How to Combat Anxiety in Illustrations

Rebekah Ballagh

November 6, 2020

Rebekah is a qualified counsellor, an illustrator and the creator of the popular Instagram page called Journey to Wellness which she started after wanting to have better leaflets for the students at the school she counselled at. We came across Rebekah and her work through her publisher at Allen & Unwin who were kind enough to send us an advance copy of 'Note To Self: The Secrets of Calm' and we absolutely loved it! I mean, what's not to love about a strong wahine helping people with their mental health through beautiful illustrations and practical tips? More of this please!

How did you get into your current journey?  - did you study or work in relevant fields?

I never intended to be an author or illustrator! I just kind of ‘fell into it’… I’ve always been really passionate about mental health. I gained my qualifications as a counsellor in 2013 and began working with a primary health organisation in Nelson. From there I moved into working as a counsellor in a high school. I worked with SO many young people with crippling anxiety, depression, self-harm… some who were suicidal and have even attempted to take their lives. It was heavy, beautiful, stressful and powerful work and I often found myself thinking about all those people who didn’t have access to counselling for one reason or another, even just those who were too afraid to go along and talk to somebody. I wanted there to be a way to get the tools that I was teaching to clients (and using myself) out to more people. To somehow make some of the things that go on inside the closed office of a therapy room to be accessible to more people.

I also noticed how easy it was for clients to forget the tools they learnt when they felt overwhelmed… That’s how Journey to Wellness on Instagram came about @journey_to_wellness_; I began illustrating the tools and tips I was using in my counselling sessions, to draw the things I had learned in all my counselling training, in all the post-grad courses I was going to, and all the things that had helped me on my journey. I’m a visual person, more than half of us learn best this way – so my mission became to translate tricky, sometimes abstract therapeutic concepts and tools and capture them in a single illustration. My hope is that people look at them and feel a) they are normal and not alone in their experience and b) that there is something out there that can help them. There are tools that they can use to create change in their lives.

You have a pretty big social following of over 300k on Insta. What was the process like to grow that following? What do you hope to give back to your fans/followers with your art?

It’s honestly something that still baffles me and blows my mind every day. I still don’t know exactly how or why Journey to Wellness grew the way it has – I am so grateful. I never paid to promote my page or work, and the growth was all organic. I think the page has been running for almost 3 years now, and I guess at a certain number of followers it really just created a momentum of its own, I suppose social media is funny like that! My only hope is that I can continue to use that platform to share these little tips and insights around mental health and that they help people. If I can help just one person, all the effort is worth it. I hope that it is a space that really destigmatises and normalises mental health struggles and that people are able to use the tools there to begin to make changes and grow hope in their lives.

It is super weird to try to promote yourself too, because ultimately, I am also trying to make a living with Journey to Wellness so that I can continue creating the tools and illustrations and trying to help people. So, advertising that my e-books and resources are for sale on Etsy, or advertising this new book Note to Self, has felt like an alien thing – I still to this day worry I’m annoying people and hoping I don’t ever sound like one of those sales commercials! I try to price everything well and remind myself (and my inner critic) that they are valuable tools that you would pay $80- $150 an hour for in a private therapy session and so they are all being sold at a tiny fraction of this, and that my work is valuable…. I hope! (Hello imposter syndrome….)

A snapshot of six posts from Rebekah’s instagram page “Journey To Wellness” - all illustrations with advice around mental health

Being a resource for self-love and putting work like this into the world, do you feel like it adds more pressure on you to have your “sh*t” together, to always be happy? Or has it allowed the opposite for you? To just be real and vulnerable

I love this question – because it is something I often think/talk about… I used to feel like a total imposter and that I needed to have my shit together way more! I felt that pressure to be always on top of it all, to know the answers to everything, to be leading some ‘super well’, zen and healthy life 24/7 and be able to totally manage my emotions at all times… that was all pressure from myself and is completely rubbish!

The truth is that all mental health professionals are just people too, with problems, pasts, struggles, stresses and mental health challenges just like everyone else. To think I should be immune from that is just ridiculous. So now I feel that this work has actually allowed me to learn to get comfortable with being vulnerable, to really try to lean in to my challenges and I am working on being more and more open to sharing these on my page so that people might just go ‘hey, I resonate with that, I get that… oh my god, I’m normal’ or even just ‘oh well, if I am crazy at least I’m not alone!’.

How do you think about yourself when you are by yourself?

I have waaaaay less time alone these days than I used to, since my wee daughter came along! I’m quite an introverted person, so alone time is my fave – usually I spend this time thinking about things I want to create in my business, resources I want to make, things I want to draw, books I could write. We are currently building a family home, so I think about that too.

I’m currently obsessing over running a mini anxiety workshop in my new home – getting together small groups to learn tools, drink coffee, journal, bask in the sun, eat food and share. I want to use the resources I create with people and make these connections again – even though I really freak out about public speaking, the times I do this feel invigorating to me!

On a more personal level, this has been an insanely challenging year and a half for me. Becoming a mama has pushed me to places I didn’t think I was capable of surviving. Running a business and being a full time stay at home Mum (I work when my wee girl is sleeping!) has been challenging. I think I’ve been at breaking point a few times in the last year and a half. I’ve had my lowest of lows, where I have deeply questioned myself, lost my confidence and struggled with my anxiety and mood. During these times I’ve felt that imposter syndrome the most; ‘who the heck am I to be helping people with their mental health when I have struggled so much with my own?!’ – What I always come back to is that I know I can get through it, I can survive hard times, I have before and I will continue to do so. And if this helps someone, then pushing through it all is worth it.

I also try to remind myself that I am human, I am worthy and enough as I am, and that I don’t have to be perfect or productive in the traditional sense all the time. I guess the thing about life is, that without the lows, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate the highs. I think about this too – and try to focus on the many things I have to be grateful for.

You wrote ‘Note to Self’ but on any given day, how many notes do you write to yourself? Do you have any favourite ones you go back to?

I surprisingly don’t write a lot of notes in the physical sense but I am all about the mental notes and affirmations. I try to remind myself things like “I am enough”, “I can allow this feeling to be”, “I don’t have to fix it”, “this will pass” … When I feel anxious or stressed I will remind myself things like “this feeling is a message to me, what is it trying to say?”, “I’ve felt this feeling before and survived it”, “I can do hard things, even if I feel stressed or worried”, “I am capable of allowing this feeling to be”, “I don’t need to buy in to my anxiety”, “I breathe in and ground myself”.

Illustration from Rebekah’s instagram page, it reads: “Note to self: I was doing the best I could at the time with what I knew”.


What is your book ‘Note To Self’ at its core really about and who is it for?  What is your dream for your work? What do you hope to accomplish with putting this book out into the world?

Note to Self is like what you would get if you opened up my brain and looked in the ‘how to manage anxiety’ folder! Although, it’s not just anxiety… It's like a map for navigating stress, depression, worry…. All sorts. It’s all of my absolute favourite tools, affirmations, tips, techniques and little wisdoms that I have either used with clients, used to help myself navigate hard times and learned from both my studies and my personal experience. It’s stuff that has been truly useful to me, or the people I’ve worked with.

My dream for this work is that it helps people. If someone can read it and have an “ah ha” moment; I’m happy. If it ends up in counselling wait rooms in schools, on coffee tables, tucked under arms to read on the bus commute, passed from friend to friend, gifted to those struggling or grabbed to read during a work break or at the end of a shitty day – and if during these times it serves as a reminder of how to cope, of tools that will shift you, of ways you can get back on track again… then I am OVER the freaking moon. I want it to be ear marked, coffee-ring-stained and thoroughly used.

Sometimes I get a message from a teacher in a school that they use my work with the students every day, or an email telling me that the anxiety tools are helping their teenager daughter, or a DM on Insta from a follower saying that they have been in a bad place and my page has helped them feel good again… these messages make my heart just burst with happiness and feel so connected to the complete normality and humanness that is the ups and downs of life.

Rebekah reading her book “Note To Self” in a field of orange and purple flowers and grass

We tend to assume a lot of things about people that we see online, especially people whose lives are laid bare whether through social media and other outlets. Could you share some insights about the stuff you are going through now?

It’s been a journey…

Back in 2015 I was diagnosed with a pituitary tumour (that’s a spot in the brain). It was producing excess hormones and the whole thing threw me for a loop. It was around that time that I had my first panic attack. I remember vividly, I was in the middle of a counselling session with a young client and her mother. I was stressed with the health stuff, and maybe also with being watched in session early in my career and afraid I was being judged… whatever it was, something triggered a massive panic attack. I tried to hide it and excused myself from the room.

Everything was spinning, my heart was beating out of my chest, I felt like I was going to pass out and every fibre of my being was telling me to run. I knew what it was… after all, it was what I trained in and worked with. But I didn’t expect it to happen to me. I had always had times of struggling with anxiety, but this was new and a whole other level. I somehow forced myself to go back into the room once it subsided and finish the session. Somehow, the client and her mother hadn’t noticed. But this was the beginning of many more panic attacks to come, always in the worst and most public ways.

My next panic attack was when I was putting an offer in to buy a house with the real estate agents. The one after that was in the middle of a job interview (I somehow got the job… I had been developing ways to manage and work through the panic attacks without running from the room!). All my training in mental health and anxiety ended up being my saviour… I knew that If I gave in to the panic attacks, if I shrunk away and stopped doing things that I thought could cause them, that my world would shrink along with it. I knew I had to gather up all my tools, all the ways I knew to ground, calm, cope and centre myself, and most importantly to continue to face these fears.

I went on to give public talks at the school to rooms full of parents about anxiety, whilst simultaneously having a panic attack… dry retching up until the very second I got on stage… But I did it, and each time I did it I felt good, like I had conquered it. I haven’t spoken publicly in a while now as I have been off work, but have the Note to Self book launch coming up and I am more than open to the nerves – I know that facing fears and pushing through is the best way. And I know that even if I do have a panic attack, it won’t kill me! I actually feel that having experienced this is a gift, it has enriched and fuelled my passion for creating the resources I do, and the experience has helped me to write/illustrate this book and to help others.

It’s not just anxiety and panic that I have experienced, after my daughter was born I waded through a horrible patch of post natal depression – It was a struggle. And I hope that mothers (and fathers) know they are not alone and that there is help out there.

This whole year has been really tough – I lost my dearest Pop recently and shortly afterwards I lost my beautiful dog of 11 years in a very traumatic way. While battling the grief, a children’s book I illustrated and helped to write was signed by a publisher – so it’s been some INSANE ups and downs. Learning to ride waves emotions from despair to elation all within the same day!

In terms of my history that lead me to where I am, I lost my uncle to suicide when I was 20.  Growing up my Mum battled anxiety, times of agoraphobia, panic attacks and periods of depression. Despite this, she was and is one of the most humble, strong, loving, selfless and beautiful people I know. She has been an inspiration to me, and perhaps one of the driving factors behind my decision to work in mental health. Having lived first hand my own struggles, and witnessing hers throughout my childhood, I feel acutely aware of the importance of our wellbeing. I believe self-compassion, support, being gentle with yourself, kind to yourself and others, making mistakes and learning from them, and striving towards the belief that you are intrinsically worthy are all keys to that wellbeing.

Who are some other authors & illustrators that you really look up to and admire?

Since having my daughter and working at the business all hours I can I have been barely doing any reading of my own these days! And prior to that all my reading was ‘boring’ clinical books for counselling and therapeutic interventions! However, I do enjoy the work of Charlie Mackesy, I’m currently reading Matt Haig, I like the art of Amanda Oleander, David Roberts and Dan Crisp (because the only books I read these days are children’s books… the same ones over and over…. So I am thankful for the beautiful illustrations to be inspired by!) I’ve also recently teamed up with Kiwi mama and writer Jess Urlichs and we have a children’s book about feelings coming out next year with a special section I wrote for parents/teachers on how to further explore feelings with the littlies.

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