Important things about anxiety I learned from How To Survive The End of the World

Give me any book and there’s a 99% chance I’ll read it. Fiction books are my preferred type because I’m a sucker for stories, particularly good dramas or novels that involve dragons, magic, monsters, ghosts, supernatural and the like, but I love me a memoir, an essay or a reportage, too. Except I’ve always been quite sceptical when it comes to self-help books. It is what it is, okay? But before I tell you about the book that was a lovely, unique exception, I’m gonna tell you what ruined my interest in all other self-help books in the first place and made me think of them in the context of Yes Man, so brace yourself.

Years ago, I’ve been given The Power of Your Subconscious Mind by a caring teacher who saw me breaking out in hives as I was about to choose my education path: something strange was happening to me, and for the first time I could recall, I refused to think that I was ever good enough. I deemed myself not worthy of a good school (although my grades clearly concluded otherwise), one that normally admitted people with much better backgrounds and therefore levels of preparation than mine, but she wasn’t going to let her student become paralysed by their lack of self-confidence. She was persistent and persuaded me to change the application before the process started. And she was right; I wouldn’t probably be where I am now if it wasn’t for her initiative, and I need to thank her for all the support she patiently provided. The book, however, did little for me. I’ve read it, although it took me a while and I found myself questioning many things as I dived in.

Later on, my high school friend raved about a book called The Secret. She enthusiastically told me about one of the success stories: a woman who wanted a boyfriend so badly that she left half of her wardrobe empty and prepped a parking space for her non-existent SO, repeating to herself that she really has a man in her life. Somewhere down the road, one strayed along by chance and they lived happily ever after. However, my inspiration levels didn’t rise, because I couldn’t see how the universe helped in achieving this. Instead, I found it hilarious, I laughed a lot, then changed the topic. But it kept on coming back in conversations. Many people used the broader concept underneath the inexplicable feats of luck to give themselves hope; I finally picked it up to see what it was all about when another friend brought me a copy as an apparent solution to every insecurity I’ve ever had. When I was reading it, I picked up on some lowkey charlatanism vibe, I had even more questions and a proper laughing fit, so I accepted that my sardonic self just wasn’t having it.

Afterwards, I stayed away from the entire self-help category in bookshops. My need to question everything I’ve ever come in contact with, sarcasm and taste for absurd didn’t help with reading these, so I haven’t picked one up for a while. In my experience, most self-help books have strange titles like Money Money Money: Become Rich in Seven Days by Following These Secret Clues from ABBA Songs or something along the line or are written by people who don’t accept the fact that your circumstances and conditioning can severely influence your ability to choose freely (Tony Robbins and that awful speech on #MeToo… not today Satan). Quite a few of them will tell you, “You’re not confident? Well, you need to love yourself and you’ll achieve that by repeating to yourself that you’re awesome, making a backflip, then selling your soul to the Egyptian goddess Bastet by making a ritual sacrifice of the steak you fried for dinner to your cat fortnightly.” Or simply, “you should live now and get rid of all of your worries by focusing on the present, and I’m not sure what else to tell you, but yeah.” You get the gist.

The thing is, if the problem is seated far deeper than surface level, none of that will work its magic, and the author of the book I want to recommend acknowledges that. If you’re confident already, don’t have any major self-esteem issues combined with being a perfectionist over-achiever, and you need a kick, then it’s a slightly different story – different things work for different people is my mantra by now.

When you’re dealing with mental health problems, such things as switching your mind off, becoming confident in social situations or looking at yourself in any other light that “I’m a contemptible human being, boring, ugly, awful, without any real skills, awkward, I suck at adulting and besides, everyone and their mother hates me” takes time and hard work. And being a natural cynic doesn’t really go well together with anxiety.

That’s why How to Survive the End of the World by Aaron Giles was such a refreshing book – it isn’t conventional, and that’s what makes it so unique. For a change, the writer approached anxiety with full understanding and lots of empathy, using the language that makes you feel that you have a friend in the narrator: it’s light, witty, personal, and easy to finish in a couple of hours. There’s a handful of relatable examples that had me shaking my head and wondering if I ever shared that much of my story with anyone. Reading it struck many a familiar chord, as multiple things described in detail in the book happened to me in some variation.

The book is also very thorough, highlighting different aspects of anxiety. The experience differs from person to person, but the author is very precise when vividly picturing different situations that can trigger an avalanche of panic and extreme feelings. Even if I couldn’t directly relate to some of the aspects and would love to know more about the others, the book gives you a stellar foundation for understanding your feelings and trying to cope. It also provides you with encouragement and enough directions to maybe ask your counsellor about things that still puzzle you.

The author also explains that a human brain is a complicated structure, and the mental illness can feel differently because it could be combined with something else: depression, OCD, a whole range of problems. For me, it happened to be an eating disorder with depression in the background (I loved the author’s analogy of buy one get one totally unwanted item free to describe it…), and after years of trying to understand myself, lapsing, then starting all over, anxiety surfaced as the underlying cause of all most of the evil that led to the whole lot of different things as I fumbled through life.

I want to wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who thinks they might have a problem, looks for the ways to get through it, or tries to understand someone who’s dear to them. Or simply if you’re trying to be more conscious and empathetic – there’s never too much of it in the world. And although you should go to your closest bookshop and buy it right now, let me tell you about a few things I loved about the book. There’s so much more to it, but the author nailed it and I don’t want to repeat it, so pick the book right up. It’s actually a click away.

Anxiety is not shyness or being antisocial, and it doesn’t always overlap with being introverted

At some point in my life, I’ve been called antisocial broad and wide. I felt like crap, I had difficulties adapting to new surroundings, I was broke and worried about sustaining myself while trying to ignore looking at my bank balance altogether, and my typical avoidance kicked in with some violent power, like a protective shield against the external world. Needless to say, it also made me come across as somebody who just hates people who make an effort. And because it’s not common to tell strangers that, in fact, your brain doesn’t enjoy things at the moment, you’re tired and full of dread, you tell them that you’re fine and try to move past it, but it doesn’t mean you’ve dealt with it. Or what’s even worse, you do tell them how you feel and they find it amusing for some reason. You can mock yourself all you want (my coping strategy #1), but when you hear it from others, especially those you don’t know very well, it can sting.

As I adapted, when I was thrown into the situations I had to resolve as someone else’s boss and the person who had to deal with customer problems, I had no other option than to find ways to assert myself, with a whole lot of help from amazing people who stood by my side, were honest with me and tried their best to help. My mentors at the time had a lead by example policy; they encouraged me to do the same, but a role model I was not, so they observed, reassured, and gently suggested improvements, and I will be forever grateful for both their approach and for what I learned. Though I’ve learnt to face some of the things that used to frighten me, my avoidance is still rife. It’s common for me to bump into someone having unpleasant impressions of me based on my behaviour, and that’s largely why I decided to take action: I unwillingly portrayed myself as someone who I didn’t quite want to be.

I’ve read about this before, but now I feel comforted: introversion is a choice; you simply get your energy from being alone. Being antisocial is rooted in not wanting to be with other people because you feel superior to them in some ways. However, when you feel that others are superior to you and you idealise them to the point of putting them on a pedestal, it’s not the case. In my experience, when they are in the position of authority, appear to have more life wisdom, ability to be chill or whatever you worship at the moment, your energy can fizzle out and you just end up feeling the never-ending terror when you’re around them. Let the author explain this:

“I don’t equate social anxiety with being antisocial. Being an antisocial person means you simply don’t want to interact with anyone out of choice, not out of fear or dread. Being antisocial is based in arrogance, while social anxiety is based in terror. The problem here is that if you suffer from social anxiety you can come across as antisocial. You make excuses for not going out, you find it difficult to talk to people, the idea of a conversation focusing on you makes you sweat, being out of your comfort zone makes you panic. It’s far from arrogant to feel this way but for those who don’t understand, it can be misconstrued as such.”

Here goes something that this book reminded me of: if you’ve had a label for yourself that doesn’t quite fit and you feel that you’re struggling, please seek help. Going to your GP and explaining how you feel, or finding a therapist whose methods work well for you will be very beneficial. Note to self (and to you, dear Reader): we deserve a recovery journey on our own and there are people who can help us.

Learning to cope and care about yourself

Anxiety is often tied to patterns of self-destruction. Staying at home and cutting yourself off from human contact because you need to protect yourself? Escaping the responsibilities because you’re terrified of the things you need to do (workshopping your stuff in a group, or presenting in front of a crowd bigger than three people, the ultimate evil… first of all, no, and second of all, no thank you)? Sneaking out of massive social events such as Christmas parties because you don’t know anyone and why on Earth would they have any reason to talk to your dull self? Cutting the conversation with people short because you feel that you’re en route to embarrassing yourself with something? Chainsmoking in the corner for two hours straight because you’re trying to regain your composure by avoiding facing people or problems that keep piling up? Postponing doing something until the end because you don’t feel that you have the capacity to do it up to the standard you expect from yourself? Not even trying to pitch articles or put yourself out there because you’re so crap anyway and your previous experience doesn’t matter and you need guidance and you don’t know anything and everyone will drag you on Twitter so why bother? Overthinking what somebody just said at the party and taking non-stop tequila shots until you’re half-conscious and that internal analysis stops? Starving yourself to the rigid standards of what perfection means for you and hoping that when you lose weight, you’ll feel that you fit right in? Been there, done that.

The thing is, while these things might lessen your anxiety at the moment, they might also lead to self-sabotage: lost opportunities, broken relationships, or constantly withdrawing and floating aimlessly in your life by not taking the lead on where you see yourself.  Aaron says, “Mental health conditions are inherently selfish. You spend so much of your life worrying about yourself that it’s hard to direct your focus outwards. (…)  Think about what you need, what you want and what you want your life to be.” 

Our brains had to adapt to the times that changed so rapidly that even the evolution decided to flip us all off and tell everyone to give it a break, and we deserve the same. Now that we don’t have to worry about survival like our fellow cavemen did, our amygdala – the pesky fight or flight organ; wait, is it even an organ? A brain is an organ, so what is a part of the brain called? Whatever it’s called, the important part is that it can go into overdrive, branding things as potential threats based on our past experiences. Then, there’s the Pavlov’s dog experiment that explains what our brains do to get a reward. Sometimes we’ve managed to learn that escaping a potential threat leads to a temporary gratification. It can mean calming down your shaking body, hyperventilation and pounding heart when you get it on the crowded, delayed Piccadilly line for instance, or when a group of people stands nearby and you’re convinced they’re currently having a hate party (something like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but lowkey and not political) and you’re there feeling like a bamboozled antelope.

But we can also combat this. There’s an expiration date on the chemical reaction in our brain that causes panic and we can make use of it if we know how to cope with it; Aaron gives us a whole lot of advice on how to consciously and subconsciously learn that our fears can be overcome. Even if it’s taking small breaks when you’ve had more interaction than you can handle, asking questions to avoid running out of things to say, faking confidence until it becomes synonymous with yourself again, all these things become more natural with time. The author outlined a handful of helpful suggestions in his book. And let me quote him once again because he nailed it.

“The main fight in anxiety is not overcoming anxiety. The main fight in anxiety is becoming you again. If you set your sights on simply banishing anxiety to the back of your mind you’ll find it more difficult than trying to get through ordeals one at a time. But if you actually face up to it, and learn to cope, one step at a time, the end result will be taming your anxiety or, for lack of a better metaphor, hurling your foot into anxiety’s nuts.”

Finally, there’s that mindfulness thing. It grew to be a massive buzzword, and there are apps that blow up the entire industry based on the concept, but if it doesn’t quite work for you, it’s important to find something that has a similar effect and embrace it. With the anxiety on our backs, we often don’t treat ourselves to small things because we feel we don’t deserve them and need to somehow prove ourselves beforehand. A need for a breather might be covered up with the need to do all the things, preferably at the same time and to a perfect standard, but that’s a recipe for a burnout. For the author, Nineties films with Nicolas Cage did the job. For me, it’s taking a break to get away, chilling in the park with a book, finding a funny series to watch or going to the cinema and enjoying a film with other humans you can’t see in the complete darkness. Again, you do you.

Social media and anxiety

Alright, I complained about social media a lot in my lifetime, and I’m gonna get this out of my chest to finally say something nice about these platforms. Many people notice faults in social media, and rightfully so: they gave us comment sections which we shouldn’t read but click on anyway, and enabled trolls with dangerous, violent agendas to appear online and spread their theories. I’ve also written about comparing myself to others on social media and despairing, but at the end of the day, I know social media didn’t invent this behaviour, just emphasised it for me.

On the other hand, the Internet has also been a helpful distraction: you go on social media, find a handful of dank memes, cat videos and pictures of Chris Evans as pandas, and can take your mind out of things that don’t allow you to sleep at night. But don’t take it from me: the author sat down with a support group who helped him define the role of the platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Besides raising awareness and finding supportive communities, you can also have opinions and express your views confidently when you struggle to do it otherwise. It’s a little easier to be yourself there, sharing your feelings is darn therapeutic, plus it might help someone else. It’s a first step to getting rid of what’s going on in your head when you talk to somebody in real life: the fear that you’ll be judged, that you’ll just ramble and won’t get the time to put your thoughts together because of fear, and many more different destructive thoughts. Trolls are out there, of course, but so many of us are good human beings (or trying our hardest) who will help if we see that someone else struggles; we gotta believe in that. And because the society is a little more open to talk about their battles, there’s a little more empathy day after day. We can finally feel that we’re not alone.

One more thing: I’m in adult college now because one degree is never enough if you’re curious and you just gotta learn all the time to make use of your brain in a positive way, so I pick-and-mix classes I’m interested in. It happens that I’ve done a bit of psychology in a film context recently, and we had a discussion about selfies. So many of my classmates concluded that selfies were the epitome of narcissism in the younger generation because all we essentially do is colonise cyberspace with clones of ourselves (sounds cool, right? Watch out Charlie Brooker, whoever is George Lucas! It’s like Star Wars but not really; I’m currently writing a Black Mirror episode based on this, please don’t steal this idea). And hey, nobody likes selfies, they’re not trendy because selfie stick sales fell last year, and the only way you’re supposed to take them is ironic. Oh, jumping to conclusions, honey, it seems we all do it more or less. It’s not a cool thing to do, though, and this is why we educate ourselves and each other, I guess. That rhymed, huh? Please buy tickets to my slam poetry performance, coming soon.

It appears that selfies aren’t always about perfection. I’ve noticed that the language in the conversation was not only attacking the millennial generation (hey, we’re used to it!), but also inherently gender-biased (these chicks and their selfies, you know?) and belittling  people who put themselves out there, who more often than not happen to be young, vulnerable women. Nevertheless, as the author of the book noticed, the pictures of yourself are not harming anybody. If somebody feels good today and decides to take a selfie to share that feeling with others, they’ve got a right to do it. Let’s not be salty, let’s be a bit more tolerant instead: give them a like and scroll past it if it’s really bugging you that much, and stop using snap judgements to justify preconceptions and appear cooler than everyone else. It’s not very nice, and besides, that online validation that can be exploited for vile purposes can also help a vulnerable person build confidence. And if somebody can harness it for good, what’s anyone’s problem?

Aaron Giles’s book How To Survive the End of the World is available from all the major booksellers in the UK and on Amazon.

If you’re struggling, please reach out for professional help: a charity called Mind, for instance, can help you find the support you need, as well as Anxiety UK that helps to shed light on various anxiety disorders.

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