I Am Anxious... J.T. Ellison
The bestselling author talks food anxiety, Celiac disease, her love of travel (even though it makes her anxious), extreme planning, and more.
J.T. Ellison is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of more than 25 novels, and the EMMY® award winning co-host of the literary TV show A Word on Words. She also writes urban fantasy under the pen name Joss Walker.
With millions of books in print, her work has won critical acclaim and prestigious awards. Her titles have been optioned for television and published in twenty-eight countries.
“The former is my most intimate novel to date, and its subject matter, infertility, mirrors the struggles my husband and I went through. The Wolves Come at Night is the long-awaited (10 years later) continuation of my Taylor Jackson series, though it's fine to be read as a standalone.”
How long have you been an anxious person?
Since I was in my teens and my parents moved us from the dirt roads forest peace of Colorado to the political rat race of D.C. I went from zero to sixty.
What is your earliest memory of being anxious?
I have Celiac disease, but we didn't know that until about 10 years ago. In high school, the most popular local date spot was a lovely Italian restaurant. I would make it until dessert and then be overcome with all manner of stomach ailments and get stuck in the bathroom for an hour. It was horrifying, embarrassing, humiliating. I started refusing to go out to dinner, never knowing when I would get sick. That, of course, spiraled into not wanting to leave the house at all until I got a handle on it. Food still causes me unbelievable anxiety.
Have you ever experienced a panic attack?
Yes. The first one I had was at my bridal shower. All of these lovely friends, watching me open gifts, a loving, exciting moment — and I got hot, my heart started to pound, and I burst into tears. I am sensitive to energies — having it all directed my way was overwhelming. They were rather regular after that, but the worst was soon after I'd moved to Tennessee. I was driving. Everything went black, I couldn't breathe. I thought I was having a stroke. When I came back to myself, I'd somehow pulled over to the side of the road and was weeping. That's when I sought professional help.
I still get them now, and when I do, I open the heart monitor on my watch and follow along with the tachycardia until I feel less panicky. I can recognize when one is starting, say aloud "I'm having a panic attack," and watch my heart jump around. That simple observation helps keep it under control.
What are some of your anxiety triggers? What makes you most anxious?
Food has been and always will be my greatest issue. We get dinner invitations, and eating at people's houses is almost impossible for me because no one understands how sensitive to gluten I really am. Having to speak in front of groups has always been a go-to freak out. Travel: though I love to fly, I tend to catastrophize the millions of ways things could go wrong. Dinners out. Events. People. Teaching. Eating on the road. Tornado weather. Having too much on my calendar and too many spinning plates. Not planning — I have calendars color-coded and scheduled out for years.
Loss of control is clearly the common denominator, and that comes from decades of never knowing when or if I was going to be embarrassingly sick. I am an inveterate worrier, too. Put me on a spectacularly lovely beach on a perfect sky-blue day, and I'll imagine a tsunami sweeping us away.
That's also why I'm a thriller writer; my imaginations are large and varied. I channel the worry into creating realistic characters and the situations they find themselves in. As I say, people pay me to think up the worst-case scenario.
How do you feel physically and emotionally when you’re anxious?
Sick to my stomach, sweaty, tachycardic. The years of anxiety have given me OCD, so I can easily start spiraling around a particular issue or situation. I can't just let it be and move on, it must be resolved. It's unbelievably frustrating — I don't want to be stuck worrying about something, and it's usually so mundane as to not really matter, but I can't move past it until there is some sort of resolution. I can easily get caught in a procrastination loop when I have too much on my plate. But...this also drives me to excel, so it has its upside.
What do you do when you feel anxious? How do you take care of yourself in those situations? Do you have any anxiety management tips or tricks?
Ativan helps. I try not to take it unless it's really bad because it dulls me, but sometimes there's no choice. Deep breathing — I find that when I'm spun up, I tend to be holding my breath without realizing it. So I sit, drop my hands to my knees, and take deep, deep breaths. I used to do square breathing, but my yoga teacher taught me asymmetrical is actual more effective. Breathe in for four, breathe out for six. That really works. Staying away from too much caffeine and any other teas or tinctures that have heart-stimulating properties is a must. I do calendar and task management, too, which always helps.
And honestly, just be gentle with yourself. I'm the worst about being hard on myself for being anxious, and that's no way to go through life. You're special, you're gentle, and you're sensitive to the world and the energies in it. Anxious people should spend twice as much time in nature as others. Put in a beautiful bird feeder and have a spot where you can drink a cup of tea and watch the interactions. Trying to keep up with the online social media stream is also a no-no. It's too easy to get sucked into the algorithm, and instead of feeling better, you'll end up feeling worse.
It's hard to simply "be" anymore, and that's probably the best thing any anxious person can shoot for: as many moments of quiet and chill as possible. Unapologetically unplugging helps. The moment will pass. You're simply experiencing an emotion, you are not the emotion itself. I try very hard not to define myself by my anxiety. It’s just a part of my makeup.
How do you feel your anxiety affects your family, friends, and overall social life?
Everyone in my life who matters understands. My family is supportive, and have their own share of anxiety. My husband has seen me through 30 years of this now, and knows when to act, when I need a hug, when to suggest a little chemical help, and when to just roll with it. Externally, I've cultivated a lovely group of friends who don't mind my quirks. I think I probably drive them nuts, but therein lies the secret. We are all more sensitive to how others perceive us. In truth, no one cares if you have to ask the kitchen to cook your fish in a separate pan so you don't get ill.
That's the nasty little secret about anxiety — the feeling of isolation, the sense that people are going to judge, when in fact, no one — NO ONE — minds. If anything, your quirks make you charming. They make you real. They pull on the emotions of those around you and make them not feel so alone.
When you're not feeling anxious (simply in your day-to-day life), what do you do for self care?
I love to ride my bike, hang out on the porch with the birds and the cat, yoga, read, golf, travel — yes, the thing that induces anxiety is also a favorite pastime, especially places where I know the food is safe.
How do you feel about the portrayal of mental health and anxiety in Pop Culture (books, movies, music, etc)? Do you feel it's accurate?
It makes me anxious, truth be told. Sometimes it's right on the money, and others... it's like someone spoke to a friend of her sister's boyfriend's mother from high school who heard of a guy the next town over who had bipolar and painted the kitchen one night in his underwear... when they get it wrong, they get it wrong.
What are some of your favorite examples of Pop Culture that gets anxiety and mental health right?
Homeland had the guts to tackle manic depression and did a pretty good job with it. We've been watching John Hughes movies recently, and the generalized anxiety of navigating the world as a teenager comes through so clearly. I rewatch Girl, Interrupted all the time, and the complete meltdown caused by the intensity of unrealistic achievement in Black Swan is one of the best. I’m going to toot my own horn here and also suggest Tear Me Apart, which dives deep into an array of psychological disorders. I do have mental illness in my extended family; the research was quite primary.
What is the best advice you've ever received?
Don't try to steer the river.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
This is a brilliant series, and it's helping so many of us. The more we talk, the better off we all are. Thank you, Scott!
Editor’s Note: This interview was edited slightly for length and clarity.
Thank you so much, J.T.! I really appreciate you sharing so much and for your kind words about Anxious Dude.
I’m a huge fan of J.T.’s work and love how prolific she is, which means there’s a whole lot to read. I highly recommend you get started reading them all.
Thanks again, J.T.!
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Be well and keep talking.
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DISCLAIMER: I am, by no means, a medical profession. If you need help, please seek qualified medical attention. This newsletter, while informative and fun, is no substitute for the real thing.