What if everything we know about anxiety is wrong—or at least not exactly right? This daring book takes a closer look and gives refreshingly real tips for managing anxiety.
What if anxiety—the most common mental illness in America—isn’t pointless pain? What if it can lead us somewhere meaningful? Sarah Wilson’s First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety explores these questions bravely and with surprising effervescence. Wilson, an Australian writer and media personality whose other books focus on healthy cooking and quitting sugar, finds something sweet in her own life-long anxiety. She builds a fascinating case for reframing anxiety, pointing to the role it has played in her success (in Australia, she’s been the editor of Cosmopolitan, the host of MasterChef and the founder of the country’s biggest healthy living website). She braids together everything from recent research to firsthand interviews to Ayurvedic theory. But it’s her frankness that makes First, We Make the Beast Beautiful a must-read for anyone who lives with anxiety or loves someone who does. Wilson writes that “anxiety feels like a knotted ball of wool inside my being.” But it’s also beautiful. It can even be useful. She shares how to bend the beast through lifestyle. Do core exercises, she advises (our abs and adrenals are linked to the same key area of the brain). Make your bed every day (it creates a little consistent calm). Eat fermented foods. Don’t react to anything until 10 a.m. Go buy groceries at midnight. Consider magnesium supplementation with the help of a health care practitioner. Establish a morning routine. And, she stresses, meditate.
I am not a meditation teacher and I don’t want to share how to meditate here. I’m just offering a bit of insight into my experience as someone who meditates, and who also lives with chronic anxiety. I figure it might help you feel more comfortable about it, and with being not particularly good at it. I still find it helpful to hear about other people’s tussles with meditation.
I meditate after exercise and before breakfast in the morning. It helps when the body is “open” and alive.
I try to do it outdoors in the sun as much as possible. I meditate on rocks at the beach, on park benches in parks, on mountaintops at the end of a hike.
My head always meanders to my to-do list or to what I’ll do right after meditation. In fact, the whole meditation is a tug-of-war with an urge to schedule.
As this happens, repeatedly, I gently turn my attention away from the surging urge, to my mantra. It’s like looking away from a kerfuffle going on outside to your right, away from the agitated conversation to your left, back to straight in front of you—no jerky moves, just a steady steering back to center.
My head wobbles wildly like one of those toy dogs on the dashboard of a car. It only stops after I start to descend a little into stillness and my thoughts.
My meditation teacher Tim watches me with a smile as I battle it out. Anxiety versus Me. Anxiety can sometimes still win. Then there’s this: The grimmer the environment, the better the meditation. I love meditating in cabs, in a parked car on a busy street between appointments, on planes during takeoff, in a sunny spot sitting in a gutter in an alleyway on the way to a meeting. During a stint working in TV, I’d meditate in the porta-potty while I waited for my curlers to set each morning. Working from a low base reduces the expectation. All that matters is that I’m sitting with myself.
The inside of my nostrils release. And if they don’t at first, I focus on them doing so. My fingernails soften in their nail beds. My eyelashes soften. I feel majestic and magnificent and suspended in a duvet-like cloud. Sometimes I get what I call my Michelin Man experience. I’m entirely convinced, my eyes shut, that my body has expanded several feet beyond myself in soft billowing folds, and I feel my “consciousness” expand to meet it. Everything that’s rigid inside my body expands languidly into the softness.
When I come out of the meditation, I try to hold this feeling. I open my eyes slowly and hold the gentleness. I stretch a little then stand up and keep holding. I try to hold it as long as I can—as I walk back home, as I have a shower, as I pack my bag to start my day. I hold it, I hold it.
Not a meditator (yet)? Before I was able to get into it, a friend taught me a trick that was a good interim measure. “Stop. And. Drop.”, she would say—by which she meant, stop your head and drop into your heart.
As I say, the thing about anxiety, it’s all head. So anything that gets us out of our heads is good. It works a different muscle. I used to keep a Post-it note affixed to my computer at my office with “Stop. And. Drop.” written on it. Several times a day I’d look at it and drop into my heart for a little moment.
If you’re a regular meditator and anxiety makes it tricky at times, add this distracting trick to your usual mix: imagine a sponge gently working its way around the inside of your head, absorbing, mopping up the little anxious pockets. The mantra or breath moves the sponge around. You might find the inside of your head broadens.
Please note that meditation is really really hard when you’re super anxious. It can be a bridge too far. The gearshift from a panic attack to a still mind is too dramatic. So try some deep belly breathing instead at such times. A stack of science seems to support the practice.
Dr. Richard Brown, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and coauthor of The Healing Power of the Breath, says that deep, controlled breathing communicates to the body that everything is okay, which downregulates the stress response, slowing heart rate, diverting blood back to the brain and the digestive system and promoting feelings of calm.
At night, after I climb into bed, I simply reflect for a few minutes on five things that pop into my mind that I’m grateful for. And say thank you for them. Usually they’re banal things, like “Thank you for my mate Rick who called today just to say he missed me.”
Who am I thanking? I guess it’s the “universe.” It might be God for you. I don’t seek a result. But it feels super good doing it. It’s as if in that moment of gratefulness, everything makes sense.
Alex Korb writes in The Grateful Brain, “Gratitude can have such a powerful impact on your life because it engages your brain in a virtuous cycle. Your brain only has so much power to focus its attention. It cannot easily focus on both positive and negative stimuli.” Literally, you can’t be grateful and anxious at the same time.
Excerpt from First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson. Copyright © 2018 by Sarah Wilson. Used with permission by Dey Street Books. All rights reserved.