MATT HAIG ON ANX­I­ETY

ls modern life to blame?

In the Moment - - Contents - Words: Sarah Orme

Ever picked up your phone and found that you’ve lost track of time while you scroll through your In­sta­gram feed? That’s just one of the ways that tech­nol­ogy is tak­ing over our lives, ac­cord­ing to au­thor Matt Haig.

“It’s very hard to stay mind­ful in con­tem­po­rary life be­cause we’ve got so many things to check,” he says. “We’re over­loaded with ev­ery­thing – books, mag­a­zines, TV shows, friends. We’re more con­nected than ever be­fore and we’ve got so many op­tions. It can be hard to step back and re­mem­ber who we are, but it’s cer­tainly pos­si­ble.”

In re­cent years, our re­la­tion­ship with tech­nol­ogy has changed rad­i­cally and it’s easy to de­velop a so­cial me­dia ad­dic­tion. “I’ve de nitely been ad­dicted to my phone,” ad­mits Matt. “I al­ways charged my phone by the bed, so I would wake up and check my emails, check my Twit­ter and In­sta­gram, check the news and end up just scrolling aim­lessly for ages – sud­denly, that’s an hour of my day gone. Then you’re not eat­ing break­fast at the right time and ev­ery­thing’s a bit more de­layed. It just swal­lows up time.” In Matt’s case, this com­pul­sive check­ing and scrolling trig­gered anx­i­ety at­tacks. “I used to get anx­i­ety when I’d been on the com­puter too much, but I didn’t re­alise that it had any­thing to do with it,” he says.

Sur­pris­ingly, this kind of fas­ci­na­tion with our tech­nol­ogy is far from new. Matt tells the story of 17th cen­tury di­arist Sa­muel Pepys who treated him­self to a new pocket watch: “He couldn’t stop tak­ing it out of his pocket – he was ob­sessed with telling the time. As we do with our smart phones, Pepys was con­stantly check­ing it and he ended up giv­ing it up be­cause it was driv­ing him crazy.”

So­cial me­dia can also dam­age our self-es­teem. When we’re on­line, it’s tempt­ing to com­pare our­selves to others. Matt says the prob­lem is that you’re look­ing at the per­fect parts of other peo­ple’s lives – the care­fully-pre­sented parts. “We’ve be­come mag­a­zines of our­selves and our own lit­tle per­sonal fan clubs of our­selves. We can al­ways see and feel our worst bits, but we’re look­ing at every­one else’s best bits,” he says. When we re ect on our best mo­ments, they’re of­ten not cap­tured by a pho­to­graph be­cause we were too busy en­joy­ing our­selves. “Some­one who is In­sta­gram­ming about a great ex­pe­ri­ence isn’t nec­es­sar­ily hav­ing a great ex­pe­ri­ence,” he adds.

It can be di cult to nd a bal­ance be­tween the bene ts of tech­nol­ogy and the im­pact on our health. There are some pos­i­tives: so­cial me­dia al­lows us to nd sup­port when we’re strug­gling with our men­tal health and to nd our own tribes on­line. “When I rst be­came ill with de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety, which was be­fore the age of so­cial me­dia, I kind of wish I’d had it,” Matt says. “One of the things, cer­tainly when you feel bad in life, is that you of­ten feel very alone.”

Matt is very aware of his own men­tal health. At the age of 24, he be­came de­pressed and anx­ious, which

led him to at­tempt sui­cide. Dur­ing his re­cov­ery, he strug­gled with panic at­tacks, which could be trig­gered by some­thing as small as a walk to the shops.

“I used to be re­ally bad at su­per­mar­kets when I rst had anx­i­ety. The rst di­ag­no­sis I ever got was panic dis­or­der, which ba­si­cally means you’re hav­ing panic at­tacks a lot, and when you’re not hav­ing them, you’re just an­tic­i­pat­ing the next one. Even when I got over that, I would have the oc­ca­sional panic at­tack, of­ten in su­per­mar­kets,” he says. “We were liv­ing in Leeds at the time. We would go to the lo­cal Mor­risons and I’d be OK and feel­ing quite strong, but within ve min­utes of be­ing in­side, I would panic and get stressed. There were lots of things that could trig­ger it – there’s the arti cial light­ing, for one. A lot of su­per­mar­kets don’t have any nat­u­ral light.”

Su­per­mar­kets are a com­mon anx­i­ety trig­ger be­cause the en­vi­ron­ment is over­stim­u­lat­ing. Ev­ery­where you look, brand­ing com­petes for your at­ten­tion. “You’re in the ul­ti­mate con­sumer en­vi­ron­ment, be­ing pre­sented with ev­ery­thing that you could be buy­ing,” ex­plains Matt. “Our con­sumer choices aren’t just about what we need to eat, they’re choices about who we are. We’re ba­si­cally sur­rounded by a mil­lion life choices when we go into a su­per­mar­ket.”

Too much choice can be an­other trig­ger for anx­i­ety. Matt re­calls that when his men­tal health was poor, even choos­ing what to wear in the morn­ing was a stress­ful ex­pe­ri­ence.

“I can re­mem­ber when I was re­ally de­pressed, all those daily de­ci­sions were so hard. You can just sit there star­ing at your sock drawer won­der­ing what to wear.” The philoso­pher Soren Kierkegaard once re­ferred to anx­i­ety as ‘the dizzi­ness of free­dom’, and it does seem that hav­ing too much choice can make us tense, even if our men­tal health is gen­er­ally good.

Keep­ing calm in modern life is di cult and even our sleep is un­der threat from a sur­pris­ing source. “I love watch­ing Net ix and stream­ing TV shows, but that’s hav­ing an im­pact on our sleep. Re­cently the head of Net ix said that his main com­peti­tor isn’t an­other TV com­pany – it’s sleep,” says Matt. “Sleep is where they can make their money. If peo­ple aren’t go­ing to bed un­til 2am be­cause they’re watch­ing the lat­est show, that will boost their busi­ness model.”

Gad­gets can also stop us from fall­ing asleep – the blue light emit­ted by our screens dis­rupts our cir­ca­dian rhythms and makes it harder to nod o . If you’re in the habit of giv­ing your phone one last check be­fore bed, it might be a good idea to give your­self a phone cur­few. “The World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion – which has de­clared a sleep loss epi­demic in in­dus­tri­alised na­tions – rec­om­mends that we sleep for seven to nine hours a night. But not that many of us do,” Matt says. And this lack of sleep in­evitably a ects our men­tal and phys­i­cal health. “In an­other 150,000 gen­er­a­tions hu­mans might evolve and adapt to un­nat­u­ral light, but right now our bod­ies and minds are still the same bod­ies and minds of those hu­mans who ex­isted be­fore Edi­son patented his light­bulb. In other words, we need our sleep.”

When Matt be­came aware of how badly his phone was dis­rupt­ing his sleep, he re­alised he had to make some changes in his life and learn to dis­con­nect. He ad­mits that he hasn’t found this easy. He used to get sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety when he couldn’t get hold of his

part­ner, An­drea, and he found it di cult to be on his own: “We think that phones have made that bet­ter, but it’s ac­tu­ally made it worse, be­cause now if I phone some­one and I can’t get through then I’ll start to worry about them. If I’m out with­out my phone, I think: ‘What could hap­pen? I could sud­denly have a heart at­tack and what would I do?’” In the past, we wouldn’t have wor­ried too much if we couldn’t reach some­one, but now if we’re not able to get through, it can make us panic.

For thou­sands of gen­er­a­tions we’ve man­aged with­out this tech­nol­ogy, and Matt nds it strange how quickly we’ve come to de­pend on it. It’s now be­come a bur­den, when it was al­ways in­tended to make our lives eas­ier. “De­spite all the de­vices and tech­nol­ogy we’ve cre­ated, we don’t seem to have any more time,” he com­ments. “The fact that we’re so easy to con­tact as well has changed how we work. Week­ends, for in­stance, used to be a sa­cred space where no one con­tacted you. Now it’s not ab­nor­mal to get work emails on a Sun­day, or any time of the week. We’re not here to serve tech­nol­ogy. We’re not here to serve work. They’re both there to serve us, col­lec­tively. There’s some­times a risk in los­ing that.”

So how do we dis­con­nect our­selves from the sit­u­a­tions in modern life that can trig­ger anx­i­ety? For Matt, it’s the sim­ple things that can make a real di er­ence. He ad­vises lit­er­ally dis­con­nect­ing: “Go for a walk, with­out tak­ing your phone. I found that even dur­ing times when I was meant to be re­lax­ing, or in the zone – like walk­ing the dog – I’d be con­stantly check­ing. It’s amaz­ing what even a small amount of time away from tech­nol­ogy does. It al­lows you to re­con­nect with your­self.”

us­ing Clock­wise gad­gets from be­fore top:bed can hin­der sleep;Matt re­minds him­self todis­con­nect with a wittypoem; have we be­come tooat­tached to tech­nol­ogy?

Num­ber one best­seller Notes on a Ner­vous Planet by Matt Haig (Canon­gate, £12.99), is out now.

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