Tobias Hall on how mindfulness helped with insomnia and anxiety

Tobias Hall

As part of our in-depth look at the effects of mental illness on illustrators, London-based freelance illustrator, letterer, designer and mural artist Tobias Hall opens up about his experiences.

Tell us a bit about your experience with mental health and/or addiction.

"I’ve never been an amazing sleeper, but a few years ago it went from taking a while to get to sleep to chronic insomnia every night, weekends included. There were plenty of nights where I didn’t sleep at all, but usually I’d be getting between two to five hours a night. This also led to chronic anxiety throughout the day, worrying about what would happen if I never slept properly again: will I lose my job? My relationship? My friends? My health? Am I going to die?! So the lack of sleep made me chronically anxious, and the chronic anxiety stopped me from sleeping. It was a vicious circle."

Where, who, or what organisation did you go to for support?

"I attended a one day course at The Sleep School, which introduced me to ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). ACT is a mindfulness-based therapy which teaches you to accept what’s not in your control by learning to respond more helpfully to thoughts and feelings that come with stress, anxiety and depression. It showed me that a large part of the "problem with anxiety-based disorders is not the discomfort itself, but the mind's struggle to control/get rid of it: that’s what keeps it there and makes it a chronic problem.

"So using the insomnia example, it was my complete reluctance to experience wakefulness which was keeping me awake. Paradoxically, I had to learn to be okay with not sleeping before I could sleep properly again. Again, ‘learning to be okay with not sleeping’ meant training my mind (through mindfulness meditation) to respond to those scary thoughts more effectively; through acceptance instead of attempts to control. It took a long time before my insomnia and anxiety 'disappeared' (I’d say roughly two years before things were back to ‘normal'), but now I sleep better than ever, and even if I do have a bad night for whatever reason, I’m no longer worried about it."

What did you find helped your situation?

"Mindfulness was and is the single biggest reason behind my recovery. It taught me a completely new way of looking at what happens in the mind. Over time I have learnt to identify the ‘my mind’ and ‘me’ as two separate things – I accept that I’m not always in control of the noise which goes on up there. I understand that behind all of that noise, my mind is only ever looking out for danger, as it’s evolved to do. And as such, it means I buy into thoughts and feelings a lot less than I did in the past. For sure, I still get caught up in negative thought and anxiety is still a part of my life, but my relationship with it has fundamentally changed and it’s no longer a big problem for me day-to-day.

"I do also like to do the common ‘fixes’ of working out and keeping fit etc., and they are great when it comes to burning off cortisol and helping to relax me, but I try to do those things out of enjoyment rather than with a view to controlling thoughts and feelings."

Do you feel having a healthy mindset will be an ongoing journey?

"I don’t necessarily associate anxiety with 'poor health', because I’ve learnt that humans have evolved to be anxious as a means of survival - it just so happens that some humans tend to get more anxious than others, depending on what’s important to them. So I would say a 'healthy mindset' is one which is at ease and accepting of the entire spectrum of human emotion, rather than one which is totally free of anxiety, sadness or other ‘negative’ emotions."

What advice would you have for a fellow creative who may be experiencing mental health issues?

1. Talk (to me if you like!).

2. I read a book called The Happiness Trap, by Dr. Russ Harris, which teaches ACT therapy and mindfulness really fantastically, as well as explaining why we tend to think like we do. I would highly recommend it for anyone struggling with anxiety or depression.

Tobias is part of a group of illustrators – Ben O’Brien (aka Ben the Illustrator), Jamie LawsonSydney LovellJimi MackaySharmelan MurugiahFranklin O'TooleCharlene Chua and Elle Jackson – who’ve shared their stories during Mental Health Awareness Week, with the purpose of providing insight and encouragement to someone who may be unsure on how to deal with their own mental health issues.

If you're experiencing feelings of mental illness, here are a few links to helplines and charities:

Mind – UK mental health charity that provides urgent help, advice on treatment, and sources of support
Mental health helplines suggested by the NHS – including Depression alliance, Men’s Health charity and OCD UK
Samaritans – A 24/7 helpline and charity providing emotional support for those experiencing suicidal thoughts, struggling to cope or in distress 
Rethink – UK mental health charity providing information and services for anyone affected by mental illness 
Anxiety UK – charity for people with anxiety. Many on our staff and volunteer team have personal experiences of anxiety
Bipolar UK – charity for people bipolar, their families and their carers

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