Daniel Keating * St. Martin’s Press * April 11, 2017 * 256 Pages
Advanced Reader Copy provided through Amazon Vine.
In Born Anxious, author Daniel Keating makes a simple but intriguing assertion. After years of scientific research, he has come to the conclusion that if a person experiences serious enough early life adversity (in the womb or during the first year of life), then that person is at major risk for developing Stress Dysregulation (SDR), i.e., a genetic modification that prevents the body from shutting down the stress response. In other words, too much stress early in life will physically modify this specific “stress” gene so that it can’t turn itself off. Keating says, “The decision by the epigenome to lock that stress gene is made in response to one question asked while a child is still in the womb or in the first year of life: what kind of world will this child be entering–one that is kind and supportive or one that is harsh and unforgiving?” If the body decides the child will be born or raised in a hostile environment, the end result is that she will have an almost constant oversupply of cortisol in the body, all in anticipation of life’s “worst case scenarios.”
Pretty intense stuff, eek. So at what level of stress does the body permanently alter its ability to turn off that stress response? The short answer is, we don’t know. Obviously children born into war zones or born to mothers who have experienced significant trauma during pregnancy are at risk. But (and this is where the book gets a little dicey, in my opinion…) what about in first-world countries, where we’ve seen a significant rise in stress dysregulation? Well, Keating claims that rising inequality is what is mostly to blame for our growing stress. And not just in people who are poor. He sees this as affecting everyone, regardless of class or income level. Poorer people may worry about simply getting by, but richer people worry about losing their status. This “constant underlying fear that things could go wrong pretty quickly” produces the same increased risk for stress dysregulation in pregnant women and young children across income levels.
Truth be told, I’m not sure I’m 100% on board with Keating’s assertion that inequality, both real and anticipated, is completely responsible for our rising stress levels and, specifically, SDR. However, his thoughts and observations about how stress impacts us as babies, children, teenagers, and adults (he has a chapter for each developmental stage) is fascinating. And I absolutely agree with his conclusion that we can combat our current stress epidemic by investing in human development: early education, public education, stress reduction training (especially for kids), universal healthcare, quality prenatal care, paid maternity leave, job security post-maternity leave, paid parental leave, and comprehensive sex education. As Keating has found in his research, “Countries that tell their citizens they will be taken care of when the chips are down have happier citizens.”
Ultimately, there is a lot to love in this book. I learned so much, not only about stress and how it so powerfully affects the body, but also about what we can do–what I can do–to help myself and others cope. I don’t necessarily agree with all of Keating’s arguments, but I still think this is a fascinating book and well worth the read.