It’s easy to believe that the entire world has lost its mind. From COVID-19 conspiracy theories to climate change denial and laser beams on the moon (yes, really), it’s not difficult to see why our collective anxiety is at an all-time high. Much of this worry is based on misinformation obtained from social media where opinion is reported as fact and data remains unchecked. As we navigate life during a global pandemic, it’s easy to fall prey to false information and deception. We’re frazzled, terrified, and trying to make sense of a situation that once seemed unimaginable.
Enter Relax, a non-fiction book by award-winning public health expert Timothy Caulfield, which claims to provide us with ‘a science-informed way out of this mess’. Billed as ‘a user’s guide to life in the age of anxiety’, Relax analyses the cultural, social and psychological forces shaping the decisions we make – and worry about – each day and helps explain how, and why, misinformation is warping our brains.
It’s an intriguing book which uses the structure of an average 24 hours to dissect fears surrounding our daily tasks, including how we brush our teeth, how much sleep we get, and how much water we drink. Caulfield offers scientific fact, alongside a good dose of wit, to show how these misrepresentations ‘unnecessarily stress us out and cause us to waste time and money’.
We are living in the age of information and, while there has been a notable increase in scientific research during the last century or so, Caulfield points out that ‘there has [also] been a growth in the sway of social forces perverting that knowledge’. It’s the era of fake news, social media platforms having to censor former world leaders, conspiracy theories, targeted marketing and cancel culture. No wonder we are all a giant ball of frayed nerves and neuroses.
However, there were times when I felt real resistance to Caulfield’s words, most notably in the section where the author investigates the relationship with our weight. The author addresses multiple sides of the topic, particularly the mental health aspects of frequent self-weighing which have ‘become tangled up in the tension between encouraging the maintenance of a healthy body weight and concerns about weight stigma…and distorted body image’. But I struggled when he reduced real concern to ‘pop culture finger-wagging’ and suggested that ‘little evidence supports the idea that self-weighing causes long-term physiological stress or body-image’, all the while when the pandemic is triggering a rise in eating disorders.
But perhaps that’s the point Caulfield is trying to make? Maybe I am supposed to feel uncomfortable and take a deeper look at my own anxious thoughts and conditioning? After all, we have become so preoccupied with the need to get things right, or at least be seen to do so, that we’re often unable to think critically. This can often include ignoring scientific evidence.
Much like Caulfield, though, I remain cautiously optimistic that the legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic will be a return to an appreciation of science and trustworthy evidence. Eventually, we will have the distance to look back and see the facts. But I also echo his sentiment that ‘the forces set to scuttle this hopeful forecast are many’ and that ‘we need to be vigilant’ against misinformation and manipulation.
I would thoroughly recommend Relax to anyone who is feeling overwhelmed with the sheer volume of advice, opinion and unscrupulous marketing they encounter. But this is not a self-help book, rather it’s a tool that, if you’re ready to listen, can help you to make up your own mind and navigate the noise.
By Emma Yates-Badley. Literary Editor
Relax – A User’s Guide to Life in the Age of Anxiety by Timothy Caulfield is published by Faber & Faber and available to buy now.