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First, We Make the Beast Beautiful

Written by: Sarah Wilson
Published: February 28, 2017


"First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety" by Sarah Wilson is a reflective and personal exploration of anxiety, wherein the author offers a candid account of her lifelong struggle with mental health. The title is derived from a Chinese proverb that suggests the embracing of a feared entity can render it beautiful.

In the book, Wilson approaches anxiety not as a disorder to be eliminated but as a condition to be understood and woven into the fabric of one's life. She begins by recounting her own experiences with anxiety, from her childhood in the coal-mining towns of Australia to her tenure as the editor of the Australian edition of 'Cosmopolitan' and her time as a restaurateur and media consultant. Wilson does not shy away from detailing the crippling episodes of panic and obsessive behavior that have characterized her relationship with anxiety.

The narrative then moves into a broader discussion of what anxiety means in today's society. Wilson delves into the cultural and evolutionary roots of anxiety, suggesting that it can be a driving force for survival and innovation when harnessed correctly. She draws on research, interviews with mental health experts, and philosophical and spiritual insights to paint a comprehensive picture of the condition.

Wilson shares the various treatments and therapies she has explored, including pharmaceutical options, psychological therapies, lifestyle changes, and spiritual practices. She discusses the benefits and drawbacks of each with openness and skepticism, highlighting that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to managing anxiety.

One of the central tenets of Wilson's philosophy is the concept of making peace with anxiety by reframing it as a part of one's identity. She discusses how this reframing has allowed her to channel her anxious energy into productive and creative endeavors.

The book also explores the connection between anxiety and the modern world’s demands, especially the constant pressure to perform and be connected. Wilson examines how societal expectations can exacerbate anxiety and advocates for a simpler, more disconnected lifestyle as a means to alleviate some of the pressures.

"First, We Make the Beast Beautiful" contains practical advice for those living with anxiety. Wilson offers tips on diet, exercise, mindfulness, and decluttering one’s life and schedule as ways to manage the condition. She emphasizes the importance of self-care and knowing one's limits.

Wilson discusses the value of community and connection with others as a tool for coping with anxiety. She reflects on her own periods of isolation and how establishing a sense of belonging and purpose has been instrumental in her journey.

The memoir is not just about anxiety; it is also about the search for meaning in life. Wilson contemplates the spiritual aspect of living with anxiety, exploring how it can lead to a deeper understanding of oneself and the world.

Throughout the book, Wilson's narrative is interspersed with personal anecdotes, philosophical musings, and practical information. Her writing style is conversational, which makes the book feel like an intimate chat with a friend rather than a clinical study on anxiety.

Final Thoughts

"First, We Make the Beast Beautiful" serves as a meditation on the nature of anxiety and a guide for those looking to navigate the complexities of living with it. Wilson’s personal and philosophical exploration offers hope and understanding to those who face the beast of anxiety every day, suggesting that there is beauty to be found in even the most daunting aspects of the human experience.

10 Big Ideas

1. Embracing Anxiety

Wilson suggests that embracing anxiety as a part of life, rather than fighting against it, can lead to a more beautiful and rich experience. Acceptance is the first step in transformation.

2. Anxiety as an Evolutionary Feature

Understanding anxiety as an evolutionary trait that once served a purpose reframes the condition as something that can be channeled into productive energy rather than a purely negative force.

3. The Impact of Modern Life

Modern lifestyles often exacerbate anxiety. Wilson emphasizes the importance of assessing how contemporary pressures contribute to our mental state and finding ways to mitigate these factors.

4. The Role of Diet and Physical Health

Wilson explores the connection between diet, physical health, and mental well-being, advocating for a mindful approach to eating and living that supports overall health.

5. The Significance of Self-Care

Regular self-care practices are crucial for managing anxiety. Wilson shares how routines centered around mindfulness, exercise, and personal time can create stability and peace.

6. Simplifying Life

Simplification of one’s lifestyle and commitments can significantly reduce anxiety. Wilson’s experiences underscore the value of decluttering both physical space and one’s schedule.

7. Spiritual Exploration

The journey through anxiety can also be a spiritual exploration. Wilson discusses how her struggle has led her to seek deeper existential answers and a greater connection with the world.

8. The Importance of Community

Isolation can worsen anxiety, while a sense of community can provide support. Wilson highlights the importance of building and maintaining relationships as a part of managing anxiety.

9. The Power of Storytelling

Sharing stories of anxiety can be therapeutic and destigmatizing. Wilson’s own narrative is a testament to the healing power of sharing and the comfort it can provide to others.

10. Continual Learning and Adaptation

Living with anxiety is a continual process of learning and adaptation. Wilson advocates for an ongoing commitment to understanding oneself and finding personalized strategies for coping.

5 Exercises

1. Anxiety Acceptance Meditation

Objective: To foster acceptance of your anxiety as a natural part of your being.

  • Set aside a quiet time each day to meditate, focusing on your breath and the physical sensations of anxiety without judgment.
  • When anxious thoughts arise, acknowledge them and then gently redirect your focus to your breath.
  • Conclude each session by affirming your commitment to working with your anxiety rather than against it.
2. Evolutionary Advantage Journaling

Objective: To identify and appreciate the ways in which anxiety has been beneficial to you.

  • Keep a daily journal in which you note any instances where anxiety has heightened your awareness or spurred you to positive action.
  • Reflect weekly on these entries to recognize patterns where anxiety may be serving a purposeful role in your life.
3. Simplify Your Space

Objective: To reduce external contributors to anxiety by simplifying your living and working spaces.

  • Choose one area of your home or workspace to declutter, removing items that do not serve a purpose or bring you joy.
  • Notice how the act of simplifying your environment affects your mental state over the following week.
4. Dietary Mindfulness

Objective: To become more aware of how your diet affects your anxiety levels.

  • For one week, track your food intake and note any changes in your anxiety levels after meals.
  • Identify foods that seem to exacerbate your anxiety and consider reducing or eliminating them from your diet.
5. Create a Support Map

Objective: To visually map out your support system, recognizing the community you have and areas where you might seek further connections.

  • Draw a map that includes friends, family, professionals, support groups, and any others who contribute to your support system.
  • Highlight the types of support you receive from each and note any gaps where additional support might be beneficial.
  • Take steps to strengthen your existing relationships or forge new ones to fill in the gaps identified.

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