by Len Lear
I must say that I was in a state of semi-shock when I called the office of Dr. H. Michael Zal, and who should pick up the phone and say “Hello” but Dr. Zal himself, not a secretary or receptionist or message machine or a recorded question about whether or not this was an emergency. I was so stunned, I could hardly get my name out.
The reason for my call was that Dr. Zal, 72, a Mt. Airy native who has been a psychiatrist for 43 years, has just published his fourth book, “Ten Steps to Relieve Anxiety: Refocus, Relax and Enjoy Life” (New Horizon Press, $14.95). I figured that Dr. Zal’s book would be of interest to just about anyone on this side of the earth. After all, who has not experienced anxiety at home and at work?
“About 6.8 million American adults and millions more worldwide suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD),” said Dr. Zal.”GAD is not a character flaw; it is a serious but treatable disorder.”
One point that Dr. Zal emphasizes in the book is that unrealistic expectations are often a cause of anxiety. Expecting to be happy all the time is simply not realistic, that seeing contentment rather than “happiness” as a constant goal is more rational and less anxiety-producing. And that relationships with family and friends are “really most important in the long run.”
Dr. Zal’s advice in the book is similar to the advice he himself has followed in finding the time to research and write four books since 1990 while also maintaining a busy medical practice and family life? “I say in my book that if you know what you want to do, there is a good possibility that you can do it with perseverance and a little luck. I feel that the best approach to life is an active one. Take a proactive approach and be sure to focus on a good balance between work and your personal life.”
Dr. Zal grew up at Mt. Pleasant and Thouron Avenues in Mt. Airy. His father was an attorney and the first commissioner of arbitration for the City of Philadelphia, and his mother was a housewife. He went to Jay Cooke Junior High in Logan instead of nearby Leeds Junior High “because of a bricklayers’ strike,” and he graduated with the 210th graduation class from Central High School in June of 1958.
“I enjoyed life in Mt. Airy,” he recalled. “I was active in Four Freedoms AZA (a Jewish youth group). I enjoyed playing basketball at the playground near my house. I worked part-time at Barson’s Delicatessen on Wadsworth Avenue from age 13 until age 19. I remember many parties in basement rec rooms.”
Zal knew as a student at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was both a pre-med major and an English major, that he wanted to be a psychiatrist. “For some reason,” he said, “I always had an innate ability to be able to listen to people and engender trust.”
One point Dr. Zal emphasizes in his new book is that GAD is much more than just ordinary anxiety that we all feel. GAD is chronic anxiety that can literally limit one’s ability to function. It is characterized by chronic, free-floating anxiety and daily, long-term symptoms such as nervousness, tension, sweating, irritability and more.
It’s even more prevalent than depression in the elderly, he insists, “and it … can appear in adolescents and adults. It’s important for physicians to know about it and the general public, too, because people sometimes think many other things are going on, and really, it’s anxiety.”
Dr. Zal has received numerous awards such as the Practitioner of the Year Award from the Philadelphia Psychiatric Society for outstanding character, dedication and commitment to patient care.
In addition to his books, he is a lecturer and medical writer/editor on mental health topics with numerous published articles to his credit. He was the winner of the Eric W. Martin Memorial Award, presented by the American Medical Writers Association, for outstanding writing.
His previous books are “The Sandwich Generation: Caught Between Growing Children and Aging Parents” (2001), “Dancing with Medusa: A life in Psychiatry” (2010) and “Panic Disorder” (1990).
Dr. Zal, who currently lives in Lansdale, has been married for 48 years to Alice J. Sheflin Zal, D.O.,a family physician who practiced in Norristown and was president of the Pennsylvania Osteopathic Medical Association. They have two children, Michelle J. Dubin, R.N., M.S.W., and Fredrick H. Zal, a registered architect; a son-in-law, Steven Dubin, a CFO at a landscape architectural firm, and two grandchildren, Dan and Becca Dubin.
“Ten Steps to Relieve Anxiety: Refocus, Relax and Enjoy Life” was released Oct. 15 and can be ordered online at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.