Books to read when your brain is breaking

In trying to rewire my brain and rebuild my psychological toolkit, I’ve been trying to absorb as much as I can about mindset, thought process, and ways to live your life that won’t crush your soul. Some of it is academia, naturally, but some of it is pop psychology and self-help. While I always recommend approaching these kinds of books with a hefty bag of salt, if they’re based in research and approached with a thorough, questioning mindset, then they can be very helpful.

These three books have been especially helpful in guiding me through mindset changes, but also lifestyle changes. They’ve been helpful enough that I’ve tried to read and reread them in the hopes of internalising the practices and (hopefully) paving over some of the more negative neural pathways in my mind.

I plan to be returning to these books over and over in the next year. In fact, my plan is to reread them every quarter, so that by the time I return to work, and the slings and arrows of the ‘realworld’, I’ll have an arsenal of strategies practically memorised and ready to go.

I recommend reading these books in the order that I have them here. In that way, the strategies and thought processes you learn from each will be built upon and embed themselves in the next stage. I am not your mum, though, so you don’t have to listen to me if you don’t want to! This is just how I would go about things.

This is a very accessible introduction to ACT (Acceptance and Commitment) therapy, which has been a very big part of my recent attempts to recuperate and rewire my brain.

ACT therapy essentially posits that instead of trying to eliminate or fight unwanted thoughts and feelings (thus creating a lot of psychological pain and stress), the key to emotional regulation is to accept those thoughts and allow them to pass by. Then, commit yourself to behaving in ways that align with your values, so that you’re creating more happy thoughts and feelings to replace the bad ones.

Harris uses a lot of anecdotes and explanations that really drive home this point, particularly when (like me) the reader may be sceptical that a good way to approach thoughts about unaliving yourself is to let them stick around however long they like. My go-to approach was always to squash them down or distract myself, but they always came back.

Living by your values is also hugely important to ACT therapy. Especially because you can live by your values regardless of your situation in life; if you value kindness and creativity, then you can be kind and creative. You don’t need to be in the perfect situation physically to behave in ways that you believe are worthwhile.

“When we clarify what we stand for in life and start acting accordingly — behaving like the sort of person we really want to be, doing the things that matter deep in our hearts, moving in life directions we consider worthy — then our lives become infused with meaning and purpose, and we experience a profound sense of vitality. This is not some fleeting feeling — it is a powerful sense of a life well lived. The ancient Greek word for this type of happiness is ‘eudemonia’, these days often translated as ‘flourishing’.” p. 13

After you’ve learned to acknowledge the bad thoughts and started defining your values, and maybe even tried to develop habits with them in mind, the next stage is to recognise that we’re all going to die.

Ok, come back. I get it. It’s a scary topic.

Burkeman covers it in great length – and this book is a post-pandemic book, so you know he’s coming at this from a very aware place. Four Thousand Weeks is basically all about how our limited time means that no amount of productivity apps or all-nighters will allow us to accomplish all of our goals or experience all that life has to offer. Instead, we should decide what it is we value, and learn to spend our precious time on that.

This book is very useful because, once I got my brain working again, I had fully intended to go back to the insane workload I’d had when I was but a wee little lady of four-and-twenty. Burkeman gently reminded me that, actually, I really should use my time for what I think matters, and not I’ve been told matters because it’s the sort of thing everyone ought to do at some point in their lives or because it will advance my career.

Let’s just say that once my brain starts working properly again, I’m going to spend a lot less time trying to write to formulas that editors tell me the audience wants, and more time just writing stories that I think are interesting and worthwhile.

“Our days are spent trying to ‘get through’ tasks, in order to get them ‘out of the way’, with the result that we live mentally in the future, waiting for when we’ll finally get round to what really matters – and worrying, in the meantime, that we don’t measure up, that we might lack the drive or stamina to keep pace with the speed at which life now seems to move.” pp. 12-13
“… life is a succession of transient experiences, valuable in themselves, which you’ll miss if you’re completely focused on the destination to which you hope they might be leading.” p.132

Once the other two books have laid the groundwork, Brigid Delaney comes in with a method for dealing with a world that is at odds with value-based living; a world that is, in fact, designed to keep you working faster and harder, burn yourself out with stress and anxiety, and so on.

This book is essentially a memoir of Delaney’s development as a stoic practitioner. Again, this was written post-pandemic, so you know she’s put this shit to the test. I loved this book because it reminded me of something I always tangentially knew about the world, but never really internalised: it’s not designed to help me.

I’ll never really be safe in this world, because so much of it is utterly outside of my control. The idea that Stoics pushed – and Delaney so wonderfully expresses here – is that everything I have (my mind, my health, my reputation, my money, even my family and friends) could be lost at any moment through no fault of my own. So I have to learn how to live in a world like this and still maintain a sense of calm. I have to learn how to get on with things and not build my sanity around a lynchpin that others can pull at any moment.

“This does not mean we shouldn’t put any effort into something we can’t directly control – like climate change. After all, Stoics were not passive people. Historically they were people of action: political leaders, emperors and soldiers. But they knew that even if they trained hard, acted with integrity, built alliances and put in a lot of effort, they couldn’t control the outcome. They could only control their own character, own actions (and reactions) and how they treated others… By focusing on your character, how you see the world and how you lead your life, you can harness where you have the true and realistic ability to effect change while also maintaining a state of personal tranquility because you are not overly reliant on outcomes that are outside of your control.” p.49

PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee?  

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