Why we feel anxious without knowing why

Matt Haig, author of "Notes on a Nervous Planet," has a theory for what's happened to humans' mental health

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published January 23, 2019 7:23PM (EST)

"Notes on a Nervous Planet" by Matt Haig (Canongate/Ken Lailey)
"Notes on a Nervous Planet" by Matt Haig (Canongate/Ken Lailey)

Life is hard. Historically speaking, that has always been true for humans — and while life in the 21st century is a lot easier than it was in Cro-Magnon days, many of us still feel off and unhappy. Indeed, in 2017, one poll found that only 33% of Americans said they were "happy." The particular reasons people are unhappy are so complex that they can appear bodiless at times, which only makes things more confusing. 

Author Matt Haig did not begin his career intending to become an expert on this phenomenon. Initially, Haig was a writer of fiction and children’s books; as he moved towards writing more personally about depression, he become a leading voice on what it was like to live with crippling anxiety and depression. His first non-fiction book on mental health, entitled "Reasons Reasons to Stay Alive," chronicled his struggle with depression. It is only appropriate that his follow-up, "Notes on a Nervous Planet" (which goes on sale in the U.S. on January 29), examines anxiety as a consequence of today’s over-connected world.

Readers who have experienced anxiety without a tangible cause will find comfort in Haig’s words and vulnerability. Haig articulates much of what isn’t working for humans in today’s world while refraining from being too cynical. Climate change, the news, technology, and the human desire to always want more are taking a toll on our mental health, Haig explains. “The paradox of modern life is this: we have never been more connected and we have never been more alone,” he writes. Haig's book is not a “how-to” guide on how to navigate the chaos; rather, Haig believes the mere act of identifying the problem can help one find the solution itself.

In this interview, we discuss his forthcoming book "Notes on a Nervous Planet," what plagues humans in this modern world, the importance of sleep, and more.

 Editor's Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Nicole Karlis: I’m curious about the structure of the book. Some chapters move between your own epiphanies, streams of consciousness, to instructions on how to survive in this rapidly changing world. Can you explain more about the meaning — if there is one — behind the structure of the book, and why you chose to present it in a frenetic way?

Matt Haig: I’ve written two books now directly about my own mental health. Generally, before that, I [wrote] a lot of novels and fiction which were more conventionally structured, I suppose. With these books, I have a very clear reader in mind, and that’s myself when I’m in a depressed state or a highly anxious state. I’m writing something as clearly as possible to try and get inside someone’s frazzled brain.

Would you consider your book to be “self-help”?

It is often considered to be self-help, I suppose, but that is kind of a limiting title. It has elements of self-help, but I would think the difference is that self-help, to me, has connotations of someone having all the answers, and preaching to people and saying, “This is exactly how you should live your life and follow me.” Sometimes it can be great, but for me, I don’t see myself as a self-help author because I’m trying to work it out for myself. My mental health is not in a state of permanent wellness. In terms of the stuff about technology in the book, for instance, I’m not the best person at Twitter. Indeed, my relationship with social media was one of the reasons why I wanted to write this book, because I was starting to realize how many 21st century things impact my mental health.

In the beginning of the book, you say it is hard to go into your mind, the dark corners, because of anxiety and depression. In my opinion, for this book, you were able to do that. Can you share more about what that creative process is like, and how you’re able to do that and stay healthy at the same time?

Yes. It’s really interesting actually. Even when I became a professional writer, for years, I couldn’t write about my mental health. I think it was initially a blog post that is when I sort of came out and wrote about my experience, suicidal depression and various other things. It’s one of those strange things that you’re scared to talk about it. You imagine there’s going to be some negative consequence, although you don’t analyze too deeply about what a negative consequence will be, but then, you actually cross the threshold and you come out of it where you find — well in my case, I was lucky and I found overwhelming support. I found people echoing my experience back at me, and all these positive things.

It’s not always easy to write about and send yourself back to the worst moment of your life. But having said that, I feel like anyone who goes through any kind of traumatic experience, writing about it has a legitimate therapeutic effect in the sense that you’re not necessarily going back to it, but it’s much like you’re letting it go.

I feel like that period of a decade where I was [in depression and anxiety] it was almost like Voldemort. I wouldn’t say his name. I wouldn’t talk about it. The power grows for doing that. As soon as you shed light on it, and you name it, and you analyze it, and you break it down, and you look at all these symptoms of it, you actually are sending a signal to your own mind that says, “I’m not scared of this. I’m looking at it in the eye.” It’s something that I experienced.

But yes, it’s kind of empowering in that you’re taking ownership of it, and you’re putting it into words and putting it into language which obviously, by the nature of language, is a shared thing. You’re picking something very internal, very private, very wordless and yet you’re forcing it into words and you’re forcing it to be understood.

You make the case that the external world is impacting our mental health partly because we’re experiencing change at an unprecedented pace. You offer a lot of ideas on how to stay grounded, but you also acknowledged that a lot of those ideas are difficult for you, too, to follow. I’m curious if you can share more about what you have found to be effective coping skills in this very connected and chaotic world?

We have an overload of choice. All of these great things we have in our life — social media, or Netflix or whatever — it’s given us this abundant choice, and condition[ed] us to totally believe that choice is a brilliant thing and that the more choice, the freer we will become; but actually, it can be paralyzing.

I think Unilever did some research where they — I think it’s on shampoo, about shampoo brands — and basically, they had an aisle display of 20 different shampoos and then the next day, they had three shampoos. More people bought the shampoo when were only three to choose from. We have almost an abundance of it, too much information. We have so much choice and it’s stressful. We’re not wired for this.

For me, personally, the solutions are often just taking things out, switching off notifications, not having my phone by my bed, setting myself certain hours where I’m just focused not doing anything. We’re so programmed to do, do, do. It doesn’t have to be active meditation, or yoga, or anything. It can just be lying in bed reading a book; but just having those moments away, that seems, to me, to be the simplest route to get my balance again and sleep.

Yes, so a sleep routine, getting outside and not spending six hours straight on Instagram, charging my phone in the kitchen, switching off notifications, all those kind of basic stuff.

Sleep is important to you— you have a section called the “small section of sleep” in the book.

It took me years, stupidly, to realize how much and how sacred sleep is for me, because I’ve always been a bad sleeper. When I became ill, I wasn’t even speaking about sleep. I was thinking it will be physical health, but it’d be things like diet and exercise, which obviously is important.

But the other part of that transit is sleeping, and it’s so essential. It’s almost like clockwork now — if I go to bed at midnight [for] a few consecutive days, I will have a bout of mild depression or anxiety, almost inevitably.

There’s so much impacting our sleep. We sleep an hour less than we did 50 years ago. Even before that, there were forces at work to sort of get us to sleep less.

I mentioned in the book about Thomas Edison who [went] on a crusade to cure laziness by creating a 24-hour society. He saw the electric light bulb and electricity as the solution to the problem of sleep, and he was kind of right. The electric light bulb did usher in the 24-hour society in many ways, but he was wrong about the fact that we only need four hours of sleep — we need way more than that.

It’s almost a virtue, isn’t it, to get up early in the morning? Business leaders and politicians love to show off how little sleep they get. But there’s scientific evidence that shows that you’re far less productive without sleep, and it has all kinds of detrimental impacts on your mental health.

You explain how Earth is a living being, and that humans are sort of the neurons of the nervous system of the Earth. Correct me if I misunderstood this, but I think if you are looking at it through this lens, it seems like humans are in control of the chaos. Do you agree with that? If so, do you think it’s our responsibility to shift the chaos?

I mean, it’s an interesting question. It can be a bit dangerous to believe that it’s all down to us, and that we’re uniquely equipped to sort out this mess, because that’s kind of been the problem. Humans fundamentally seeing themselves as a separate species — we love to imagine that. We talk about humans and animals like we’re not animals, that they’re separate. I think that’s part of the fundamental problem, not to get too hippy-dippy about it.

Technology is sometimes the enemy of the life on the planet. Yes, there may well be technological solutions. Yes, it’s our mess, so we should be the ones to clean it up. But we don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that [humans] are uniquely placed or uniquely special, or that we’re the saviors.

 I like how you used the word “cluttered” to explain why there is so much anxiety these days. Then, I thought about how there is a cultural pull towards simplicity and minimalism, especially in our homes. I'm thinking of Marie Kondo for instance —  decluttering your house is very popular right now. Do you think this is related?

Yes. I think so. I think definitely in terms of the Marie Kondo stuff, and also, I would say things like Dry January, veganism — so many of the trends that are taking off are things about abstaining from certain stuff.  I think we’ve got this instinctive craving for simplicity, and security, and something a bit more real. After craving, for years, complexity and believing that that was futuristic... and now, everyone’s simply heading the other way.

In the book, you write about “goal posts,” which can be described as “you will be happy when…” something externally happens. My final question for you is this: How have your goal posts in life changed? 

As a struggling writer years ago, I promised myself that I would be happy forever if I had a book published with my name on it, and it didn’t even have to be out on any tables in a bookshop. If it was in one bookshop on a shelf and one bookshop alone, and it was a real book that I had written — that would be it. My dream would be achieved and I’d be eternally grateful and happy.

Obviously, that lasted about two weeks. Then I wanted people to read my book. I wanted more people to read my book. I want this and that. You want to be on the bestseller list.

There are always new things to crave. We feel like the solution is always the thing rather than addressing the craving. It’s always about addressing the thing we want. It’s always the noun rather than the verb. It’s always about that external thing.

I suppose I’m just a bit more mindful that I, for whatever reason, I have had a lot of cravings in my life. Some of those cravings are far healthier than other ones, but they’re still cravings.

I’m quite addicted to work, and I have bouts of being addicted and not going to the gym and stuff. Obviously, that’s better than being addicted to alcohol, but it’s still a yearning. In my 40s, I’m now trying to reflect a little bit more and be aware of my own tendencies, and be a bit more mindful and to face a day not to just rush through life, but to actually appreciate it.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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