We're anxious. We're getting more anxious even as I type. Workplace stress has nearly doubled in the last 20 years; we regularly experience a combination of first-world guilt and recession-induced panic, while technology presents us with daily demands on our time and our emotions. As a result, anxiety – so often thought of as the annoying, whiny cousin of depression – poses a real threat to our health, and now clamours to be recognised and remedied.
Anxiety 2014, a London-wide arts festival exploring anxiety, its causes and effects, took place in June and helped raise awareness – but what about combating it? This question was addressed during that festival by an organisation called NOW Live Events, which promotes "mindfulness" through participation in the arts, from cinema to sculpture and beyond – and which will continue to spread the word at two more gatherings later this month.
The word "mindfulness" might make people bristle and wince in the same way as "meditation" can do, but the theory is simple and refreshingly free of mumbo-jumbo; it essentially involves techniques of relaxation and thought that help focus the mind and put problems and worries in context. The difficulty in persuading people that this isn't derelict hippy nonsense is NOW's raison d'etre, as founder Jana Stefanovska explains.
"Two close friends of mine were signed off work with stress," she says, "but when I asked them if they'd thought about mindfulness, they both said 'that stuff's not for me'. So what we do is take practical techniques of mindfulness and show people how they can be used in the real world, in arts activities and, by extension, your life." These simple ways of attaining focus, concentration and awareness can be profoundly useful, according to Stefanovska. "They give you the power and ability to say 'OK, what's happening', to gain some insight into your state of mind," she says. "With stress and anxiety spiralling as they are, we've driving ourselves into a place that's really dangerous unless we self-regulate."
NOW's participation in Anxiety 2014 consisted of a week-long residency at Deptford Lounge, a community space in south-east London. Local people could participate in art, sculpture, reading, writing and performance exercises, or just find out about mindfulness techniques. "The whole of Anxiety 2014 is about taking anxiety out of a clinical context," says Stefanovska, as we tour the building. "Most of the time, anxiety is so subjective and individual that we have no way of expressing it; we're in a cycle of our own that's a million miles from anyone else."
As a consequence, it's common for people not to even realise that they're suffering. "I know one woman who is close to throwing up most mornings with anxiety," says Stefanovska, "and yet doesn't see herself as having a disorder. I'm fascinated by how far we're prepared to push ourselves before we're willing to do anything about it. Some people might not act until they're physically unable to get out of bed."
At the adjoining primary school, Tidemill Academy, the Mindfulness In Schools project is doing sessions as part of NOW's Deptford residency to help children keep calm and, er, carry on. "People of my generation grew up without any guidance in terms of life skills," says Stefanovska, "whether that's relationships, anxiety or stress. It's ridiculous. But children embrace these techniques. The other day, I saw a nine-year-old say after an exercise: 'The problems are still going on in my mind, but I can see them, and I'm not living them.' That's precisely what we're trying to achieve."
The upcoming Wilderness Festival in Oxfordshire will offer around 40 NOW events for children and parents to participate in, from clowning to synaesthesia, all offering routes into a world of calm. "I know that people might come and think it's a load of crap," says Stefanovska, "but at the very least it might have registered in their head that anxiety is a problem and that there are ways of dealing with it."
NOW Live Events will be at the Wilderness Festival from today until Sunday and at the Southbank Centre's Festival of Love from 16-17 August; nowliveevents.org