Is modern life making us anxious?

What is modern life and new technology doing to our brains and bodies? Matt Haig tells us about his book Notes on a Nervous Planet

Thoughtful woman holding a phone

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.

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“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 definitely 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.”

Notes on a Nervous Planet author Matt Haig
Notes on a Nervous Planet author Matt Haig
Getty Images/Roberto Riciutti

How technology triggers anxiety

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 reflect 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 difficult to find a balance between the benefits of technology and the impact on our health.

There are some positives: social media allows us to find support when we’re struggling with our mental health and to find our own tribes online.

“When I first 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 first had anxiety. The first 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 five minutes of being inside, I would panic and get stressed. There were lots of things that could trigger it – there’s the artificial 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.

Woman reading a tablet in bed
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How technology disrupts our sleeping patterns

Keeping calm in modern life is difficult and even our sleep is under threat from a surprising source. “I love watching Netflix and streaming TV shows, but that’s having an impact on our sleep. Recently the head of Netflix 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 off. 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 affects 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 difficult 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 finds 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.

Woman busy typing on a laptop
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“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 difference. 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.”

Listen to the In The Moment Magazine podcast

Last year we caught up with Matt Haig on the In The Moment Magazine podcast to talk about his experiences with anxiety and his book, Notes on a Nervous Planet.

Listen to our interview with Matt on most major podcast apps including Apple Podcasts, Acast, Castbox, Spotify and Stitcher. Or you can listen online using the player above.

Illustration of a woman meditating

How to exist in the 21st century and not have a panic attack

Matt Haig shares his tried and tested advice to help you stay calm.

1

Check in

Keep an eye on yourself. Be your own friend. Be your own parent. Be kind to yourself. Check on what you are doing. Do you need to watch the last episode of the series when it is after midnight? Do you need that third or fourth glass of wine? Is that really in your best interests?

2

Simplify things

Declutter your mind. Panic is the product of overload. In an overloaded world, we need to have a filter. We need to simplify things. We need to disconnect sometimes. We need to stop staring at our phones. To have moments of not thinking about work. A kind of mental feng shui.

3

Soothing sounds

Listen to calm noise; things that aren’t as stimulating as music. Think waves, your own breath, a breeze through the leaves, the purr of a cat, and best of all: rain.

4

Inhale, exhale

Breathe. Breathe deep and pure and smooth. Concentrate on it. Breathing is the pace you set your life at. It’s the rhythm of the song of you. It’s how to get back to the centre of things. The centre of yourself. When the world wants to take you in every other direction. It was the first thing you learned to do. The most essential and simple thing you do. To be aware of breath is to remember you are alive.

5

Find acceptance

Accept feelings. And accept that they are just that: feelings.

6

Make panic your pal

If you feel panic rising, the instinctive reaction is to panic some more; to panic about the panic. The trick is to try to feel panic without panicking about it. This is nearly – but not quite – impossible. My panic disorder was de ned by frequent panic attacks and the continuous hellish fear of the next one. By the time I’d had hundreds of panic attacks, I began to tell myself I wanted them. I didn’t, obviously. But I used to work hard at trying to invite the panic – as a test, to see how I could cope. The more I invited it, the less it wanted to stay around.

7

Gently does it

Don’t grab life by the throat. As the writer Ray Bradbury said: “Life should be touched, not strangled“.

8

Move it

Stretch and exercise. Panic is physical as well as mental. For me, running and yoga help more than anything else.

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

This article was originally published in In The Moment Magazine, issue 16. Discover our latest subscription offer, or buy back issues online.

In The Moment 16 cover