Scotland-born Vincent Deary is a professor of psychology at Northumbria University, and a clinical fatigue specialist at an NHS multi-disciplinary clinic in the North-East of England. His new book How We Break: Navigating the Wear and Tear of Living, the second part of a planned trilogy, took much longer to complete because Deary’s own life story intervened, in just the way he was writing about in his book.

One day, without warning, Deary woke up “in a state of exhaustion. I had no real ability to get out of bed. When I finally took myself for a walk, I was wiped out the next day. I was in a state of hopeless exhaustion. My mood went down as well. I was completely disengaged from life.” Pushed to his limits by random and seemingly insignificant events in his life, he because exhausted and broke down.

His is just one of the stories he tells that help explain how we overload our “bucket of capacity” and are blind to the signs that we need to slow down. He uses a small number of composite patients from the fatigue clinic to illustrate what he means.

Some may suffer one huge physical or emotional shock that triggers a breakdown. More commonly though, the trajectory is incremental, one thing after another, until suddenly, there is a last straw.

This book is not classical self-help, but combines science, psychology, culture, media, history, mythology to try to explain the myriad things that can combine to overwhelm us. Work is near the top of the list, especially as many people are pushed further, longer and with fewer resources. He has a mantra about its long-term effects on us ‘Work needs rest and rest takes work’.

Breaking is not just from mental and emotional pressures, but also our physical bodies. We get ill because we are under emotional stress; we have mental health issues because we have fallen ill.  “I am much more aware now that we are mind/emotion/body, all interacting with each other. For people in chronically stressful situations, and especially those with chronic illnesses, their whole being is affected. Nowadays the field of psychology is beginning to see this, with greater focus on the embodied self.”

While there is a lot about what goes wrong in people’s lives, Deary encourages us to be both resilient and mindful of the fact that we are all fragile. We must remember, he warns, “to be kind to ourselves. People should take time to rest and recover before things get to breaking point. Also, make sure that some of your energy is devoted to something that pays you back, gives you uplift, joy,  spiritual nutrition – that’s really key.”

Vincent Deary is the author of How We Break, our February 2024 Book of the Month

Further reading

See previous Book of the Month winners 

The impact of stress and nutrition on overall health

Why rest isn't a waste of time, and how to do more of it

Techniques to survive burnout

Feel busy all the time? You might have more control than you think