A STRESSED-OUT MIND IN A STRESSED-OUT WORLD
A conversation, about a year ago
I was stressed out.
I was walking around in circles, trying to win an argument on the internet. And Andrea was looking at me. Or I think Andrea was looking at me. It was hard to tell, as I was looking at my phone.
"What's up?" she asked, in the kind of despairing voice that develops with marriage. Or marriage to me.
"You haven't looked up from your phone in over an hour. You're just walking around, banging into furniture."
My heart was racing. There was a tightness in my chest. Fight or flight. I felt cornered and threatened by someone on the internet who lived over 8,000 miles away from me and who I would never meet, but who was still managing to ruin my weekend. "I'm just getting back to something."
"Matt, get off there."
The thing with mental turmoil is that so many things that make you feel better in the short term make you feel worse in the long term. You distract yourself, when what you really need is to know yourself.
An hour later, in the car, Andrea glanced at me in the passenger seat. I wasn't on my phone, but I had a tight hold of it, for security, like a nun clutching her rosary.
"Matt, are you okay?"
"You look lost. You look like you used to look, when . . ."
She stopped herself saying "when you had depression" but I knew what she meant. And besides, I could feel anxiety and depression around me. Not actually there but close. The memory of it something I could almost touch in the stifling air of the car.
"I'm fine," I lied. "I'm fine, I'm fine . . ."
Within a week I was lying on my sofa, falling into my eleventh bout of anxiety.
A life edit
I was scared. I couldn't not be. Being scared is what anxiety is all about.
The bouts were becoming closer and closer. I was worried where I was heading. It seemed there was no upper limit to despair.
I tried to distract myself out of it. However, I knew from past experience alcohol was off limits. So I did the things that had helped before to climb out of a hole. The things I forget to do in day-to-day life. I was careful about what I ate. I did yoga. I tried to meditate. I lay on the floor and placed my hand on my stomach and inhaled deeply-in, out, in, out-and noticed the stuttery rhythm of my breath.
But everything was difficult. Even choosing what to wear in the morning could make me cry. It didn't matter that I had felt like this before. A sore throat doesn't become less sore simply because you've felt it before.
I tried to read, but found it hard to concentrate.
I listened to podcasts.
I watched new Netflix shows.
I went on social media.
I tried to get on top of my work by replying to all my emails.
I woke up and clasped my phone, and prayed that whatever I could find there could take me out of myself.
But-spoiler alert-it didn't work.
I began to feel worse. And many of the "distractions" were doing nothing but driving me further to distraction. In T. S. Eliot's phrase from his Four Quartets, I was "distracted from distraction by distraction."
I would stare at an unanswered email, with a feeling of dread, and not be able to answer it. Then, on Twitter, my go-to digital distraction of choice, I noticed my anxiety intensify. Even just passively scrolling my timeline felt like an exposure of a wound.
I read news websites-another distraction-and my mind couldn't take it. The knowledge of so much suffering in the world didn't help put my pain in perspective. It just made me feel powerless. And pathetic that my invisible woes were so paralyzing when there were so many visible woes in the world. My despair intensified.
So I decided to do something.
I chose not to look at social media for a few days. I put an auto-response on my emails, too. I stopped watching or reading the news. I didn't watch TV. I didn't watch any music videos. Even magazines I avoided. (During my initial breakdown, years before, the bright imagery of magazines always used to linger and clog my mind with feverish racing images as I tried to sleep.)
I left my phone downstairs when I went to bed. I tried to get outside more. My bedside table was cluttered with a chaos of wires and technology and books I wasn't really reading. So I tidied up and took them away, too.
In the house, I tried to lie in darkness as much as possible, the way you might deal with a migraine. I had always, since I was first suicidally ill in my twenties, understood that getting better involved a kind of life edit.
A taking away.
As the minimalism advocate Fumio Sasaki puts it: "there's a happiness in having less." In the early days of my first experience of panic the only things I had taken away were booze and cigarettes and strong coffees. Now, though, years later, I realized that a more general overload was the problem.
A life overload.
And certainly a technology overload. The only real technology I interacted with during this present recovery-aside from the car and the cooker-were yoga videos on YouTube, which I watched with the brightness turned low.
The anxiety didn't miraculously disappear. Of course not.
Unlike my smartphone, there is no "slide to power off" function for anxiety.
But I stopped feeling worse. I plateaued. And after a few days, things began to calm.
The familiar path of recovery arrived sooner rather than later. And abstaining from stimulants-not just alcohol and caffeine, but these other things-was part of the process.
I began, in short, to feel free again.How this book came about
Most people know the modern world can have physical effects. That, despite advances, aspects of modern life are dangerous for our bodies. Car accidents, smoking, air pollution, a sofa-dwelling lifestyle, takeout pizza, radiation, that fourth glass of Merlot.
Even being at a laptop can pose physical dangers. Sitting down all day, getting an RSI. Once I was even told by an optician that my eye infection and blocked tear ducts were caused by staring at a screen. We blink less, apparently, when working on a computer.
So, as physical health and mental health are intertwined, couldn't the same be said about the modern world and our mental states? Couldn't aspects of how we live in the modern world be responsible for how we feel in the modern world?
Not just in terms of the stuff of modern life, but its values, too. The values that cause us to want more than we have. To worship work above play. To compare the worst bits of ourselves with the best bits of other people. To feel like we always lack something.
And as I grew better, by the day, I began to have an idea about a book-this book right here.
I had already written about my mental health in Reasons to Stay Alive. But the question now was not: why should I stay alive? The question this time was a broader one: how can we live in a mad world without ourselves going mad?News from a nervous planet
As I began researching I quickly found some attention- grabbing headlines for an attention-grabbing age. Of course, news is almost designed to stress us out. If it was designed to keep us calm it wouldn't be news. It would be yoga. Or a puppy. So there is an irony about news companies reporting on anxiety while also making us anxious.
Anyway, here are some of those headlines:
stress and social media fuel mental health crisis among girls (The Guardian)
chronic loneliness is a modern-day epidemic (Forbes)
facebook "may make you miserable," says facebook (Sky News)
"steep rise" in self-harm among teenagers (BBC)
workplace stress affects 73 percent of employees (The Australian)
stark rise in eating disorders blamed on overexposure to celebrities' bodies (The Guardian)
suicide on campus and the pressure of perfection (The New York Times)
workplace stress rising sharply (Radio New Zealand)
will robots take our children's jobs? (The New York Times)
stress, hostility rising in american high schools in trump era (The Washington Post)
children in hong kong are raised to excel, not to be happy (South China Morning Post)
high anxiety: more and more people are today turning to drugs to deal with stress (El Pa’s)
army of therapists to be sent into schools to tackle anxiety epidemic (The Telegraph)
is the internet giving us all adhd? (The Washington Post)
"our minds can be hijacked": the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia (The Guardian)
teenagers are growing more anxious and depressed (The Economist)
instagram worst social media app for young people's mental health (CNN)
why are rates of suicide soaring across the planet? (Alternet)
As I said, it is ironic that reading the news about how things are making us anxious and depressed actually can make us anxious, and that tells us as much as the headlines themselves.
The aim in this book isn't to say that everything is a disaster and we're all screwed, because we already have Twitter for that. No. The aim isn't even to say that the modern world has uniformly worse problems than before. In some specific ways it is getting measurably better. In figures from the World Bank, the number of people worldwide living in severe economic hardship is falling radically, with over one billion people moving out of extreme poverty in the last thirty years. And think of all the millions of children's lives around the globe saved by vaccinations. As Nicholas Kristof pointed out in a 2017 New York Times article, "if just about the worst thing that can happen is for a parent to lose a child, that's about half as likely as it was in 1990." So for all the ongoing violence and intolerance and economic injustice prevalent in our species, there are-on the most global of scales-also reasons for pride and hope.
The problem is that each age poses a unique and complex set of challenges. And while many things have improved, not all things have. Inequalities still remain. And some new problems have arisen. People often live in fear, or feel inadequate, or even suicidal, when they have- materially-more than ever.
And I am keenly aware that the oft-used approach of pointing out a list of advantages of modern life, such as health and education and average income, does not help. It is like a wagging finger telling a depressed person to count her blessings because no one has died. This book seeks to recognize that what we feel is just as important as what we have. That mental well-being counts as much as physical well-being-indeed, that it is part of physical well-being. And that, on these terms, something is going wrong.
If the modern world is making us feel bad, then it doesn't matter what else we have going for us, because feeling bad sucks. And feeling bad when we are told there is no reason to, well, that sucks even more.
I want this book to put these stressed-out headlines in context, and to look at how to protect ourselves in a world of potential panic. Because, whatever else we have going for ourselves, our minds are still vulnerable. Many mental health problems are quantifiably rising, and-if we believe our mental well-being is important-we need, quite desperately, to look at what might be behind these changes.
Mental health problems are not:
A celebrity trend.
A result of a growing awareness of mental health problems.
Always easy to talk about.
The same as they always were.
Yin to the yang
So, it is a tale of two realities.
Many of us, it is true, have a lot to be grateful for in the developed world. The rise in life expectancy, the decline in infant mortality, the availability of food and shelter, the absence of major all-encompassing world wars. We have addressed many of our basic physical needs. So many of us live in relative day-to-day safety, with roofs over our heads and food on the table. But after solving some problems, are we left with others? Have some social advances brought new problems? Of course.
It sometimes feels as if we have temporarily solved the problem of scarcity and replaced it with the problem of excess.
Everywhere we look, people are seeking ways to change their lifestyles, by taking things away. Diets are the obvious example of this passion for restriction, but think also of the trend for dedicating whole months in the calendar to veganism or sobriety, and the growing desire for "digital detoxes." The growth in mindfulness, meditation and minimal living is a visible response to an overloaded culture. A yin to the frantic yang of 21st-century life.
Copyright © 2019 by Matt Haig. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.