What does anxiety feel like? How can you help someone with anxiety? Sarah Wilson, author of First, We Make The Beast Beautiful, shares 5 techniques to overcome the 'knotted ball of wool'.
First, We Make the Beast Beautiful is the result of Sarah Wilson's 7-year journey to find a more meaningful and helpful take on anxiety. In it, she documents her conversations with people from the Dalai Lama to Oprah's life coach as well as practical tips and tricks that she used to manage her own anxiety. Here are her tips.
1. Anxiety feels like a knotted ball of wool inside your chest
It can be hard to describe anxiety to someone who hasn’t experienced it. For me, all my thoughts and commitments and competing considerations twist and entwine and “moosh” into a tight mess. They get knotted and frayed and I can’t – as hard as I try in a frantic panic – find where the original thread starts. I keep thinking that if I could only find it, I could tug at it and the whole ball would unravel cleanly. But, of course, when we meddle with things, the ball only gets knottier! It can feel so helpless. When I’m in an anxious phase it feels like I’m the Coyote in the Road Runner – I’ve run so fast, too fast, I’ve found myself flung out over a big abyss. There’s nothing to hold onto, nothing to hold me, no sturdy ground to come “home to” and my limbs frantically reach out for . . . something . . . but it’s all thin air and I know I’m going to fall. And fall.
2. The best thing you can do to help someone with anxiety is make decisions for them
The decision-making part of the brain is very closely linked to the part of the brain that controls anxiety. When we’re anxious we can’t make decisions; when we have to make a decision our panic spirals. Possibly the worst thing you can do is ask us, “what do you want for dinner” or “what do you want to do this afternoon”. The best thing you do is tell us you’re going to make roast chicken and that we are going to the movies. I promise we’ll gladly tag along, relieved and feeling a little more secure in the solidity you’ve just provided.
3. Anxiety and depression pull in different directions
For me, anxiety is about grasping forward into the future while depression is a reaching back into the past. Both are about grasping beyond where we’re at right now, in the present. I generally find anxious folk are obsessed with grasping to fixes, solutions. Depressed friends tend to be mired with regrets.
4. A panic attack generally only lasts 20-30 minutes
This can be comforting to know. Why? When we know this factlet, we can try to choose to simply ride it out and not get “anxious about being anxious”. This is the most insidious aspect of anxiety – it spirals. We get anxious. And then get anxious about the fact we’re not meant to be anxious, or that everyone else is coping fine (so why aren’t I?). Then this realization sees us get anxious about being anxious about being anxious. And on it spins (into a knotted ball of wool!). We can also remember that many panic attacks are a compounding panic about the physical symptoms of anxiety (the flight or fight response at full throttle). Instead of seeing the shortness of breath, the elevated heart rate, the shaking, the numb mind as the sign of a life-or-death disaster, we can see that it’s our body reacting as it has done for tens of thousands of years to certain stress stimuli. Sure, we’re panicking. But let’s leave it there, as a bunch of reactions. These reactions won’t kill us!
5. You don't just have to live with anxiety, you can thrive with it
Most books tell you how to manage anxiety. I have seen how anxiety can be used to have a rich, joyous, creative – or beautiful - life. This is exactly what I explore in First, We Make the Beast Beautiful. Here are few techniques that can get you started:
- Remember that anxiety can often feel like excitement. Both experiences release the same response in our brains. I like to sometimes choose to see my anxiety as my creative self getting inspired and fired up.
- Join the dots. Look back on your life and ovserve that some of the toughest moments led to some of your best experiences.
- Just meditate. I often say it's non-negotiable when you have anxiety. Even meditating badly does its job. In fact, I've found that years of angsty meditating has seen me battle out my anxiety through meditiation, and emerge from my 20 minutes on the cushion, resolved and bemused. My anxiety is the friction that sees me meditate with more commitment, spring forth into more creative projects, and gives me the raw perspective I've needed to grow my business ventures.
More about the book
'Probably the best book on living with anxiety that I've ever read' Mark Manson, bestselling author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck
If you have anxiety, this book is for you. If you love someone who is anxious, this book is for you.
I Quit Sugar founder and New York Times bestselling author Sarah Wilson has lived through high anxiety – including bipolar, OCD and several suicide attempts – her whole life. Perhaps like you, she grew tired of seeing anxiety as a disease that must be medicated into submission. Could anxiety be re-sewn, she asked, into a thing of beauty?
So began a seven-year journey to find a more meaningful and helpful take on anxiety. Living out of two suitcases, Sarah travelled the world, meeting with His Holiness The Dalai Lama, with Oprah’s life coach, with major mental health organizations and hundreds of others in a quest to unravel the knotted ball of wool that is the anxious condition. She emerged with the very best philosophy, science and hacks for thriving with the beast.
First, We Make the Beast Beautiful is a small book with a big heart, paving the way for richer, kinder and wiser conversations about anxiety.