Making the ‘beast’ beautiful: What if your anxiety could be useful?

There’s a chapter in Sarah Wilson’s new book about anxiety — First, We Make The Beast Beautiful — which conjures the image and sound of a bath being drained of water.

In it, Wilson — journalist, ex-reality TV host, sugar-quitter, author — describes her experiences with what she calls anxiety spirals and how they take over the “everyday beige buzzing or background anxiety” she feels most days.

An often-innocuous moment — such as someone not calling when they said they would, or not being able to decide weekend plans — will set in motion a deluge of anxious thoughts and competing potential fixes that builds into a screeching (bath draining) crescendo.

“Some days I can slow things down, piece apart the thoughts and break the cycle,” she writes. “But on others the force is too much and down I go into the abyss.”

It’s an abyss the 43-year-old has come to know intimately over the last three decades, and one 14 per cent of Australians will be affected by in any 12-month period, making anxiety the most common mental health issue in the country.

Diagnosed at age 12, Wilson has also experienced insomnia, bulimia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and mania, and bipolar disorder, all of which she says are just different flavours of anxiety.

“I think having a diagnosis when I was younger was helpful because it allowed some breathing space; it was a shelf I could put my behaviour on,” Wilson tells me over the phone.

“But it never sat comfortably with me, and I’ve spent decades now investigating what is actually going on.”

Down black holes and spirals

Indeed, First, We Make The Beast Beautiful is a study in anxiety, both in the scientific research, facts and figures it presents, and in the way it’s presented.

The cover of Sarah Wilson's book about anxiety, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful.
PHOTO: Fourteen per cent of Australians will be affected by anxiety in any 12-month period. (Supplied: Pan Macmillan Australia)

Describing her racing mind after not sleeping for six nights straight, Wilson writes: “Flooding through my head are thoughts about the emails that I need to send in the morning. I come up with an opening line for my next chapter. I map out my route to work tomorrow.

“I come up with an idea for a friend’s business, and the logo. And I work out the significance of one of Adele’s lyrics.

“These thoughts happen all at once in an explosion outwards.”

Which is a near perfect summation of the nature of the book and anxiety both.

Research mentioned early on in the book suggests a chemical imbalance in the brain causes anxiety and other mood disorders; some people are content with this explanation and take medication to ease their symptoms.

But for Wilson, who has taken anti-anxiety medication in the past, there’s something else driving her anxiety, something deeper that warrants uncoiling.

“I have a visceral desire to know what we’re here for,” Wilson says.

“Nothing is more important to me that that. And it’s a big question that has sent me down rabbit holes and black holes and spirals, and at times different parts of my brain can’t deal with the magnitude, and so I flip out every now and then.”

The Big Trick for people with anxiety

Or sometimes, with no rhyme, reason, cancelled dinner plan, work stress, or Big Question, it’s just there.

“I now know that my anxiety doesn’t have to be caused by anything particularly fear-inducing,” Wilson writes.

“After more than three decades of it coursing through my veins, anxiety is sometimes simply in my bones.”

Sarah Wilson on a hike.

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