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I Am Anxious... Sara Benincasa
The writer, author, and actor discusses how her anxiety triggers have changed, the importance of diversity in pop culture's mental health representation, and some excellent anxiety management tips.
Sara Benincasa is a writer (most recently MST3K: Season 13), author (Agorafabulous!, Real Artists Have Day Jobs & two novels: DC Trip and Great) and actor (Law & Order: SVU) who lives in sunny Brooklyn. She also has a newsletter called Saratonin.
“It comes out four times a month and it's about pop culture, mental health, and whatever the hell I feel like that week. It's fun and weird.
Some people prefer Patreon, so it's also there. Patreon is also a fun option because you get a patrons-only podcast, The Audio Letter, four times a month over there.
These things help me stay in creative community with folks, and help augment my income from a full-time job at a nonprofit so that I can keep making weird art on my own time and sharing it.”
How long have you been an anxious person?
At least since I was seven years old. I think I had my first panic attack at age eight, probably.
What is your earliest memory of being anxious?
I remember being in first grade and shaking so hard while reading something in front of my class. My teacher held my hand. Mrs. Bonnane was awesome.
Have you ever experienced a panic attack?
Oh yes, many times.
What are some of your anxiety triggers? What makes you most anxious?
They've changed over the years — in my memoir, Agorafabulous!, I actually made a chart of various things that have triggered panic attacks for me over the years. When it comes to general anxiety — since panic attacks are far less frequent for me now, thank God — travel remains a trigger. Socializing with other humans is definitely a trigger. I'm fine being the host of an event or part of the show, so to speak. But going to a regular party is harder, because of a lack of control. However I almost invariably enjoy myself so I need to go to more parties.
How do you feel physically and emotionally when you’re anxious?
Fight, flight, freeze, or fawn is a real adventure! I sometimes go from anxiety to frustration or even anger rather quickly, because anger is a power emotion that helpfully masks my fear and vulnerability. Often, that anger is directed at myself. And sometimes now I'm able to move more quickly from anxiety to compassion for myself. There's no use in beating oneself up for being afraid.
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?
When I'm anxious, I try to remind myself to go first to my breathing. I'm probably anxious because I feel a lack of control, and unless I'm ill, I can usually control my breathing. So that's where I begin. I also have certain prayers and sayings that help me. Moving my body around can be extremely helpful. But if those things don't do the job, I'll take anti-anxiety medication.
I do recommend having a playlist or album that you listen to when you're in a calm state over and over as a kind of training to create a soothing emotional connection between your mind, body and the music. It can be good to start playing that as you try to relax. Just hearing the opening notes may induce a sense of comfort and safety.
My number one tip is to not get married to the anxious thoughts. Like my alcoholism, my panic disorder wants me to believe it is the ultimate all-encompassing truth. It is not. I can accept its presence in a neutral way and keep breathing, knowing that this too shall pass. Easier said than done, but moment to moment, it can ebb and flow. Remember, not every second of that panic attack or bout with anxiety is happening at the same strength and volume.
Meditation and mindfulness books by Thích Nhất Hạnh, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Sharon Salzberg (among others) have helped teach me this, but I need to practice over and over again because I forget and forget.
How do you feel your anxiety affects your family, friends, and overall social life?
Sometimes I disappoint loved ones by not showing up for things, not because I don't want to be there, but because I'm too afraid to leave my home or my neighborhood. They know who I am and how I am, and they give me a lot of grace and space. I know that over the past three years I've become even more of an isolated person, even though I'm in daily touch with friends from my sober recovery work. But one has to be with people in person sometimes to really be in community. Relationships conducted primarily over electronic means do not replace this, although they can be deeply profound. I'm working on it every day.
When you're not feeling anxious (simply in your day-to-day life), what do you do for self care?
I take an Epsom salts bath for my human body. I meditate daily. I always feel better when I take a walk, and I so rarely take a walk on purpose. I watch makeup tutorials on YouTube. I drink so much water, sweet Lord. Throwing out excess stuff (donations, recycling, garbage) is a damn delight. I'm trying to acquire less of it, but I'm also really spending time cutting down on the crap I already have.
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's gotten so much better over the decades in terms of being kind and positive about potential outcomes for patients, but it is still centered on white people, particularly white women like me. We need to see realistic examples of mental health struggles of folks from different backgrounds. This is happening more and more, but we need even more because, as my primary care doctor says, COVID-19 isn't just a respiratory illness — it's caused a mental health pandemic. Add to that the pre-existing stressors of systemic racism leading to weathering and long-term horrific health issues for some people of color, and we need more representation of folks not just suffering but also healing. Not every healing modality is for everyone, but every person does have their own recipe. Or they can if given access and options.
There are people in different communities doing incredible, unglamorous work every day as social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and more. The stories we see on TV and in film can give us hope. These stories tell us who we are and what is possible.
What are some of your favorite examples of Pop Culture that gets anxiety and mental health right?
TV: Russian Doll (both seasons), particularly around addiction and ancestral / intergenerational trauma.
What is the best advice you've ever received?
From my grandmother: This too shall pass.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I hope everybody takes care of themselves as best they can. It's okay to feel like shit sometimes. You don't have to beat yourself up for feeling like garbage. Feel the feelings and ask for help where and when you can. Eventually you will find the right motivation to keep going for that day. It fucking sucks sometimes, but there's a reason you're still around. I don't know what it is, and maybe it's not for any of us to know. Or maybe you'll figure it out as you work on your own health and healing. Life is very weird, and sometimes surprising, in a very good way.
Editor’s Note: This interview was edited slightly for length and clarity.
Thank you, Sara, for sharing! I’ve been a fan of Sara’s work across different areas for years now, so it’s awesome to see the success she’s had in both writing and acting. Thanks again, Sara!
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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.