How to Reduce Anxiety in Our Nervous World

A psychiatrist’s take on author Matt Haig’s wise recommendations

Posted Feb 12, 2019

Pixabay Public Domain
Source: Pixabay Public Domain

Someone with severe anxiety—particularly if they have recurrent panic attacks—is like the proverbial canary in the coal mine.  Because of increased sensitivity, such a person can be a sensor that more easily detects changes in the environment that are toxic for everyone.

Matt Haig is such a person. He learned to deal with recurrent panic attacks and thrive despite them.  As a survival mechanism, he identified the specific stressors lurking in our current hyped-up environment. Then, he developed strategies to decrease their power so they don’t set off anxiety.

You may think you know what many of these are, and likely you do. Examples are: social media; the 24-hour news cycle that keeps hitting us with one catastrophe after another; being glued to our cell phones, and more. However, when we read about these, we usually say: ‘Yup, that’s right” and then keep on doing what we usually do.

But not so after one reads, as I did, Matt Haig’s latest book:  Notes on a Nervous Planet. In a charming, easy-to-read but serious fashion, he presents the evidence so persuasively that it makes one realize how toxic our environment truly is. Then, he shares the changes in thinking and behavior he himself implemented, in order to aid us in making these changes for ourselves.

Here are some of the key recommendations Matt Haig makes.

Increase your Awareness

  • Our technologies keep changing, at a pace that is stressful for us to adapt to.
  • Realize how cluttered our lives are with pop-up consumer ads, news overload, and information overload. And how unmanageable that feels.
  • See the collective madness around us and realize how much of the stress we feel is from the culture in which we live. This collective stress magnifies our personal anxieties.
  • Realize how commerce and technology keep pressuring us to change our goals and behaviors.  Instead, we can make our own decisions and choices, and tune out the rest.
  • Consider how many times a day you look at your cell phone. What catastrophe could happen if you looked at it just five or ten times a day. 

Inoculate yourself for self-protection

  • Resist being conditioned to want more.
  • You cannot use all the apps that are out there.
  • You can’t be up to speed on all the news.
  • You can’t watch every must-see show. You can’t keep up with each latest ‘buzz’ thing.
  • Accept that negative comments about you or your ideas will appear with people you engage with on social media.
  • Don’t let yourself feel inadequate in the midst of the self-promotion by others who seemingly are more productive, more beautified, etc.

Use the Internet well 

  • Use the clock on the computer to keep track of how long you are spending time on it.
  • Download a user app to help limit social media use.
  • Arguing with strangers online to try and change their mind is usually both ineffective and stressful.
  • Be more considerate to strangers online, which is beneficial to you and them.
  • Don’t use social media when you are not enjoying it.
  • Find internet communities and support groups. These will be people like yourself with similar interests and concerns that will understand you better and be less judgmental.  (As a psychiatrist and novelist with a focus on the psychological wounds resulting from infertility and miscarriage, I can vouch for the positive benefits I see for people in the support groups specifically for those with these traumas.)

Choose your subjective world

  •  You can’t change most of the world, but you can find the version of the world that suits you best. You can change your perspective on it. You can select the parts of the world you let get in. 
  • This might include looking at the news less, engaging with social media less, and adding activities that increase you sense of well-being and resilience.
  • Some ways to do this are described in the next few sections.

Seek out Nature

  • There is a calming feeling from being in nature and sensing you are part of a great natural order.
  • Seek out the ‘blue and green’ colors of nature. (Even in a city when not near parks, there are often shrubs around buildings and trees planted along sidewalks. Looking up and watching tree  branches swaying in the breeze can provide a minute of relaxation and mind-clearing.)

Make moments when you are set to ‘neutral’

  •  Just breathe. Don’t crave anything except what you already have: life itself.

Reading fiction is freedom

  • “It gives you the room to exist beyond the reality you’re given.” In addition, there is always some kind of truth in fiction, and it is a connection to the imagination of another person.
  • Matt Haig is also a novelist – (How To Stop Time, for example), as am I (The End of Miracles). As authors, we are well aware that there are about two hundred million print books alone that are also vying for readers’ attention, many of them fiction.  But as readers, we realize we are all drowning in books, as we are drowning in TV shows.  So we need to ignore the feeling that we may miss some good ones, and instead concentrate on the pleasures of the ones we choose.