Anxiety can be crippling, but bestselling author and entrepreneur Sarah Wilson believes it's possible to live a fulfilling life with it – not fighting against it.

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She’s a New York Times best-selling author, accomplished journalist and founder of the I Quit Sugar empire. But what few of us see behind Sarah Wilson’s success is the onslaught of health issues she faces every day, with anxiety at the forefront.

Checking for rattling windows, humming refrigerators or ticking clocks before bed is not an uncommon occurrence for Sarah. Nor is wearing earplugs, an eye mask and surgical tape across her lips (to stop teeth grinding) to ensure a good night’s sleep.

Sarah’s painfully honest account of living with anxiety in her latest book First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, is a response to her followers’ increasing queries on the topic. “I wanted to write a book that attended to what people were talking to me about,” she says.

Anxiety can fuel a very lonely existence. There is no diagnostic tool to determine where fear ends and anxiety begins, so it can be a struggle for people to know where that line is, Sarah says. Triggering a conversation and engaging a community around the issue felt like a responsibility she had to take.

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"Studies suggest that gut bacteria can influence our emotional lives, including everything from our moods, feelings of stress, or fatigue to anxiety and depression."

A link between diet and anxiety?

Sarah is best known leading the charge against sugar, and it was actually her anxiety that gave rise movement, she says. After four years as editor of Cosmopolitan and battling sleepless nights of anxiety-fuelled insomnia, she hit rock bottom – or as she calls it, a ‘mid-thirties meltdown’.

Retreating to an old army shed in Byron Bay’s forest for one and a half years, Sarah did her best to recuperate while supporting herself financially with freelance writing a weekly column. Cutting sugar out of her diet began as an experiment for the column, but she soon started noticing benefits to how she was feeling – including with her anxiety.

Research into the link between diet and mental illness is “possibly the most exciting work being conducted”, Sarah says. Australian researcher Dr Felice Jacka, for example, recently published a groundbreaking study that demonstrates a healthy diet can boost the mood of people with moderate to severe depression.

Other studies suggest that gut bacteria can influence our emotional lives, including everything from our moods, feelings of stress, or fatigue to anxiety and depression. According to a research study, people who eat more fermented food (which contains probiotics) have fewer symptoms of social anxiety.

"Living with anxiety is never easy, but Sarah now believes it’s possible to harness anxious energy to live a more productive, meaningful and joyous life, rather than being controlled by it."

Sarah's tips for living with anxiety

Living with anxiety is never easy, but Sarah now believes it’s possible to harness anxious energy to live a more productive, meaningful and joyous life, rather than being controlled by it.

“There are lifestyle things we can do that really steer the direction of things, and it’s a gradual thing, it’s not an overnight salve,” she says.

Here are a few things she’s found to help:

  • Eat a balanced, healthy diet. A Mediterranean diet of good quality protein and fats, grains, and pulses, and low in sugar and processed foods, can benefit your mental health, as demonstrated by Felice Jacka’s study.
  • Make time to relax. Taking time out to meditate each day, regardless of whether you struggle with anxiety, is an important act of self-care as far as our brains are concerned. This is supported by plenty of research into the mental health benefits of mindfulness.
  • Get moving. Being active can play an important role in relieving symptoms of depression and anxiety. Walking is Sarah’s go-to fix. It doesn’t have to be far or fast, but the simple act of walking can help boost your mood. As an avid hiker, Sarah encourages everyone to head outdoors and experience the sense of freedom that accompanies nature.

First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson is published by Pan Macmillan Australia and is available now.

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