Matt Haig on Depression, Anxiety, Panic, and Our Overconnected World

Novelist Matt Haig’s two short but powerful books cover his struggles and coping methods for mental illness — namely depression, in Reasons to Stay Alive, and anxiety in Notes on a Nervous Planet.

They both read blog-like — sometimes confessional, sometimes lists, here focusing on a brighter side and elsewhere acknowledging the depths these illnesses can drag you to.

I found them much more helpful than troubling, although of course that will be subjective for anyone depending on where you are mentally when reading them. His words will be more or less appealing depending on what you need to hear, and what soothes your own worries.

But both are light, quick, reassuring reads that have an overall effect of being helpful balms during this difficult year when we’ve all felt our mental health — and limits — tested.

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Notes on a Nervous Planet, published 2018

The question this time was a broader one: how can we live in a mad world without ourselves going mad?

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.

It was like a wagging finger telling a depressed person to count her blessings because no one has died.

Notes on a Nervous Planet was my favorite of the two. Haig feels the return of certain feelings that preceded his panic attacks and breakdowns described in Reasons to Stay Alive, but here he more closely examines what’s triggering him and what can be done to avoid getting caught in the worst depths of depression again, a frighteningly daunting prospect.

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.

The book spotlights our current state of technological reliance and ubiquitous social media, with its comparisons to others and the constant impression that we might be missing out on something or not living our best lives, or whatever we find ourselves taking from it in our worst, or vulnerable, moments.

A status update about a day in the park is not a day in the park. And the desire to tell the world about how happy you are is not how happy you are.

Although not all of Haig’s anxiety triggers might resonate, I was surprised by how many did. One such moment was when he wrote of how singularly terrifying it is to feel yourself back-sliding into a bad mental place: “I am petrified of where my mind can go, because I know where it has already been.”

Other surprising topics include the strangely common phenomenon of having panic attacks in supermarkets. If you’ve also gotten that sort of prodrome warning sign in such a setting, this was so reassuring, and humorous, to read.

As it is for many other animals, panic is our mind and body telling us to do something. Fight or flight. Run from the predator or fight the predator. But a supermarket is not a bear or a wolf or a cave-dwelling warrior. You can’t fight a supermarket. You can definitely run from one, but that will only increase your chance of having a panic attack the next time you have to go there.

His method is mainly to take a problem like this and lightly analyze what he’s learned about why it happens and how we can manage it, since we can’t avoid going to the supermarket and even if we use it sparingly, social media is a life staple, like it or not. It’s best to have as many tools to manage these stressors as possible, and Haig’s writing presents an arsenal.

With the supermarket stressor, he explores the concept of derealization —  what he describes as a feeling of disintegration, “like a sand sculpture crumbling away” that comes from being in “wholly unnatural places” like supermarkets and shopping centers, with unnatural light, humming refrigerators, a stressful overabundance of choice, and hyper-stimulating crowds and product packaging. Something about myself that I’d been embarrassed about or wanted to ignore and pretend didn’t happen suddenly made more sense to me, reading that. So these are books that, when those moments hit, will be immensely valuable and reassuring.

With social media, he emphasizes that a sure-fire way to reduce anxiety is turning off all notifications. I’d already done this and I enthusiastically second this recommendation. As he points out, you don’t need them. I can confirm you’ll check it less, think about it less, and suddenly, some of the anxiety around it starts melting away. Not all of it, but some, and that feels like a success.

Another big issue is fear of aging, both cosmetically and physically. This idea warmed my heart: “The problems you associate with old age might not be the problems you have. You aren’t Nostradamus. You don’t know what you will be like when you are old. You don’t know, for instance, if your mind will decline or if it will shine ever brighter, like Matisse, who produced some of his best works of art in his eighties.”

He also parses basic marketing and advertising functioning, like that there’s no profit in our being happy and satisfied with our appearance or selves in general, and reframing how we think about it — including being aware that older people themselves actually aren’t concerned with being old.

The way to get rid of age anxiety might be the way you get rid of all anxiety. By acceptance, not denial. Don’t fight it, feel it. Maybe don’t inject yourself with Botox. Do some knifeless mental surgery instead. Reframe your idea of beauty. Be a rebel against marketing. Look forward to being the wise elder. Be the complex elegance of a melting candle. Be a map with 10,000 roads. Be the orange at sunset that outclasses the pink of sunrise.

Remember no one really cares what you look like. They care what they look like. You are the only person in the world to have worried about your face.

He also makes an interesting point around sleep — that companies only benefit when we’re awake, which, of course, but did you realize how concerned they are about this? Getting less sleep is tacitly encouraged; after all, we can’t buy anything while we’re asleep, and Netflix’s chief executive, Reed Hastings, identified sleep as the streaming service’s biggest competitor.

Yes, sleep is even more of a threat to Netflix than other streaming services. That says so much. Not to mention a point Haig began making in Reasons to Stay Alive and expands on here: that happiness isn’t good for the economy, so it’s better if we’re always a little dissatisfied with ourselves and looking for ways to improve.

This did for me exactly what I think he intended it to  — it’s calming, reassures with small, simple things you can do to take care of yourself mentally in everyday situations and stressors, and was a little shoulder squeeze letting me know I’m not unreasonable or crazy in areas where I thought I might be. I loved it for all of that.

Reasons to Stay Alive, published 2015

Haig’s first nonfiction book is structured around his earlier reckonings with depression and learning what it is, how it manifests in him, and how to manage it. He looks back at some of his lowest points, which felt like an incredibly brave and scary thing to write about.

Although the structure is similar to that of Notes, it felt less organized here, perhaps because this seemed built out of journal-like attempts to understand something about himself and Notes focused more on external social influences and their mental effects.

But the research he incorporates as he begins to understand his depression was extremely helpful, even eye-opening for something I thought I already understood well.

As people who kill themselves are, more often than not, depressives, depression is one of the deadliest diseases on the planet. It kills more people than most other forms of violence — warfare, terrorism, domestic abuse, assault, gun crime — put together.

He captures so perfectly the feeling of depression returning after it’s lifted before: “I was better. I was better. A drop of ink falls into a clear glass of water and clouds the whole thing.” It felt triumphant, then, that his next nonfiction on this topic was such a helpful one: that he really was able to turn the struggle with mental illness into something constructive and so useful for others who are fighting the same battles.

And that fed into what was the most resounding message I took from this: although depression returns, it always lifts again. However bad it feels when it returns, it will pass and just being able to hold onto that thought can be a comfort in itself. He stresses this multiple times, multiple ways, and I’ve found myself thinking about it often. Neither book presents massive, jaw-dropping revelations or truths, just small, quiet ones that have become welcomely embedded in my thinking. That’s pretty much the best outcome books like these could have.

The portions that were more memoir-centric were less compelling, which feels unfair to say, but having read Notes first and knowing how well he could set up a situation and explain it with data and the kind of ideas I described above was more appealing. But he bares so much of his own struggle that’s undeniably helpful to know, and I’m impressed that he channeled it into these books. No small feat, and a much-appreciated one.

14 thoughts on “Matt Haig on Depression, Anxiety, Panic, and Our Overconnected World

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  1. Supermarket stressor, notes and the fear of aging how true about us facing challenges in coming to terms. Both books seem to be super interesting in addressing the issues. I have a depression and anxiety issue. Will add in my TBR List.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fantastic reviews! I loved Notes on a Nervous Planet but found Reasons To Stay alive really hard going and actually gave up on it. I read it first and was quite disappointed by my reaction, I scared me and made feel very down. I’m glad that I enjoyed Notes on a Nervous Planet so much more and found it extremely helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m kind of surprised you tried Notes after not liking Reasons to Stay Alive, because actually I’m not sure I would have read it if I’d read that one first! It did affect me a bit strangely too, I thought it was just because I’d felt so positively affected and helped by the other book. Good to hear I wasn’t alone there and glad you got so much from Notes too!!

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