The emotional part of our brain is very much like that of other animals. Knowing this puts helps us put our approach/avoidance behavior in a useful broad context. Anxiety is seen as part of the general arousal system of our brain - essential to our survival. It is also related to the core issue of control of ourselves and our environment - a psychological issue. Readers will appreciate his discussion of the relationship of anxiety to control. It’s no exaggeration to say that this topic is as profound as it is complex.

This contextualization of anxiety is taken up in the book’s second-longest chapter (“The Science”). One of his most interesting and useful points is that our attempts to assess the sources - the causal processes - of our troubles very often go off the rails. We focus on the obvious: there’s a lion in the room. We then activate an avoidance behavior and feel better. Because it worked, we’re likely to do it again. And that solves our lion problem. But what if that lion is our boss, to whom we must to talk about a work problem, or a raise? Seeing the boss as the problem doesn’t help.

Kollman urges that the real problem is our intolerance of the feeling that is anxiety. When we find something that reduces or eliminates that feeling, we’re hooked. But, sadly, our problem very likely remains, in good part because we misunderstood it. “The thing we are trying to avoid is the experience of anxiety itself.” (p. 57)

This misunderstanding has real costs. Avoiding rather than addressing the anxiety means that the anxiety will remain. Our fear of lions (or bosses!) will not vanish. We now must maintain all sorts of anxiety-protection behavior.

So we see that avoidance creates the major problems which come to concern us, and these problems do not magically vanish with time. “Avoidance doesn’t just create our symptoms. It keeps them going.” (p. 67) Avoidance has major costs: lost opportunity, lost learning, lost freedom. Avoidance constricts our contact with life itself, and allowing this makes our lives and our very sense of self both smaller and weaker. Must we accept this defeat? Fortunately, no.

We can change how we respond to anxiety, and in so doing change the whole outcome. The longest chapter in the book (nearly 60 pages) takes this up in detail. I found this chapter engrossing and exciting, an affirmation of much of what my professional and private life has taught me: Life entails challenge and pain, but we can deal with both if we use our natural courage, arm ourselves with proven response skills, and persist in our efforts long enough to become more artful in being human.

We tend to forget that we are the fruit of a million years of human evolution. Our ancestors were tough as nails else we would not be here. We are their offspring. We can DO this. But we usually have some learning to do, and the essentials are in this chapter. Good news: you don’t have to cut your own path through the jungle. Others have gone before you, and they left detailed records and instructions.

Now, seriously, what’s the problem here? Need some handholding? Well, you have this highly readable book. You are not alone. You just need to act like the adult you actually are, buckle up, and do the work. Many, many others have done this and succeeded. Statistics are in your favor: Most people who work through the processes this chapter details are successful, although many also benefit a great deal from professional guidance due to some of the complexities that can arise in trying to change behavior.

What happens if you decide to cease being avoidant of your anxiety? You will most likely find it reduced, usually to a major extent; it may well be replaced by the exhilaration of mastery. Your noxious symptoms become material for self-deprecating humor, if you talk about them at all! And you learn competencies you previously may not even have imagined. Sound good? Well, it is. Put simply, the rewards are worth the cost, often by a considerable margin.

In a nutshell, here is Kollman’s message: life is inherently precious. Where there is value there is vulnerability, and thus fear of loss - anxiety. We can’t avoid this, but we need not be overly constrained by it either. Mountains are for climbing, and this book is a manual for mountain climbers.

Informally written, easy to read, yet rich in content of fundamental value, Kollman’s book is carefully sourced and documented in his endnotes, where the thoughtful reader will find much of value. For example, his assertion that anxiety problems are actually avoidance problems is backed by a list of sources that take well over half a page to list in a single dense paragraph (p. 158)!

There is a quiet, gentle, gracefulness to this just-long-enough treatment of anxiety. Thoughtful, carefully considered, well-founded suggestions for how we can best manage our excess anxiety are found throughout, and I predict that the attentive reader will be well rewarded for her efforts to make use of what she finds here.

Figures and drawings abound and are full-tone. Attractively priced, the book is bound beautfully in black cloth, and in signatures. And it’s small enough to tuck in your backpack as you head out to spend a holiday with your relatives!

Dylan M. Kollman, PhD is a clinical psychologist and director of the Anxiety Institute of Connecticut.

 

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