Book review: How we break

A new book about our always on culture says we need to make sure we make time for rest and that we learn to accept ourselves rather than constantly seeking ‘self-improvement’.

Mental Health - a women holding her head


We all seem to feel tired these days, and parents more than most. A lot of us feel so tired we are on the point of breaking, both physically and mentally, with burnout being the buzzword of the day. A new book explores this feeling and what we can do about it.

How we break by Vincent Deary is not so much about how we deal with one-off traumatic events, but about the everyday things and patterns of thinking that can push us to the limits and sometimes over them. 

Deary, who is a professor of applied health psychology and works in the UK’s first trans-diagnostic Fatigue Clinic, talks about how we need some sense of habit and routine to deal with our daily world almost without having to think about it. He says: “That’s what habits are for, to maintain the stable equilibrium of the complex system that is you at minimal cost to energy and attention”. But we live in a world of constant change and change is much more emotionally turbulent and energetically costly. Nevertheless, says Deary, change is a fact of life and not being able to change can also be problematic.

Self knowledge

He describes the complexity of how different people respond to different circumstances, upbringings, work situations and so forth and how these different responses may interact with each other.  He argues for a much more holistic approach and one which is based on greater self-awareness and understanding rather than self-improvement projects which can just pile on more pressure. “Our best defence against the turbulence of life is not self-transformation but self-knowledge and self-acceptance,” he writes.

Part of the fatigue problem is due to us feeling we need to be on constant alert. Deary writes about the impact of subtly toxic climates, whether at work or at home, which put people affected on a constant state of alertness to danger or threat. This can include precarious work situations or being subjected to racist or sexist treatment at work.

He also talks about the stories we tell ourselves and, when they are narrowly focused, how these can hold us back and make it difficult to adapt to change and move forwards. Combined with increased demands on us, they can cause us to break, says Deary. Noting that this kind of fatigue has become more common since the pandemic, he says we should look at how animals deal with threat, by having periods in which they can lie low and recover their energy rather than being ‘always on’.


Deary also notes the subtle difference between thinking which involves problem solving and overthinking which leads to anxiety. Getting stuck too much inside your own head and, alternatively, seeking to escape through living through other people rather than understanding yourself can increase your propensity to break too.

Deary finishes by talking about the importance of rest, proper switching off, and of moments of pleasure. Fatigue can be a self-perpetuating cycle, he says, because the more work we have to do to get through the day [whether emotional, political, social or any other kind of work], the more fatigued we become and the harder that work is. “The practice of kindness begins with rest,” writes Deary, but rest can be hard work if you are not used to it. “Rest is a skill,” he says and it is one which requires self-acceptance. It is also a skill that we need to truly value, which can be hard in today’s overly busy world.

Deary ends by counselling: “Learn the knack of refreshment and renewal. Work needs rest and rest takes work. If we start practising now it will be easier later on.”

*How we break: Navigating the wear and tear of living by Vincent Deary is published by Allen Lane, price 19.39 pounds.

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