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Book Review: What Happened to Make You Anxious?

Book cover: What Happened to Make You Anxious? by Jaime Castillo

What Happened to Make You Anxious? by Jaime Castillo aims to help readers uncover and process the unresolved past little-t traumas that are fuelling their anxiety. It incorporates concepts from several therapeutic approaches, including internal family systems therapy (IFS) and the adaptive information processing model, which is the theoretical basis for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). The book differentiates between anxiety that fits the facts and anxiety that doesn’t, and the focus is on the latter.

The author explains that anxiety’s purpose is to communicate about potential dangers that it’s trying to protect you from. “As you become aware of your own unresolved past experiences, you will gain insight into the ways in which your anxiety is trying to protect you… You will acknowledge that you and your anxiety share a common goal, and you don’t actually want it to stop doing its job. Rather than trying to terminate it, you can work with your anxiety to modify its job description in a way that makes life easier for you both.”

Before getting into where the anxiety is coming from, there’s a chapter on skills to help with state change (being able to move from an anxious to a less anxious state) and dual awareness (being able to recall memories while remaining connected to the present where you’re safe), which will help to keep you within your window of tolerance. Readers are encouraged to practice these skills and get comfortable before moving on to the exercises in subsequent chapters.

There’s a chapter on befriending anxiety, which includes experiencing it as a separate entity from the self, with its own motives, thoughts, opinions, and voice. The author explains, “When you can give it space to share its perspective, when you listen to it nonjudgmentally, you will be much more effective at figuring it out than when you try to decide for it.”

This chapter includes an exercise on consciously connecting with your anxiety to help deepen your understanding of what it’s trying to do for you. The goal is to “achieve mutual compassion for one another”, but that often takes time to achieve, as “it makes sense for anxiety to lack trust in you or to feel any other emotion that an ignored person might feel. ” In another exercise in this chapter, you tell your anxiety that “you know it’s doing an important job, and you want to understand more about that job it’s doing for you. Don’t respond just yet. Just listen.”

Francine Shapiro’s adaptive information processing model is used to explain how big-t and little-t trauma memories are stuck in different memory networks rather than being integrated. Little-t traumas are conceptualized as boulders on the mountain of life that you remain tethered to, and the reader is guided through exercises to allow anxiety to lead you back to those boulders so you and it can work together on untethering yourself. “It’s important to maintain trust between you and your anxiety, and if you push yourself too hard, it can cause a tear in the relationship, only reinforcing the perceived need to avoid this work in the future.”

After addressing past traumas, the book shifts to how you can move forward in your relationship with anxiety, which includes establishing a communication plan. “To do this, it is best to go inside and listen for information and answers from your anxiety rather than trying to figure out the answers with your logical mind.” The book also addresses the issue of feeling anxious about not feeling anxious, and needing to work with anxiety to come up with a new job description for it. “Invite anxiety to assume its new role, and agree to check in with it in a week or two to see how it feels about its new job. Reassure your anxiety that you can always make modifications to its job description as needed.”

I can definitely see the internal family systems element in the way that anxiety is anthropomorphized in the book. The whole idea of it feels weird to me just because it’s not a good fit for how my mind works. That’s not to say that it’s a bad thing, though; that’s why I’ve included a lot of quotes so you can get a feel for whether it’s a good fit with how your own mind works. I’m sure that for some people, this approach will be an excellent fit.

One thing I found mildly irritating was all the talk about doing “the work”, but again, that’s a personal idiosyncrasy (I’m not a fan of therapist-speak) rather than being a problem with the book itself.

It’s hard for me to remove my own idiosyncrasies from my overall impression of the book, but I do think it was well written, the key concepts were explained effectively, and the exercises were clearly laid out. The author’s tone was supportive, and she validated the discomfort that people are likely to feel while working through the book. She pointed out the limitations in what can be accomplished with self-help work and encouraged readers to seek support from a therapist if they run up against any of those limitations. I think the biggest determining factor in whether this book will be a good fit for you is if this way of relating to anxiety sounds compatible with your inner world. It’s a different approach from other books on anxiety that I’ve read, and I think that means it can reach people that other books aren’t reaching.

What Happened to Make You Anxious? is available on Amazon (affiliate link).

I received a reviewer copy from the publisher through Netgalley.

You can find my other reviews on the MH@H book review index or on Goodreads.

14 thoughts on “Book Review: What Happened to Make You Anxious?”

  1. This is almost exactly what my therapist has discussed with me. I too have difficulties with it because my scientific, skeptical side doesn’t like the type of New Age meandering it wants to send your mind on. I need concrete things with concrete reasons. To me, anxiety was created in objective reality, not through subjective hokum.

  2. “…go inside and listen for information and answers from your anxiety”. Mm. It makes me think of a mindfulness-style approach, to just listen and be without judgement or forcing it.

    I get that, for many, there will be roots in their history that tie back to current day anxiety. What bugs me here is that some anxiety isn’t (or isn’t all) based on prior experience, traumas big or small, or the way you were raised. It seems like this book might overlook or undervalue the role of genetics, hormones and brain chemistry for some anxiety experiences.

    Another fab review, Ashley. I agree with you on it sounding a bit different to the norm in terms of approach so it might reach some people who don’t respond to typical styles. xx

    1. I agree, prior experiences aren’t going to account for everyone’s anxiety, much like they aren’t going to account for everyone’s depression.

      The idea of being mindful of emotions and allowing them to be makes sense to me. The idea of conversing with them makes less sense to me, although maybe I’m just interpreting that too literally.

  3. This sounds like a really helpful and interesting book. The idea of “befriending” anxiety sounds like something which could be helpful, and is probably better than just trying to “rationalise” it all the time

  4. Ashley: “Hello, are you there? We need to talk”.
    Anxiety: Hellooooo, is it me you’re looking for?
    Ashley : I don’t need Lionel Richie, just anxiety.
    Anxiety: Calm down, I’m here. What you want?
    Ashley: What’s you’re problem? Why’re you always making me feel like crap? Hmm? Answer me. I need to know why.
    Anxiety: Okay, you have a right to know. Get comfortable because it’s a long story when we first met. Once upon a time, when you were a little girl…

    I guess a conversation could be enlightening after all. Why didn’t we think of that before?

  5. We’ve been using this approach with several of us because getting new inside jobs would improve our life. Trust is a major barrier and it can’t be built quickly for us. Most things are harder and take more time for us than we’d want. This book’s approach is up our alley and connects well with our therapy. Plus anxiety makes our life pretty miserable

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