6 min read

Leashing your anxiety

Thoughts about staying sane in strange times
Leashing your anxiety
Guernica, Pablo Picasso's 1937 painting of the German bombing of a Spanish city

Hi loves!

It's been a bit of an anxious week for me, so I've been thinking a lot about better ways to manage it. Here are 5 quick things I thought worth sharing.

1. There's no moral imperative to be miserable

My friend Georgina sent me this superb essay that's been humming away in my brain since I read it: "There's no moral imperative to be miserable."

The basic problem it describes: after years of raising awareness of mental health issues as an individual medical problem, and encouraging people to seek help, rates of anxiety and depression keep increasing rather than decreasing. This is a trend that started long before Covid, but of course Covid made it all much worse.

So a counter-narrative started developing: mental health struggles are structural rather than individual. It's the system, not you. Now, that's obviously somewhat true, but when taken as a complete truth, this belief tells you that the only solution to your personal suffering is changing the system (usually in a vague huge way like "end capitalism" or "full revolution now" or "dismantle the patriarchy"). But because that's not something you can actually do, you're stuck in this hopeless nihilism where you can do nothing to improve your situation. The world is unfair and everything sucks, so you are DOOMED to unhappiness. Doomed!

This was something that I grappled with often when writing about personal finances. Money is obviously extremely structural, and it's important to understand how unfair the system is. But if you are not lucky enough to have been born rich, it's also incredibly disempowering to believe there's nothing you can do about it short of redesigning the whole economy.

So what do we need to do? We need to resist this false dichotomy. Both things can be true:

  1. The system sucks and we should work to make it better, AND
  2. There are things you as an individual can do to suffer less within that system.
There is a balance to be struck between acknowledging the truth of an idea like, “capitalism causes mental illness,” without resigning yourself entirely to its implications—specifically, that you won’t get better until the world around you does. The truth is we might be waiting a long time for that to happen. But there are often actions we can take to mitigate the effects of our environment: even in the face of the most brutal exploitation and oppression, people have worked together and changed their circumstances for the better—and, if we’re being honest, plenty of people in the Global North who have bought wholesale into the idea they are victims of neoliberalism are facing rather a lot less than that. Agency is not distributed equally, but that’s not to say normal, non-wealthy people don’t have it, or that you need to be a millionaire to exercise it.

I recommend reading the whole essay. The brilliant Laurie Penny wrote an essay with similar themes back in 2016. And here's my list of resources for affordable mental health support in South Africa.

2. Slower news

One of the things that I've had to remind myself of this week is how important it is for my own mental health to actively slow my news intake.

I think of my anxiety like a radar scanning the environment for threats. To some extent, anxiety is very helpful if it helps you anticipate and avoid bad things happening to you. Anxiety exists because it's adaptive, and we all need some anxiety to survive.

But it's only helpful to a point, and when your early-warning-anxiety system gets overreactive it's can become actively harmful to you. It's like if you put a security alarm in your house, but it goes off every five minutes because you've got cats, so you can't get any sleep. Ironically, many of us end up suffering more from worrying about things that MIGHT happen than we suffer from bad things actually happening. Anxiety on a leash is useful; anxiety rampaging around your brain tearing up your mental furniture makes your life 100x worse and will actually make you die faster (something else for you to worry about, fun!).

Scanning the environment for threats - for me these days - looks like checking the news fourteen times a day to see whether WWIII has started yet, spending even a second on Twitter, tracking Covid numbers. What's been helpful for me is to remind myself that this sort of threat-scanning is only helpful to the extent that:

  1. It's not causing me to suffer,
  2. It is actually helping me to change my behaviour (why know about awful things you can or will do nothing about?),
  3. The information I'm getting is helping me to build a more accurate threat-model of the world (i.e. I understand what I'm reading).

What all of this translates to for me is to actively try to seek out slower news sources: like, it's better for me to read one in-depth book that actually helps me to understand the immune system than to read eighty headlines about brand-new Covid studies I don't really understand (that book, for me, was Immune: a Journey into the Mysterious System that Keeps You Alive by Philipp Dettmer - highly recommend!). It's better for me to watch one video to try to understand why the invasion of Ukraine is happening than to check the front page of the Guardian twenty times today.

Here's my list of useful resources about the climate emergency. For South African politics and economics, the website explain.co.za does a brilliant job helping you understand what's behind the headlines.

Have any other slow news sources to recommend? I'd love to hear about them!

3. Shining Girls Trailer! EEEEEEEEEE!

Onto things that are filling me with joy and hype - the trailer for Shining Girls has dropped and I couldn't be more excited. It’s an adaptation of one of my favourite novels (by South African literary powerhouse Lauren Beukes) and it’s about a time-travelling serial killer. It’s a mind-bender with heart, exploring how trauma ripples through your life forever, and it’s going to be SO DAMN GOOD. If you haven't read the book yet, it will be out on Apple TV+ on 29 April, so get on it!

4. Tim Urban on using our time wisely

Another great read this week was Tim Urban: "How Covid Stole Our Time and How We Can Get It Back". It's a reminder that our lives are limited, so it's important to be deliberate and thoughtful about doing what matters to us. His bit about spending time with your parents especially tugged on my heart.

My life, in the best-case scenario, will consist of around 20 years of in-person parent time. The first 19 happened over the course of my first 19 years. The final year is spread out over the rest of my life. When I left for college, I had many decades left with living parents, but only about one year of time left to spend with them ... Depressing Math reveals a cold truth: While you may not be anywhere near the end of your life, you may very well be nearing the end of your time spent with some of the most important people in your life.

Letting go of the delusion that we have infinite time can be liberating and hopeful, because it can prompt us to use our time more wisely. I loved this piece.

5. Moving to the UK: a guide for overwhelmed South Africans

A sneak peak of the first few sections

I'm working on a little gift for you: packaging all of the tips, spreadsheets, budgets and to-do lists from my move to the UK into a handy interactive guide for other people contemplating the same move. And I need your help!

  1. Have you also moved countries? I'd love to see your budgets, to-do lists, and any tips you have for others!
  2. Are you thinking about moving or are in the process of moving? What are the things you're finding the most confusing or overwhelming? What questions do you have that you wish somebody would answer?

Moving countries is bloody hard and there's no guidebook, but there could be! Let's build one together. Hit reply!


Wishing you a good strong leash for your anxiety,