Cloe Willets’ cure for anxiety

Cloe Willets, 33, writes regularly for the Weekly and is now a published children's author. She shares how her own battle with emotions has nurtured creativity

I was around six the first time I lay in bed at night too afraid to move, with clammy hands, a spinning mind and thumping heart. There was a storm and I was crippled by fear, believing the ceiling was about to fly off and suck my entire family into the dark night. It turns out it was a mild panic attack and I was experiencing the anxiety that quietly followed me for years after.

“It wasn’t until my early twenties, while googling my symptoms and doing an online anxiety test, that it made sense. A doctor diagnosed me and referred me to an amazing counsellor, but I’ve since learnt anxiety is just a part of my personality and I’m okay with that.

“I recall having panic attacks in my late teens, after my then-boyfriend’s workmate died in a car crash and someone felt the need to share that he was identified by his dental records. From then, driving on the highway freaked me out and it was like my brain went into alert for any sign of danger.

“My heart raced, my palms were sweaty and at one stage, when a car almost merged into me, I felt like I was about to faint behind the wheel.

‘Anxiety is just part of my personality and I’m okay with that’

“My body was overcome by an overwhelming sense of dread that I was about to crash and die. For a couple of years, I avoided driving on a highway at all costs and preferred to be a passenger, until I found the cure. Music!

“I learnt that by playing my favourite songs and singing along, there was no room for anxious thoughts to creep in. Although driving unknown highways still isn’t my favourite pastime, I know that if I have a GPS, music and plenty of time to get somewhere, I’m fine.

“As a freelance journalist now living on the Kāpiti Coast with my daughter Hazel, nine, having a creative outlet is a huge blessing for me. Getting negative or overloaded thoughts out through written words can feel like sweeping a dirty chimney clean.

Cloe (left), aged three, with sisters Amber and Jasmine.

“When I wrote my first children’s book The Dizzy Waggle Who Lit the Dark about big emotions and resilience, it was hugely fulfilling for me as a mother, writer and former deep-feeling

kid. I included tools for emotional regulation throughout the rhyming plot, which follows an adorable creature called a Dizzy Waggle named Zozo through moments of anger, anxiety and self-doubt. The book was illustrated by Levin artist Fabienne Joni Sopacua, 35, and includes exercises to help kids manage their feelings.

“As a youth in the ’90s, I didn’t have any books on big emotions. I couldn’t express I was feeling anxious, since I didn’t even know it was a thing, and so it manifested into frustration and anger. Luckily, mental health in children is addressed more in schools and homes today. A huge part of writing my book was ensuring young readers feel seen and understood, so they don’t grow up with a sense of shame around having different needs or struggles.

The Dizzy Waggle Who Lit the Dark by Cloe Willetts (Precise Print, $22.99). From bookstores and thedizzywaggle.com

“I was lucky to come from a loving and close family that included my mother Chris, 62, my father Rob, 61, and sisters Jasmine, 37, and Amber, 31. But because I was the type of child who didn’t like to cause too much of a fuss, I kept my feelings to myself. In my book, Zozo covers a big glowing heart, which represents feelings, so it can’t be seen. At the end, the character realises it’s best to let it shine, which signifies our tendency as humans to close off or hide our feelings to fit in or not cause a stir.

“Although anxiety can be frustrating and for some people incredibly crippling, I’ve found that going back to the basics keeps it at bay. Living by the beach and walking along it most days is hugely beneficial, as is eating unprocessed foods, meditating, exercising, spending time with positive loved ones and letting my body rest when it needs.

“Stress and exhaustion are my biggest triggers for anxiety and nature is my greatest healer.

“Another turning point was learning to recognise when a thought is anxiety and to stop it in its tracks. I also remind myself that I don’t need to have control over my life. The ability to ‘let go’ has worked wonders in retraining my brain to focus on the present and not the future – which is where anxiety focuses its attention.

“Fabienne and I are now working on our second book, Thea and the Dizzy Waggle, a tale for children about grief. It makes me happy knowing I can use my experiences and passion as a writer to help kids and families better understand emotions, especially the harder ones.”

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