Matt Haig’s new book argues that the modern world is set up to drive us mad – so have his own experiences tackling anxiety and depression revealed how to stay sane in an insane world? Here are seven things RSNG learned from reading Notes On A Nervous Planet…
1. Overload Is Our Default State
Matt Haig admits he’s a nervous guy but he says that the way we live now, combined with technology, makes it far too easy to get mentally overloaded. ‘I sometimes feel like my head is a computer with too many windows open. There is a metaphorical spinning rainbow wheel inside me, disabling me,’ he writes. The trends for retreats, digital detoxes, diets and minimal living show that we generally have too much going on in our lives, rather than too little. ‘We might have to, sometimes, be brave enough to switch the screens in order to switch ourselves back on. To disconnect in order to reconnect.’
‘Consumerism is based on us wanting the next thing – this is an almost perfect recipe for unhappiness’
2. We’re Trained To Live In The Future
When it comes to advances in technology, as well as our own aspirations, Haig says we’re trained to ‘embrace the future’ and ‘let go’ of the past. ‘The whole of consumerism is based on us wanting the next thing, not the present thing that we already have. This is an almost perfect recipe for unhappiness,’ he says. By continually chasing a future state, and future targets, like passing an exam, getting a certain job, buying a certain house or achieving a set level of success, we’re effectively moving the goalposts on our own happiness; pushing it further away, rather than bringing it closer to us. ‘Maybe happiness isn’t about what we can get, maybe happiness is about what we already have.’
3. Feeling Good About Your Body Makes You Take Care Of It
The endless procession of six-packs on Love Island, on magazine covers and in adverts have made men more body-conscious, leading to appearance anxiety. Haig remembers how he used to do sets of 50 press-ups trying to look like Jean-Claude Van Damme, but at the same time hating his own body and being ashamed of it. He points to research by Professor Pamela Keel of Florida State University, which shows that if we feel less pressure about how our bodies look, then our minds benefit, and counterintuitively so do our bodies. ‘When people feel good about their bodies, they’re more likely to take better care of themselves than treating their bodies as enemies, or even worse, an object. That’s a powerful reason to rethink the kind of New Year’s resolutions we make,’ says Keel.
4. Social Media Becomes A Toxic Mirror
If you’ve ever got into an argument on social media, like Haig, then you will have experienced one of the basic neural routes in the brain that activate when we interact with others – we share it with other primates too. Neurobiologists call it mirroring and in a connected age the mirrors get bigger. So, when we argue online we are actually generating a shared emotional state – even though our views are polar opposites – which can quickly become compulsive.
‘When people feel scared after a horrific event, that fear spreads like digital wildfire. When people feel angry, that anger breeds.’ So, the next time you’re tempted to get into it with someone on Twitter ask yourself this: will this post really improve anyone’s life, or make me any less angry? Is this me, or my monkey brain talking?
5. Worldwide Shocks Can Become Personal Ones
In a world of rolling 24-hour news we’re under a constant barrage of shock, says Haig, pointing out that these shocks can then be stoked by political or commercial interests, in order to make hay while everyone else runs around in a screaming panic. So, how can we avoid being caught up in worldwide shock anxiety? Haig says that when someone goes through panic disorder, there comes a point where, in the process of recovery, you have to reach some kind of understanding and acceptance.
‘Not because it isn’t that bad. But precisely because it is that bad… At the bottom of the pit I always had to force myself to find the beauty, the goodness, the love, however hard it was to do. Change doesn’t just happen by focussing on the place you want to escape. It happens by focussing on where you want to reach.’
‘When I think too much, sleep too little, get too frazzled by life, there it is – an RSI injury of the mind’
6. It’s Hard To Sleep On A Nervous Planet
The World Health Organisation has declared a sleeplessness epidemic – wherever you are on the planet the chances are you aren’t getting enough kip. This is leading to increased risks of dying from heart disease, car accidents, cancer and Alzheimer's, while even the living will have impaired concentration, lowered sex drive and poor mental health. ‘The physical and mental impairments caused by one night of bad sleep dwarf those caused by an equivalent absence of food or exercise,’ say Matthew Walker in his book Why We Sleep.
Haig says that although we now live in 24-hour societies we don’t live in 24-hour bodies, and that sleep has become something to be suspicious of because it’s a time where we are not plugged in. ‘We are ruled by the clock, by the light bulb, by the glowing smartphone. By the insatiable feeling we are encouraged to have… Our happiness is just around the corner. A single purchase, or interaction, or click, away.’ He recommends ten minutes of very light yoga and slow breathing if you’re feeling anxious. But he also says research by Professor Daniel Forger has shown that the answer isn’t in having more lie-ins, but simply going to bed earlier. ‘The later people go to bed, the less sleep they get. Whereas what time you wake up in the morning makes surprisingly little difference.’
7. A Nervous Planet Can Give Your Mind RSI
As he has got older, Haig has realised that his experiences of being ill, having depression and panic attacks, didn’t just happen in isolation – there was a context. ‘When I fall into a frantic or despairing state of mind, full of unwelcome thoughts that can’t slow down… When I do too much, think too much, absorb too much, eat too badly, sleep too little, work too hard, get too frazzled by life, there it is. A repetitive strain injury of the mind.’
He has some recommendations for living in the 21st century and hot having a panic attack:
‘Declutter your mind. Panic is the product of overload. In an overloaded world we need a filter.’
‘Check on what you are doing. Do you need to watch the last episode of the series when it’s after midnight? Do you need that third or fourth glass of wine?’
‘If you feel panic rising the instinctive reaction is to panic some more. The trick is to try to feel panic without panicking about it.’
‘Breathe deep and breathe smooth. Concentrate on it. Breathing is the pace you set your life at… It’s how to get back to the centre of things. The centre of yourself.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch this animation from Matt Haig’s previous book, Reasons To Stay Alive.