Sarah Wilson is a journalist, an entrepreneur, and the New York Times bestselling author of I Quit Sugar. Her newest book, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety, explores anxiety through a variety of angles and lenses.
In her new book, Sarah analyzes research and published works about anxiety and mental health; tells personal stories about her mental health experiences; and shares advice for managing, living with, and accepting anxiety.
Formerly the editor of Cosmopolitan Australia, Sarah regularly blogs about anxiety, minimalism, philosophy, toxin-free living, and anti-consumerism on her website, SarahWilson.com. For the past 8 years, she has traveled the world as a nomad, which gave her the opportunity to meet a variety of people. You can follow Sarah on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
We spoke with Sarah about her creative processes, her own experiences with anxiety and mental health, writing a book about mental health, and more in this GoodTherapy.org exclusive interview.
Why did you choose to focus your latest book on anxiety?
Well, it was almost like I had no choice. I’d been writing all kinds of other books, and I was at a writer’s festival to talk about sugar and health. All of the questions were about anxiety, because I’d been starting to write about it on my blog. My publisher was in the audience, and she said, “Sarah, it’s time you wrote this book.” I also had been researching the topic for years, trying to investigate different ways to manage my own anxiety. Given that I’m a writer and have access to all of these amazing interviews, I felt a responsibility to do it. Also, I was bored of talking about superficial stuff. I figured we’re all craving a deeper conversation about stuff that matters.
The book is so thoughtfully crafted with synopses of research and published works about mental health as well as your own personal experiences. Can you take us through your process of researching, writing, and arranging this book?
I started out writing it like a normal memoir, and it didn’t seem to reflect what it was like to be inside the mind of a person with intensity and spirit and anxiety. So the way I did it is mini-chapters that dance between memoir, science, quantum physics, philosophy, [and] spirituality. I think that’s the best snapshot of what it’s like to explore and live with the anxious experience.
I have bipolar, and one of the upsides is that when I research something, I go down the rabbit hole and investigate things deeply. The book was like a patchwork of different ideas that follow a thread, but it follows a journey of explaining, layer by layer, how you can land at a place where anxiety is truly beautiful. In fact, the story comes full circle. The very thing that makes you anxious—what anxiety does is it brings you to a resolution of that very thing.
You open the book by explaining you’re not a health professional, but you had several mental health and general health practitioners read your book to ensure the accuracy of the information you share about anxiety and mental health. Why was this important to you, and how did it help you shape the final drafts of the book?
It was important to me because I’m not a scientist, I’m not a health professional, and I needed to make sure what I was saying was responsible and helpful. It was not just to satisfy my own personal need to make sure I got it right, but also so the mental health community felt included in the process. Because the discussion I have, in some ways, criticizes the way we’ve dealt with mental health. I got various people in Australia, the U.S., and the U.K. to read the book and give it “the tick of approval.”
It also meant I could feel confident putting the book out knowing these might be my private musings and research, but I’m also tapping into something bigger. That was a wonderful thing to have behind me when I released the book.
Why do you prefer to write initial drafts by hand? How does this affect your writing process overall?
I’ve always done that, and perhaps that just reflects my age. I did half of a law degree handwriting my essays. I’ve always found that it assists my creative process. I can visualize what the trajectory of the story is going to be. I can grab vast quantities of information at once, whereas scrolling through a computer screen, you just can’t.
When I went through [my research], I found some reasoning behind it. I quote an Australian philosopher who talks about handwriting and walking. They’re two things I promote as great anxiety modulators. The reason is because they go at the same pace as discerning thought, and a big part of anxiety is not being able to piece out your thoughts. I find handwriting to be a healing process, so the writing of the book was quite healing.
How have you managed your anxiety while maintaining your successful writing and journalistic endeavors?
Well, I rattle off statistics about the number of poets with bipolar, and scientists with OCD [obsessions and compulsions], and this kind of thing. I couldn’t find statistics about journalists and writers, but you only have to cast your mind back through history to see how many prominent writers had bipolar, social anxiety, some kind of crippling anxious disorder. Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Nietzsche, Charles Darwin—you know? It goes hand in hand, and I think the anxious experience is very much about a desire to reach out and communicate with fellow humans. I think we gravitate towards writing and journalism, it’s just what we do.
How did getting diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease impact how you care for your mental health? Do you have any recommendations for people trying to care for their mental health while coping with a chronic illness?
It’s almost like they do go hand in hand. It’s like, did I develop an autoimmune disease that lead to mental issues, or the other way around? Or are they just symptoms of the same thing? I think it’s all of the above. There’s no point in trying to work out which came first or what’s the cause and effect.
I find that my management of Hashimoto’s and anxiety is pretty much the same. It’s about inflammation, at the end of the day. A lot of people with anxiety will have an inflammatory disease of some sort. I would say 95% of the things I do to manage my anxiety are also required to manage my Hashimoto’s. Eating-wise, it’s cutting out processed foods and sugar, being moderate with alcohol and coffee. It’s about doing gentle exercise, not hardcore gym work—you’ve got to be gentle. It’s about having routines. Limiting the number of choices you’ve got to make. It’s about meditating. And it balances out both. If my anxiety flares, my Hashimoto’s flares, and vice versa.
Why are meditation and focusing on gratitude such important practices for managing and coping with anxiety?
Meditation brings us closer into ourselves. Part of the book is about how a lot of our anxiety, and a lot of contemporary fixes for anxiety, are about reaching outwards. Our entire culture is about that—the answer is out there somewhere else. It’s in a shopping mall, a new holiday, a new boyfriend, or a new car. That reaching out beyond ourselves is actually an intensification of the anxious experience.
What I talk about throughout the book is coming in closer. Meditation is probably the best practice for doing that. Of course, science shows that it calms our thoughts, slows them down, our fight or flight response is balanced out, all of that stuff. But from an almost spiritual point of view, it’s about being able to sit comfortably with ourselves in this lifetime. And I think that’s the most powerful part of those practices. It retrains your brain to be in that state, as opposed to an anxious state.
You describe a variety of your experiences in therapy over the years. What are some ways you can tell a therapist is a good fit for you? Conversely, what tells you a therapist might not be a good fit?
I don’t necessarily [know] the answer because I’m still on that journey myself. Some people say that for people with bipolar, it can take 5 to 7 years to find a therapist who can diagnose and work with you in a way that’s helpful. I think the best advice I can give is to accept that and realize therapy is an ongoing journey.
I am going through the process, and I’m trying to find someone who can truly challenge me. I’ve read about this; I think I know it all; and I need someone who can challenge me. I think if you’re anxious, you can actually over-research these things—I certainly have. And you think you’re pretty smart with all of this. A lot of our practices, obsessive-compulsive behavior being a prime example, are about trying to protect ourselves from anyone trying to challenge us. It’s like “I’ve got it all under control, go away.” I think you need to find a therapist who can call you [out]. I don’t have advice other than, it’s really normal to struggle and to have your own processes for finding a good therapist.
What are some ways people can help support friends, family, and loved ones in their lives that are affected by anxiety and other mental health conditions?
The book was like a patchwork of different ideas that follow a thread, but it follows a journey of explaining, layer by layer, how you can land at a place where anxiety is truly beautiful.
This has been a surprising part of writing the book—that when it came out, so many people who don’t have anxiety but know someone who does read it and got a lot out of it. I love that they wanted to understand their loved one better. There’re two good techniques I’ve shared with people. One is to understand that often, an anxious person looks like we’re trying to control the people around us. What I say to non-anxious people is, try to understand we’re not trying to control you, we’re trying to control the circumstances that can be a trigger to our anxiety so we don’t ruin the picnic, the dinner party, or our night on the couch watching a movie. When I’ve said that, there’s less defensiveness, and there’s a lot of support and understanding.
The other is helpful—a lot of my friends and family are starting to do this for me, and I’m grateful for it. When you’re anxious, you can’t make decisions, and when you have to make too many decisions, it can make you anxious. It’s because the same part of the brain modulates both behaviors. A lot of panic attacks are about not being able to decide on something, and just being in a state of numb terror. What I say is, if you know somebody who is anxious, and they’re a bit fretty and uncomfortable, make the decisions for them. Don’t say, “What can I do for you?” or “Should we go see this movie?” Say, “Alright, we’re going to have pasta, and then we’re going to see a movie, I’ve booked the tickets for 8:30.” That is probably one of the best things you can do because you feel safe, there’s no decisions to be made, you find yourself correcting your anxious spiral, and you end up having a great night.
How has writing this book helped you understand and manage your own anxiety and mental health in general?
It’s been the most wonderful form of therapy in a way, because it’s forced me to look in the mirror. When I’ve written a book, I’ve had to do the work for my readers and go down a layer deeper, and then another layer deeper. It got me pretty real about it all. Also, it’s a bit like writing a book about not eating sugar—I can’t walk down the street eating a Mars bar. It keeps you vigilant. As I say in the book, vigilance is important. It’s all about the journey, there’s no magic quick fix.
But more importantly, it’s made me feel less lonely. I wanted to have conversations with people, to connect in a better way, and certainly the book has done that. It’s made me feel like there’s people out there with the same condition. That just emphasizes the whole premise of my book, which is, you know what? There is a purpose to this. There’s a reason why we have anxiety. And even if it’s to bring us closer to each other, that’s a pretty good reason.
It is not uncommon to feel anxious or to have anxiety. If you often feel this way, you can reach out to a compassionate counselor.