The worst thing about anxiety is, it’s the very definition of helpless. You’re consumed by the feeling your life is out of control. At the peak of being anxious, 10 years ago, even just thinking the word anxiety would begin the tightness in my stomach. The trouble is, as you try to protect yourself from those difficult feelings by avoiding what feels hard, life gets smaller. That’s why a new book from author Sarah Wilson is a game changer. She doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but she does have a new way of looking at anxiety: embrace it. Hence the title, First, We Make The Beast Beautiful. “I set out to write a different type of book because I found most of books out there were about learning how to live with anxiety and manage it, at best. That was a poor cousin to what I was looking for,” Wilson says.
You’ll have heard of Sarah – she’s the Australian journalist and TV presenter who built a global empire with her I Quit Sugar platform. What I didn’t know until I read this book is that she did all of this while anxious. She was diagnosed with anxiety and insomnia aged 12, later on with a thyroid condition and bipolar disorder, and has had suicidal moments, too. “My mania sees me go through these really intense highly anxious charged periods, then I crash physically.” But the root of all of this, she says, is anxiety, “an itchy sense that things are not right, a buzzing dis-ease”.
The book, says Wilson, is about how she learned to thrive with anxiety still being a big part of her life. “It’s about finding a way to be both – to be anxious and to have an incredible life. The two can feed into each other.” Your tendency to fret, she says, “can be the very thing that plonks you on the path to a great life.”
At the peak of being anxious, 10 years ago, even just thinking the word anxiety would begin the tightness in my stomach
This may feel impossible to you, right now – I know it would have when I felt anxious – but it’s worth trying, right? In the book, Wilson writes about the research on effective strategies, as well as how she finds balance. But trying any of this out is up to you. “You have to understand, research, investigate, make friends with your anxiety. We constantly run outwards for a solution. The whole medical model, including self help books is based on this. But I want this book to be a conversation, not the fix.”
1 Stop anxiety about anxiety
Anxiety attacks – or spirals, as Sarah describes them – are a hangover from times when there was a real threat to your life, but your body doesn’t know those times are over. “A lot of what we’re doing today emulates the anxious experience,” she says, referring to the pace we live at, multitasking, doing things faster. Which makes anxiety a natural response – for some people, it’s more natural than others. “It’s helpful to see that this is normal, something major isn’t going on, It’s my biology, the way I’m programmed.” If you begin to feel anxious, there’s research to prove one simple trick works: “Say to yourself: ‘I am anxious’. That in itself, giving it a label, is enough to dial down your anxious experience, stop that spiral.”
2 When anxiety strikes? First, write or walk
“Often how we feel when anxious is an inability to catch our thoughts, to piece apart the chaos,” says Sarah. At the point anxiety strikes, Sarah has found two things work for her: writing and walking. “An Australian philosopher, Robert Manne, said writing and walking operate at the same pace as discerning thought. Typing madly and driving superfast are anxiety inducing. Handwriting slows down our thoughts enough so we can catch up with ourselves.” All you have to do is scribble down your thoughts. Or, if you can, get out and walk. “It re-centres me enough so I can work out what is the next step forwards. This is the number one fix and it’s accessible to all.”
3 Morning routine - and other ways to get grounded
Too many decisions can be anxiety-inflaming – and, conversely, if you feel on edge, even deciding between yoga and the gym, porridge or eggs can feel impossible – “analysis paralysis”, as Sarah calls it. Declutter your day, so you’ve got fewer decision points – try standardising what you eat, do, wear. Sarah has a morning routine that grounds her and from which she never deviates: wake up, move (most often a run), meditate, plan day. “I do all the virtuous things in the morning, get them out of the way. They’re non negotiable, like brushing my teeth. It’s rewiring my brain, I’ve witnessed over many years how it’s able to shift the way I think for rest of day."