I Am Anxious... Matt Singer
The film critic, editor, and author talks 25 years of anxiety, grad school pressure, feeling productive, and 'Beau Is Afraid'.
Matt Singer is a film critic, author, and website editor. His book on Siskel & Ebert, Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever, comes out on October 24, 2023. It’s a book about Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, their lives, their show, and their impact on film, criticism, and pop culture.
How long have you been an anxious person?
I’m gonna say like 25 years? (I’m 42.)
What is your earliest memory of being anxious?
I think high school? I used to get terrible stomachaches, especially before big tests. I don’t have a specific memory of a first time. It’s pretty much always been a fact of life for me.
Have you ever experienced a panic attack?
Oh yeah. I used to get them a lot. My worst period was in my 20s when I was in grad school. My colleagues, who were all lovely and friendly and wonderful (I’m still close with many of them), all seemed way more knowledgeable about film than I was when I got to grad school, and I felt like a fraud and I was terrified that I was just not good enough to be there. The pressure of all of it used to give me awful panic attacks. There were nights I couldn’t sleep at all because of them.
What are some of your anxiety triggers? What makes you most anxious?
The grad school stuff was clearly like being overwhelmed by life and work and stuff. But generally, my biggest triggers are fear about getting sick and dying. And any time I start feeling under the weather, I have a tendency to freak out about it. You can imagine how the early days of the pandemic were for me. (Spoiler alert: Not great!)
How do you feel physically and emotionally when you’re anxious?
My heart starts to race and I get sweaty. I might have trouble catching my breath. I can’t sit still. Sometimes my skin gets really itchy. My stomach often gets upset. If it’s late at night, I can’t sleep and I will toss and turn for hours. Just a potpourri of physical misery.
What do you do when you feel anxious? How do you take care of yourself in those situations? Do you have any anxiety management tips or tricks?
The number one thing that helps (but isn’t always easy to do) is just to recognize that these feelings are just anxiety; that generally speaking I am okay, that everything is fine, that what I am worrying about is just that; it’s worry. Consciously slowing my breathing often helps too.
How do you feel your anxiety affects your family, friends, and overall social life?
I try not to let it affect my friends or my social life — and usually I feel best when I get to distract myself with friends and fun activities. My poor wife though, she’s definitely seen the worst of it. But she is also very good at understanding it, and helping me get through it.
When you're not feeling anxious (simply in your day-to-day life), what do you do for self care?
Putting away my phone and watching a movie, or hanging out with my kids, or maybe going to a wrestling show or a baseball game. I started exercising more during the pandemic and that absolutely helps manage my stress level which in turn helps manage my anxiety level.
In the last few years, I’ve also found working on something I am really passionate about can be a good way to deal with anxiety too; I’ve learned I like feeling productive, and it gives my mind something to do other than just worry all the time.
I wrote most of my new book that way; I would work my day job, put the kids to bed, my wife would go to sleep, and then I’d stay up for a few hours, tune out everything going on, and lose myself in research or writing.
How do you feel about the portrayal of mental health and anxiety in Pop Culture (books, movies, music, etc)? Do you feel it's accurate?
I feel like it’s a subject I’d like to see depicted more, especially in movies. Accuracy almost doesn’t come into the conversation because it’s a topic I feel like is so rarely addressed at all.
What are some of your favorite examples of Pop Culture that gets anxiety and mental health right?
Well, the reason you asked me to fill out this questionnaire is because I wrote something about Beau Is Afraid. People can read the entire piece, but I thought it was one of the most accurate movies I’d ever seen about anxiety in general, and specifically about certain tendencies I deal with in terms of my own anxiety and “catastrophizing,” where you worry about the worst outcome of situations, no matter how unlikely they might be. I do that a lot.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Only that I think way more people deal with anxiety than they maybe care to admit.
Editor’s Note: This interview was edited slightly for length and clarity.
Thank you, Matt, for participating in the I Am Anxious… questionnaire. I’ve been a big fan of Matt’s film writing for a long time, and am really looking forward to the release of his book in October. Much appreciated, Matt!
If you are interested in being a part of the newsletter in the coming weeks and taking the I Am Anxious… questionnaire, please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll get you on the list! I’d love to have you. And no matter what you do for a living, you are absolutely welcome. I really want to have folks from all walks of life.
Be well and keep talking.
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DISCLAIMER: I am, by no means, a medical profession. If you need help, please seek qualified medical attention. This newsletter, while informative and fun, is no substitute for the real thing.