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Content warning: this story discusses anxiety and mental health.
For many of us, feelings of anxiety, worry and fear are considered 'bad' and should be relieved or overcome as quickly and painlessly as possible.
It's what we're often taught from a young age, and have mirrored back to us in cheesy 'Don't worry, be happy!' signs in cafés.
Make anxiety your superpower
But what if we flip that script? What if, instead of running for the hills, we could lean into our worries or anxieties and use them to our advantage?
That's the premise of best-selling author and founder of the I Quit Sugar phenomenon, Sarah Wilson's new Audible Original podcast series.
In Make Anxiety Your Superpower, Sarah boldly challenges the negative stigma around anxiety and those who experience it (herself included).
Over 10 episodes, Sarah chats with ten people living with different shades of anxiety — from panic attacks to high-functioning anxiety — to understand how a fretful mind can be turned into something purposeful, meaningful and productive.
In an exclusive chat with Yahoo Lifestyle, Sarah explains that she's made it her life's mission to shift our perception of what is the most common mental health condition in Australia.
"I've dedicated my life to it, really," she says. "As somebody who has quite extreme anxiety, and I've had OCD and bipolar for most of my adult life, I've been wanting to see it in a more positive framing because I know that throughout history it was seen very differently.
The other side of anxiety
Sarah points out that the concept of anxiety as a mental health condition only entered the DSM, the main diagnostic tool used by psychiatrists in the western world, in 1980.
"Prior to that, there was much more of an understanding that anxiety was not only something that is a natural part of the human experience, but also a necessary part," she says.
Anxiety stems from the amygdala, the brain's 'emotion centre' and is involved in the flight, fight or freeze response. In caveman times, having a fully-functioning flight/fight/freeze response meant the difference between life and death.
But now that sabretooth tigers are a thing of the past, what use is this primal, run-for-your-life anxiety to us modern humans in 2021?
"It actually ensures that the decisions we are making are fruitful, progressive, productive and healthy," Sarah says.
Some of the world's greatest minds — poets, scientists, wartime leaders and the like — changed the course of history while living with some form of mental health condition.
"Believe it or not, [anxiety] is actually a quirk required for people to take risks and go into a realm of the human experience that is deemed risky or weird or new.
"When we mask our anxiety with drugs or medication, or even just a discourse that says it's a problem that needs to be eradicated, we miss out on the opportunity to use anxiety as it's meant to be used."
Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable
Sarah believes that it is our tendency to 'cocoon ourselves from discomfort,' specifically through the use of technology that might be the greatest disadvantage of the current generation.
To be clear, she's not saying that technology is the root cause of anxiety but rather that it enables us to avoid or dampen anxious feelings or situations.
"The whole point of the discomfort is it's our alarm system that triggers us to rise to better or shift course. If that is silenced then what's going to tell us to change our ways? To steer us to better things, to a better career path? To move towards a relationship that is appropriate or leave an inappropriate one?"
Scrolling endlessly on social media, for example, is a quick and easy way to calm the nerves on the way to a first date or put off having an uncomfortable but necessary conversation with a friend.
We don't even have to wonder how long our food delivery will take to arrive — we can watch its journey in real-time on an app.
"We are unable to sit in any kind of uncertainty or discomfort and the world is only getting more uncomfortable and more uncertain. So my modus operandi with this podcast is to help people equip themselves and the people around them with a discourse that's going to help them with what's ahead over the next five, 10, 20 years."
Sarah argues that it's a lack of resilience to anxiety, not anxiety itself that is the problem. To help the 10 interviewees involved in Make Anxiety Your Superpower shift this mindset, it was all about getting them comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable.
"I interview these 10 people who are caught in this idea that their anxiety is a problem and use these different techniques to shift them into believing or into trusting and knowing that it's, in fact, the thing that will probably take them to the greatest heights in their life."
It's not just the participants who'll benefit from Make Anxiety Your Superpower. Sarah believes that listeners are able to get even more out of it by virtue of their position on the outside looking in.
"I've always said that hearing about other people's anxious experiences is one of the biggest salves for getting over your own anxiety and using it as a superpower because you see the beauty in it all.
"You see that it is an inherent and important and wonderful and life-enhancing aspect of human experience. Once you know that, you can then choose to use it as you want."
Make Anxiety Your Superpower is available now at audible.com.au/anxiety.
Online support is available via Beyond Blue.
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