A Nervous Planet

So this week I thought I’d share a book gifted to me at the beginning of the year that I just recently finished reading. I’ve always been a bit of a bookworm especially growing up, but I don’t always manage to make time for it anymore. I still can’t resist popping into Waterstones if I’m passing though. ‘I’ll be quick’ I tell myself and whoever I’m with. Something I know neither of us believes. I’ll then spend far too long wandering around the store collecting book after book in my arms, knowing I can’t buy them all but maybe if I take a few more laps around the store I can pretend differently. Inevitably, it’ll be time to leave and I have to go around putting each book back, reminding myself I already have a long list of books at home waiting to be read anyway. The last time I did this back in December, Matt Haig’s ‘Notes on a Nervous Planet’ was one I happened to pick up. With my bank balance at the time giving a resounding NO to the prospect of buying it, instead, I decided to ask for it as a Christmas present from my parents and they didn’t disappoint. Since then I’ve had it sitting on my shelf at uni and for the past few months I’ve been dipping in and out of it whenever I’ve had the chance to. I’m here to tell you that it’s a worthwhile read for anyone with a nervous mind.

The author, Matt Haig, first slipped onto my radar with his first best selling book, ‘Reasons to stay alive’ which was praised for its thoughtful and raw honesty. He has since followed up with this second book, ‘Notes on a Nervous Planet’ a beautifully perceptive and again, honest, take on modern day anxiety. I’ve always been a big advocate for the importance of mental health awareness. As Matt put’s it, “It is precisely not talking about problems that is itself a problem” and boy does he manage to talk about this nuanced problem well.

Within the first few pages Matt sums up perfectly what it feels like to be in a downward spiral of anxiety. Somehow he manages to put what I’ve always struggled with and always thought to be inexplicable into words. From that moment you feel reassured you’re in safe hands. He doesn’t just know what he’s talking about, he’s experienced it. He understands. This book isn’t a typical self-help book with perky quotes and a ‘can do attitude!’ where the author is so well put together you have your reservations they ever even struggled in the first place. Instead you are met with the voice of someone who immediately seems earnest and honest. There’s no question he’s coming from a place of not only experience but also sincerity. He’s not claiming to have it all figured out yet, he’s still on that journey and he’s sharing his findings with you along the way and you get a strong sense of this as you read.

“ – Inadequacy. I worry about a lack and I worry about how I can fill it. I often sense a metaphorical void inside me… The things I have thrown in the hole have often just deepened the hole.”

Matt Haig

Each chapter is relatively short, varying from a few pages to a single page side with a handful of words on it. He covers ground quickly but never fails to bring it all together. It’s essentially a collection of thoughts and musing on the growing problem of anxiety. In the book Matt explains his approach. “I am trying to write about the messiness of the world and the messiness of minds by writing a deliberately messy book… Fragments that I hope together make a kind of whole. I hope it all makes sense. Or if it doesn’t make sense, I hope it makes nonsense in a way that might get you thinking.”

If you’re anything like me (once an avid book reader who now tragically struggles to take the time to sit down and open a book) it’s not just a fresh approach but also an easy layout to navigate.   

Breaking up such a huge topic, ‘Anxiety’, into manageable chunks allows you to dip in and out of the book at your leisure. It especially made it easier to read when I was anxious or my mind was elsewhere because, much like work, we all knowing it’s the getting started that’s the hardest part. I promise you once you start to read you won’t want to stop.

Early on Matt explains his intention with this book was to find the answers to his own question. That is, “how can we live in a mad world without ourselves going mad?” It’s a pretty large, seemingly impossible, question to answer but in an attempt to do so Matt tackles the three still pretty big questions; Why do we feel anxious? What’s causing it in a modern world? and most importantly, How do we deal with it? Of course he starts at the root, ‘why?’ and perceptively highlights a variety of triggering causes of anxiety. I found myself relating to near all of it and a sense of relief came rolling over me. “I’m not the only one”. This is what I found so special about this book. Matt’s words resonated with me on a level that was so refreshing. He talks so openly (and without sugar-coating) about his personal experiences, backed up with all the latest knowledge and stats whilst managing still to incorporate moments of lightness and humour.

Finding humour in pain is a difficult thing to do but Matt does it well. Don’t be fooled though, even when the book takes on a joking tone there never fails to be some perceptive truths very far away, just under the surface or between the lines. One of my favourites and one I found cut deep despite the silent laugh it brought to my face (you know the one, the sharp exhale that’s replaced actual laughter when we’re alone) was ‘how to own a smartphone and still be a functioning human being’. In particular tip #7. ‘Don’t put your phone by the bed.’ A simple enough suggestion yet within the humour of this section he manages to hit very close to home. It’s the undeniable beauty of the book.

Within the book Matt also looks at how to cope with stress. Unplugging and taking a step back from the source of your stress is key. It’s seems simple enough, common sense really, but it also brought up an additional concept I hadn’t really considered before. That is, allowing yourself to unplug guilt free. It’s such a common component to anxiety, that whatever you are doing is the wrong choice. But whatever gives you peace of mind I can promise is definitely the right thing you should be doing.

For another significant portion of the book Matt looks at how easy it can be to feel overwhelmed from reading, watching, or listening to the news. But he also provides helpful insight including, ‘six ways to keep up with the news and not lose your mind.’ He touches on how the world can seem at times like a much scarier place, constantly changing and moving at an ever faster pace. But he points out that if our anxiety is in part a product of culture, we have the power to change this through our reaction to the culture. Even just simply being aware can make a huge difference. 

“- Even when the tide of society is pulling us in one direction it has to be possible – if that direction makes and keeps us unhappy – to learn to swim another way.”

Matt Haig

For me what springs to mind with this is social media. It’s a place that can either exacerbate doubts and worries or be a supportive influence depending on how you use it. 

I’m prone to migraines and headaches which my mum insists I inherited from her. Whether it’s even scientifically possible to be hereditary or not, what I do know is although straining my eyes (I need glasses) is a surefire way to bring on a migraine so is stressing out. Something which on bad days I can find myself doing pretty often. When a Migraine sets on they can make me feel nauseous, lightheaded, dizzy, and bright lights and noise is painful. It can set me back a whole day and at their worst it’s made me throw up. Leaving me to confine myself to a darkened room with some water and something cool placed on my forehead. I explain all this because I want to highlight not just the mental, but very real physical toll anxiety can have on a person. With stress induced migraines I sometimes don’t even notice I’m doing it, my subconscious is stressing about something minor and I only realise it when the early migraine symptoms start appearing and social media can be one of my biggest subconscious trigger. 

It might have something to do with the innate way these platforms are built to keep us engaged. It can end up feeling like a constant stream of images of people having more fun than you, achieving bigger and better things than you, being more popular or attractive than you. Everyone’s just trying to present themselves in the best light to everyone else, but we forget that when we see it. Instead we think it’s reality when it’s only a tiny snippet of that person’s life.

However, it might be easy to forget but we do have control over this. We have the deciding (and only) say in who we follow, what appears on our feeds. So stop following that person who makes you feel anxious or brings out your insecurities. Instead follow people who inspire you, make you feel good about yourself. What I’ve personally found as the biggest game-changer is following people who let you see behind the highlight reel. It helps you keep a sense of perspective that I’ve found hugely helpful for navigating these spaces in a healthy way.

“- Social Media. The socialisation of media has rapidly taken over our lives. For those of us using it, our pages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are magazines of us. How healthy can that be?”

Matt Haig

But it’s not just the type of content you’re consuming but also how you consume it. It’s easy to fall into a regular pattern of checking your phone. It’s harmless and everyone does it right? But its staggering how quickly this can build to the point you’re itching to check your phone every mildly quiet moment you have.

Remembered, social media is built to be addictive. So it’s no wonder that if I’m not careful I’ll find myself mindlessly scrolling, getting no enjoyment out of it, yet I can’t seem to stop until I reach the last post I saw. It might sound ridiculous but at its worst I find myself scrolling so fast the tweets become a bit of a blur, I’m not even reading half the tweets, just skim reading in an attempt to get to the first tweet I recognise from last being online. With Instagram as well it’s a compulsive urge to reach the moment where that little message pops up reassuring that “You’re all caught up”. The relief. I can click off the app now. I can put the phone down. Is it simply #FOMO? Or something more complicated. I don’t know but it’s definitely not how I want to be. But it turns out I’m not alone in feeling this way. In his book Matt explains how addictive our phone can be without us even realising.

A dopamine-addiction cycle. Maybe if we understood the checking is never fully satisfying we wouldn’t. Because there is no end to the uncertainty. There is no final checking of your phone.”

Matt Haig

There are many important topics Matt covers within this book and if I could I would easily dedicate a blog post to each and every one of them. Unfortunately however, this isn’t a ‘Matt Haig fan blog’ ,or at least it isn’t yet, so I will stick to mentioning just one more that stuck with me. The chapter ‘Goalposts’ where he brings up the notion of never being able to be happy or content as you are constantly taught to live in the future. You achieve your goal and suddenly you make a newer, bigger, shinier goal to achieve. The issue with this is that it can leave you constantly feeling inadequate and anxious about the future because nothing is ever enough. It is of course important and healthy to have goals in life, but as Matt points out it is easy to fall into the trap of placing your happiness out of reach. By equating your value and happiness to your achievements in such an endless way you are constantly placing your happiness in the future. In the ‘when I do this I’ll be happy’, ‘If I could just get that…I’ll be happy.’ And if your happiness only exists in the hypothetical future you can never be happy in the present. In the right now with what you do have. It’s a form of ‘reverse mindfulness’ as Matt calls it. This mentality also all too often leads to burnout culture which he refers to as “a repetitive strain injury of the mind.”

“ – It is no surprise that when we feel as if we are failing – which is almost continually in an aspirational culture that thrives on raising the bar of our happiness – we take it personally. And think it is down to ourselves.”

Matt Haig

In the end what I think the biggest take away I have gained from reading “Notes on a Nervous Planet” would be that the best ways to combat and survive an anxious brain in an increasingly stressful world is to be kinder to yourself but also more aware. Take note of what bothers you, accept that you can’t be perfect but try to make even the smallest of changes where you can that will help. You don’t have to have everything in order or achieve perfection. “I believe it is possible to be a happy mess. Or, at least, a less miserable mess. A mess who can cope.”

To learn the rest of Matt Haig’s insightful words of wisdom in what is a truly brilliant book you’ll just have to read it for yourself. But if I can leave you with one final thought…and simply because Matt Haig really does say it best, it is this:

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