“We live in a nervous society – a society that’s likely to get on our nerves.” This is the conclusion author Matt Haig has come to over the past couple of years. His thinking is (even if you don’t have a diagnosed condition of anxiety) that how you live – in fact, the very basis of modern life – may be making you anxious.
The reason? Our biology hasn’t kept pace with technology. In his new book, Notes On A Nervous Planet, he's very funny about the supermarket, for example, which, he informs us, is one of the most common places to have a panic attack. He imagines a caveperson, defrosted after 50,000 years, arriving in a supermarket – what she’d think of the automatic doors, lights, colours, trolleys, the “shining shelves of plastic packaged goods” and the repeat soundtrack of “unexpected item in the bagging area”. She’d freak out, right? “It helps me to know I am just a caveman in a world that has arrived faster than our minds and bodies expected.”
Haig’s previous book, Reasons To Stay Alive, told the story of his own mental health, beginning with the onset of a panic disorder in Ibiza when he was 24, then bouts of serious depression. Published three years ago, its simple format and beautiful honesty has made it the go-to read for anyone who’s struggling. You can still see it being passed around on social media.
Around two years ago, Haig noticed his anxiety symptoms were back. Having overhauled his life in search of calm – yoga, exercising, eating and sleeping regularly – he turned his attention to his overuse of social media, specifically Twitter, but also technology in general, consumerism, the news cycle and how they're tapping into his anxious tendencies.
In Notes On A Nervous Planet, Haig unpicks how society is set up for us to want more, to do more, buy more, to be better or different – in other words, the exact opposite of calm.
It’s about being aware of and mindful of the things that are bad for you, and how much time you’re spending or wasting doing these things
Even if you think you love every moment of being online and on your smartphone, it can cause “mental fallout”, he says. But there’s an upside of knowing we live in an anxious world. Because once you can see what you’re doing isn’t helping, you can change it. “It’s about being aware of and mindful of the things that are bad for you, and how much time you’re spending or wasting doing these things,” says Haig. So, with that in mind, what is making us anxious?
1 Separating mind and body
Do you sometimes forget that what you are doing to your body you are also doing to your mind? You might be resigned to tiredness the day after a 2am Netflix binge, but what about the knock-on panic or paranoia? “Brains are physical,” says Haig. “We do not have bodies. We are bodies.” His solution to helping both physical and mental health? Getting some light each day, a regular sleep time and routine, a little nature, eating well (especially breakfast) – it might sound boring, but it is what your brain (and body) needs.
2 Using your phone for distraction
“There’s one thing I’ve done since writing this book that sounds such a small thing but it’s been a big thing for me: I never charge my phone by my bed any more,” says Haig. Like most of us, he used to keep his phone by the bed and, when he woke, he’d reflex-scroll. “Now, I keep my phone charged in the kitchen, so I actually have to go downstairs and have breakfast before I check emails and everything else.” It’s not about giving up social media – it’s about being aware. “It’s so easy to lose yourself. Social media plays around with time in your head,” he says. Haig himself confesses he’s lost whole weekends to Twitter. One way to overcome this is to set goals before you start scrolling. “Do you want to spend five hours traipsing through social media feeds and getting distracted, or do you want to actually communicate with someone or learn something?” posits Haig.
3 Ticking off the to-do list
Do you have any time when you’re not working, thinking, ticking off tasks, answering emails or on social media? It’s probably time to change that. “It doesn’t have to be meditation – it could be yoga, it could just be sitting looking out of the window, it could be writing a poem, it could be reading a book,” advises Haig. It’s whatever gives you the space to just be. “We might have to unplug ourselves, to find kind of a stripped-back acoustic version of us.”
4 Sliding Doors thinking
Do you ever look back and think, “What if I’d taken that job/finished that course/married that bloke who now has that lovely house in Majorca?” We have a tendency to wonder “What if?” about anything we feel we’re lacking. The trouble with “what ifs” is they take you out of the present, says Haig: “We’re all constantly seeing other people’s lives on social media and we’re always looking at the sort of parallel lives of ourselves, too. But it’s very dangerous and depressing to get into that game.” His mantra on how to be happy? “Do not compare yourself with other people.” And that includes other versions of you.
5 Too much of a good thing
Perhaps it isn’t that surprising to you that having too much stuff and too many choices is anxiety-provoking. Panic is a kind of overload and we have an excess of everything in life, says Haig, but sometimes wanting more is nothing more than a habit: “Tips for better living are often about what to add to your life – to go to the gym or eat a certain food or do whatever – but actually I think it’s more about taking away, about stripping back because we’re so overloaded.” Try to consciously want less. “The act of wanting things we don’t need makes us feel a lack we don’t have. Everything you need is here.”