Sarah Wilson: Redefining How We Deal with Anxiety

Sarah Wilson is a bestselling author (I Quit Sugar), former journalist and founder of Australia's largest digital wellness site. Her new book, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety (Dey Street Books, $25.99; reviewed below), is an account of living with anxiety, exploring how anxiety can shape relationships, treatments, successes and failures.
Could you explain your outlook on dealing with anxiety in an accepting way, rather than a "try to make it go away" approach?
A lot of books on the topic go as far as positioning anxiety as something that can be managed or modulated at best. We can learn to live with anxiety, has been the most helpful message. But this always struck me as, well, unsatisfying. It kept anxiety in the "disordered" model. My research found, wonderfully, that when you look into the evolutionary, spiritual and philosophical history of anxiety, you find that it actually serves a purpose. More than this, it's been the very "quirk" in our humanity's makeup that has seen us invent, create, lead a community through crises, etc. The inventors of some of the "craziest" things in history were often bipolar. Crises leaders were often phobic or OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder]. By seeing the beauty of "the beast" in this way, we can then learn to not just live with anxiety, we can thrive with it. This is what I've done differently with The Beast.
Have you read Oliver Burkeman's The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking? It serves as something of a corrective for the self-help books that preach the quest for happiness as the end-all, be-all of the good life.
Yes, I have. And, in fact, Oliver has endorsed the U.K. edition of the book. My research found exactly that--"sitting in the discomfort" and the "is-ness" of life is where we can find something resembling true happiness (joy? purpose?). My argument in the book is that this is because we stop grasping inwards (which is anxiety-riddled) and we are forced to sit with ourselves, to come closer, to get still.
You pull from a range of sources for this book--theologians, pop culture, neuropsychologists, nutritionists, psychiatrists, laypersons, spiritual leaders, sports figures. You lay out many of the things you've learned in a non-prescriptive way: "Here's what this is about, see what you think." Is that "grazing through options" by design, or has it just developed from your own experience?
One of the things I suggest in the book is to learn more about different theories... and to accept the uncertainty of not knowing, of there not being one answer. It's the journey to find out that counts. I also think the didactic approach has been done to death. I didn't want this to be yet another self-help book (which generally steer readers away from helping themselves to following the dictates of a self-professed guru). I think the world needs more authentic inspiration.
How would you direct an acquaintance, let's say, in choosing a therapist to work with? What would be the "things to look for?"
I don't think I've worked out the formula for this. They say it takes someone with bipolar disorder five to seven therapists before they find the one that works for them. I think just knowing this is helpful. Me, I generally ask like-minded friends for recommendations. In therapy, I challenge myself to... be challenged. When you're an A-type, high-functioning anxious control freak, you tend to think you know it all, right? In therapy, it's very important to look for someone who will challenge your control, your ideas, your theories. This is what we need to continue the journey.  It's deeply uncomfortable, but discomfort is a sign you're on the right track! --Matthew Tiffany
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