2018 releases · non fiction

Anxiety, Spirituality and Dubious Advice: First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson

First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Story About AnxietyI should just stop reading books about mental health. 

As some of you may know, I am a soon-to-be psychologist (a few exams to go!) and whenever I see a nonfiction book exploring mental health issues from a personal perspective, I get really excited. And when I saw Sarah Wilson’s book, which promises a deep dive into anxiety with a personal angle, I was quick to request it. The book sounded like it looked at anxiety from a new perspective and like it had a lot of research involved in making it happen. Plus, that cover really drew me in, what can I say. However, it really did not deliver. So let’s chat as to why that happened.

researchFirst and foremost, I had real trouble with how research was handled in this book. Sarah Wilson uses some scientific “facts” and data and also refers to studies, but in my opinion, it’s very selective. She picks and chooses data that confirms her beliefs and her viewpoints, which is a lousy way to handle science. And as someone who is a scientific psychologist, I can’t help but be really put off by that fact. That’s not how science works and using science in that particular way has proven to be extremely harmful. It’s just a way to shroud your own belief system into a false veil of scientific proof and I could not deal with that. It’s just an issue when a person who is not a mental health professional in any shape or form, goes on about facts and studies, without thinking of the repercussions of it.

spiritualThis is in a way a personal preference, but it also says a lot about this book. This is really spiritual. And I am not a spiritual person. And that would be okay if this book had a completely personal angle. But it doesn’t. It makes a general point while using some personal insight to stress that point. Which is why I found it annoying that spirituality was used as a big factor in this with statements like “if you’re anxious, meditation is a must”. It’s just unsettling and I can imagine how this book might make people anxious because they don’t fit in the categories Sarah Wilson defines. What if meditation did not work for someone, or they aren’t spiritual? Does that make their experience less valid? I don’t know, it rubbed me the wrong way. And moreover, for some people, anxiety isn’t this great gift that they can work through their spirituality. So I feel this book makes some unsound generalizations while relying on spirituality.

selfhelpI really have a hard time with self-help books. I don’t understand them and I feel like they lead people to believe in some misconceptions, especially those that are supposed to help with mental health. I am not an advocate of medication, nor do I think there’s a right or wrong way to live and cope with anxiety, but I just have a hard time with books that preach a certain way of living. And while Sarah Wilson tries not to make this book preachy, she fails at that. Like I said, she tends to make generalizations and it all feels very privileged and conceited.

nonuanceAll of these points are interconnected. And a big problem is also that there’s no nuance here. She manages to just scratch the surface of so many different things, but there’s really no deep exploration or deeper understanding of anxiety. For example, she makes a point about social construction, and discusses how categorization into different medical categories is constructed and has no basis in reality. And this is a fairly common school of thought in psychology, that a lot of things don’t have a basis in reality, that they are social constructions. However, when it comes to mental illness and health, you can’t make such a superficial point so off-handedly. There’s a lot of nuances to be explored. For example, whether or not something is socially constructed has to take into consideration the personal suffering of an individual. People feel crippling anxiety, their pain is real, and you can’t really just tell them that’s socially constructed because that doesn’t help.

romanticizationOne last thing I need to discuss is the romanticization of anxiety in this book. Sarah Wilson talks a lot about embracing your anxiety and how so many wonderful art pieces came from it. How it can be this tool in a certain creative process and on and on. And she tries to say how it’s not her intention to romanticize anxiety, but again, she fails. Moreover, that’s not true. There’s no evidence that mental health issues are connected with creativity. It’s a layman myth and I really think it’s a debilitating one at that. It sends the wrong message and makes a point that you should suffer in order to make something meaningful and that’s a whole lot of wrong.

verdictI really disliked this a lot. I think that it makes generalizations where it shouldn’t and stands for questionable things to say the least. It’s preachy and just did not work for me. I would not recommend this at all.

Final verdict: 1.5 stars

anthingtoadd2That’s my review! I’d love to hear you share your thoughts about this stuff – anxiety, how to handle it, the romanticization of mental health issues, anything that’s on your mind, let me know!


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9 thoughts on “Anxiety, Spirituality and Dubious Advice: First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson

  1. Ooh yikes, I was hoping this book might be good, but judging from your points, I think you hit very well on why this book isn’t that great. I don’t understand self-helps books either, and skewing research to fit your own argument annoys me a lot too. Oh, and the point about romanticizing anxiety; I get that our best work comes from our toil and failures, but to say that anxiety is something that can fuel it is…not accurate. People can be perfectly happy working hard to achieve something despite the stress it brings, so telling people to use and embrace their anxiety in order to achieve something is pretty misleading.

    Great review as always! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I just really did not like it. You’re completely right about that romanticization aspect, I think it sends a really wrong message to people who are suffering and aren’t in a position to “embrace” their anxiety. Thank you so much!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Back when I was religious, it was kinda shoved down my throat that meditation (on God’s word) would help my anxiety. It didn’t. Not everybody can do that with anxiety. Sounds like I def won’t be picking this one up.
    Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m not sure if this is still an active thread but I recently started reading this book with an open-mind and a lot of hope.
    Immediately there were a number of things niggling at me, scientific cherry-picking among them. I truly appreciate an holistic approach to health and as an anxiety-sufferer I do think embracing rather than condemning my condition can be a helpful mindset to adopt. But the continued assertion that every single anxiety sufferer intuitively knows which hotel room is quietest began to irk me, and the privilege inherent in her opportunities and life choices continued to alienate many of her audience when used as examples of “just do this” life advice.
    I think ultimately her ideas were overshadowed by her narrow field of vision and unrelatable privilege.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah this is an old review of mine, so I had to remind myself of the book and my thoughts, but I absolutely agree. It really bothered me how she used science to assert her beliefs by picking out data that worked in her favor. The note about privilege is also very important and I completely agree with the ultimate result of said privilege being the alienation of a lot of readers. A shame.


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