One must-read book for a less anxious life

Sarah Wilson's new book on anxiety, first, we make the beast beautiful: a new story on anxiety, has me enthralled. It's a galloping, intricately researched (and professionally vetted) read about the world's most common mental illness (which is on the rise throughout the western world). It's a personally revealing account from the woman who brought us the quitting sugar movement. And, for an anxious type like me, it's also incredibly comforting because it throws out gem after gem of insights that make me feel better understood, less alone and, well, less anxious.

Sarah describes the book as 'my personal and creative approach to my condition and the research around it' (she had three medical professionals read it to ensure the information is responsible), and at one point she describes her reader as:

... a fretter with a mind that goes too fast, too high, too unbridled. And, like me, you might have tried everything to fix this fretting, because fretters try really, really hard at everything. They also tend to think they need fixing.

That's a good reflection of me. And it hints at one of the two biggest gems I've gathered up from the book thus far: 

I'm not broken, just because I get anxious.

Sarah opens with advice she received from His Holiness the Dalai Lama that it's impossible to make the mind shut up, and that we're okay just as we are. This 'you're ok' theme recurs throughout the book, and contributes to Sarah's overall theory about anxiety which she describes like this:

... I've come to believe that you can be fretty and chattery in the head and awake at 4 am and trying really hard at everything. And you can get on with having a great life. ... Actually, I'll go a bit further. I've come to believe that the fretting itself can be the very thing that plonks you on the path to a great life.

The idea that I'm not broken just because I get anxious is a realisation I've had many times, but it's never really stuck in my mind. Until now. 

I've always believed that because I get anxious and worry, I am somehow fundamentally flawed. It's led me on a very long search for solutions (mostly through the self-help genre) and is one of the reasons I started this blog (to share ways we can be kinder to ourselves and calmer in the world – less anxious). Which takes us nicely to the second of the greatest two insights I've gained from my reading of the book to date (I'm up to chapter 13 of 20):

For me personally, being anxious about being anxious is a big part of the problem.

Sarah (and several others she quotes on this point) agree wholeheartedly: being anxious about being anxious (or fearing the fear) makes anxiety worse.

One of the worst things we can do to ourselves on the anxious journey is to get anxious about being anxious. I think that a good, ooooh, 80 per cent of my anxiety comes from being anxious about being anxious. And 80 per cent of that secondary anxiety is compounded by being anxious-slash-pissed off that I'm anxious about being anxious. And on it goes compounding on itself ad infinitum

Sarah questions the modern day, relentless pursuit of 'happiness', which she says is a 'mostly unattainable end goal' of life's journey; the better pursuit being a kind and gentle acceptance of what is. She quotes author Ruth Whippman's The pursuit of happiness and why it's making us anxious, which says the search for happiness is making anxiety worse because our expectations of happiness are so high we are always falling short of them.

Interesting stuff.

Sarah says the western world is getting more anxious (I think a lot of us know this; the figures are staggering) and she proposes it's because, 'We're going in the wrong direction. We're grasping outwards for satisfaction, sense of purpose, and for a solution to our unease. When we really need to be going inwards, where the comfort lies. Wrong way! Go Back! ... Every man rushes elsewhere into the future because no man has arrived at himself (Michel de Montaigne)'.

I agree. (It's the point of meditation and mindfulness, and a spiritual quest, isn't it?) I couldn't write this blog without wading endlessly into tantalising 'solutions' for being calmer/happier (books, podcasts, e-books, programs and so on), but sometimes I find the search bone-achingly exhausting. And time and time again I have found, the only way I can alleviate the exhaustion of endless searching/researching/hoping/looking/expecting outside of myself is to go within. Deep breathing and meditation are my escape hatches. Sarah Wilson offers a raft more.

Possibly not all of the concepts in the book will be new to you, particularly if, like me, you read and research the business out of the topic of calming down in this chaotic world. But it's the way Sarah Wilson stitches together the pieces of the story that makes for such interesting reading, drawing as she does from vast personal experience, and a myriad of medical, spiritual and anecdotal sources. It's compelling, and it's offered me an awful lot of comfort.

If you decide to read it, it might comfort you too. 

Here's what the publisher says about the book:

In her new book, Sarah pulls at the thread of accepted definitions of anxiety, and unravels the notion that it is a difficult, dangerous disease that must be medicated into submission. Ultimately, she re-frames anxiety as a spiritual quest rather than a burdensome affliction, a state of yearning that will lead us closer to what really matters. Practical and poetic, wise and funny, this is a small book with a big heart. It will encourage the myriad sufferers of the world's most common mental illness to feel not just better about their condition, but delighted by the possibilities it offers for a richer, fuller life.  

You can order it here or in bookstores. (I think it's only available on kindle in the US at the moment.)

Natalie Bartley