“Anxiety doesn’t define who I am.”
Writer Natasha Devon MBE is a mental health and body image campaigner. She regularly tours schools and colleges advising young people on how they can stay mentally healthy and appreciate their bodies. A keen advocate of Mental Health First Aid, Natasha writes regularly for the Guardian. In 2016, the Sunday Times and Debretts named Natasha one of the 500 most influential people in Britain. We caught up with Natsha ahead of the release of her new book ‘A Beginners Guide to Being Mental A-Z’ to talk anxiety, body image, Bowie and coping with exams.
What has been your biggest life challenge and how did you overcome it?
I think my biggest life challenge has been coping with anxiety. I now realise that I have had all of the symptoms of anxiety since I was ten years old so for me I think it’s part of my make-up if you see what I mean. It’s taken me a long time to recognise those triggers and symptoms in myself. We are kind of taught that ‘we are our feelings’ and that’s not actually true. You’re not your feelings. So for me it’s about – when I get a strong reaction to something – being able to look at that and go ‘okay, why am I feeling this way? What’s causing that? What’s the best way to deal with it?’ And almost observe my emotions from afar and that’s still something that I don’t always get right. I have a kind of in built sensitivity to hormonal changes so you’ll find that my symptoms of anxiety are much much worse in the run up to my period. But I have reached a point now where I don’t see anxiety as being radically different to say having diabetes. I have to deal with it and take steps to manage it but it doesn’t define who I am and that’s really important.
What’s the best way to develop a positive body image? As someone who has spoken a lot about the importance of having a positive body image do you have any good tips for us to feel good?
The first thing to acknowledge is that health is a lifestyle and not a look. So if you are eating broadly right and if you’re active – as active as you can be, then your body is exactly as it’s supposed to be. I think what’s happened, particularly in the discussion of body image with women – you know the idea ‘you should be as thin as possible’ – has been kind of hijacked by the fit-so brigade and their messages are the same – you still have to look a certain way in order to be valued but it’s because it’s got this health message attached it’s harder to decipher. So first of all that health is a lifestyle and we’re designed very differently from each other so you won’t necessarily look like someone on Instagram. I think for me there was a lot in being grateful for what I had and again I talk about this in the book. I’m youngish, I’m able bodied, I live in a country were I have access to clean water, fresh fruit and veg and I can exercise, and all of this so I thought it seems really churlish given all of those circumstances to complain that my stomach isn’t quite the right shape or how I’d like it to be.
I also like to get across in schools that the message most of us need to hear is ‘I don’t care what you look like. The reason why I value you is because you are kind or fun or brave or weird’. All of these things that are invisible that are the real reasons why we are valuable. So sometimes what I encourage students to do is this thing called Compliment Swap and it’s when every time they are tempted to go ‘Oh I like your shoes’ instead they say “That was really clever what you just said”, or whatever it is so that people get used to hearing the real reasons why they are appreciated.
What advice would you give to young people experiencing academic pressure at school or university?
Sometimes we tell ourselves we’re really stressed out and anxious and we’re having a run of bad luck and we start to collect up all of our worries and make this big uber worry. The first thing to do is to separate that out. So the first thing I do is get people to take three pieces of paper and make three lists. The first list is things you have direct control over. So in an exam situation that would be ‘I haven’t done enough revision’ – only you can do that, no one else can do it. The second one is – things that you could change but you would need somebody else’s help. That might be for example ‘I don’t understand this module’. So you’re going to need either one of your friends that does understand it or a teacher to go over that again with you – but that is fixable. The third is things that you have no control over whatsoever. So, for example, “If I don’t get an A I won’t get into this university” – and it’s like well you can only do your best and you have to focus on the task at hand. So there’s absolutely no point in worrying about that. What we sometimes do is get the third list and then just rip it up as a symbolic gesture because there is no point in worrying about it.
The second thing is to bear in mind that when you go into the exam itself, you are going to be in fight or flight mode because exams are weird. Your body kind of knows that. So if you take some steps to mediate that and in advance learn some mindfulness techniques or some relaxation techniques that you can do. You’re better off spending your first five minutes in an exam calming yourself down so that you are reading the questions properly and so that you have good recall than you are panicking and trying to use up every second of the time and then you don’t read the questions properly or you forget something really crucial.
The Third thing to bear in mind is that in the run up to your exams when you’re revising it is even more important than usual to practice self-care. Mental Health First Aid England recommend that every person takes one hour every day to do something with intrinsic value like exercise or relaxation or creativity and in the run up to exams that often gets lost when people are like ‘urgh I’ve got to revise, I’ve got to revise’. But, actually, to manage the stress long term it’s really important you keep those activities up.
You don’t often hear people say ‘that’s a very clever thing you just did’. Maybe it’s because in those sorts of terms we are sometimes competing so maybe people are less generous with those sorts of observations?
Well the other thing is we live in a very individualistic culture. Human beings are supposed to be imperfect because from an evolutionary perspective we have our best chance of survival if we are in a pack. We’re pack animals because we’re not sort of fast or strong compared to other mammals we have to be together in tribes. That’s why early human beings were in tribes. So if we were perfect we’d kill each other so we’re actually made imperfectly as that means we have to rely on each other and that means that we have to co-exist in tribes. So nobody is good at everything. So if you live in a culture that’s encouraging you to exist alone and to be self-sufficient that’s a problem because no human being can do that.
Has music been important to your mental health? We know that you love David Bowie! Why is he an important musical icon for you?
Yes, my career as a writer began as a music critic – but I was never critical of anyone because music is so subjective so I was probably the worst music critic ever. But I think music is incredibly important because when you are creating music you’re not making something that would be better expressed in words. Music is a different way of thinking and it transcends language. Sometimes you can express emotions with so much more power and clarity in a piece of music than you could if you were describing something. So for me music is really cathartic because it is a way of exorcising those emotions. So I sing sometimes when I’m feeling anxious to kind of get those feelings out and I also listen to a lot of music – as you quite rightly said – particularly David Bowie.
What would constitute a perfect day for you?
Something I talked about in the book that really changed my life was that somebody introduced me to the concept of obsessive compulsive drive. I’m a person that has quite a lot of nervous energy and traditionally I was always told by people ‘you need to calm down, have a lavender scented bath, go and lie in a meadow’ all of that. Actually when I’m doing absolutely nothing I lose my mind – that’s when I go really crazy. It was actually my husband that noticed it, because I work in education he noticed that Easter, Summer and Christmas holidays was when I really started to struggle with anxiety. So I was speaking to this therapist and he was like ‘yeah you’ve got a loads of nervous energy you can feel it radiating off you’. He said ‘if you stand still that will turn inwards on you so you have to use it for something’. So for me a perfect day would involve some kind of productivity. Doing something so my best days are when it’s nice and sunny outside. When I can pace myself. So I would probably go for a walk through the park, go and find an outside seat in a cafe somewhere with my laptop. Get something really yummy for breakfast and sit in the sun and do some writing. Also do something that made me feel like I’d made some sort of a difference, that really motivates me, so maybe like share some stuff on social media that gets a good response from other people within the mental health community. So it would be a sort of leisurely work for me, if you see what I mean.
What do you feel most grateful for?
I would say I’m most grateful for my education, actually. Because going to lots of different schools around the country I realised first of all how great my school was and how I went to school in a kind of golden era really. You know, the beginning of the Blair years was when I went to school. We were really poor and I got into my school on academic merit because I was from outside the catchment area and I was the only person in my primary school to get into the school I got into and I can see how having that education gave me so many opportunities to go onto university – but not even that I think knowing things makes me happy. So just being educated has improved my quality of life and I think that’s important because when we talk about quality of life normally we’re thinking about affluence but actually for me having been encouraged to be curious about the world and to think and to question and to have a basic level of knowledge makes me happy in itself.
Complete the sentence. Ace mental health for me means…
Who was your best friend at school and what was the funniest thing they did?
My best friend at school was called Caroline and she just used to make me laugh all the time. In fact when I think about our friendship we were just in hysterics all of the time. There were so many funny things that she did but I think the funniest thing that we did was on a school trip to Italy. Our teachers let us have a glass of wine – we were 15 – and our teachers let us have a glass of wine with dinner and it was the first time either me or her had ever drunk alcohol ever before so we had this one glass of wine and we were completely drunk. It was only one glass but we were tipsy beyond belief. We were talking really loudly about this teacher that we fancied and didn’t realise how loud we were being so he came over to the table and said ‘Just so you know, I can hear every word you’re saying’. We were mortified. So we went up to our room in the hotel and decided that the best way to remedy this was to make up a song to sing to him about how sorry we were and sang it to him. He was baffled.
What advice do you give to friends when they’re feeling overwhelmed?
One of the things that people don’t realise is that when you actually listen to somebody – as I think we have a ‘fix it’ mentality – so if someone comes to us and says ‘I feel really stressed’ we automatically say ‘You should…’ and all of the things that I said earlier ‘take a lavender bath, go and sit in a meadow’ but we don’t actually know what they’re stressed about. So if you take the time to actually ‘Oh okay, thanks for telling me. What do you mean by that? What is it exactly?’ To get them talking. What you’re actually doing is you’re controlling their dopamine levels. Dopamine is created in the limbic system which is your heart essentially. So if you make somebody feel secure and understood and if you create trust with that person you’re actually affecting their brain chemistry and that allows them to think with a bit more clarity and that in and of itself is a lot more valuable than trying to fix it for them.
What three songs lift your spirits?
Sound and Vision by David Bowie (I’m trying not to pick three David Bowie songs)
These Foolish Things by Bryan Ferry (just because it reminds me of my Mum. She always used to play that when I was little)
Uptown Funk by Bruno Mars
What do you eat to stay healthy?
I practise something called mindful eating. So it’s more about how I eat than what. I do find that I will eat mindlessly in response to stress if I let myself which is not a good thing; shoving food in your face, because when you’re stressed you respond to emotional rather than physical queues so you just sort of go ‘ahhh I need something to take the edge off’. So I try and make sure that I eat well, and that I present the food nicely and I notice the taste, and all of that kind of stuff. I think that vitamin B12 is really crucial (we don’t know why really yet, scientists are working on it) but it’s crucial to health so trying to make sure that I get loads of broccoli and green vegetables. I also find that if my sugar levels dip it can make me feel anxious so I’m always putting nuts and seeds on everything as it helps to keep you fuller for longer and that helps to control your moods as well.
Natasha’s latest book A Beginners Guide to Being Mental: A-Z is available here
Learn more about Mental Health First Aid here.
Natasha is supporting a campaign to make it compulsory to have a mental health first aider at work #wheresyourheadat. Find our more here.