6 books to read during burnout when you feel exhausted

Relaxing after burnout with a book

It feels like we’re in an era of burnout. In the last decade, the world has only got more stressful with the rise of social media and the amplification of our “always-on” culture. And now with Covid in the mix too, it’s a recipe for sheer exhaustion.

I had a bad burnout back in 2018, just before leaving my full-time job to never go back (you can read about this in my book, Mountain Song).

I made a lot of positive changes back then, including a conscious effort to cultivate environments that support me and allow me to just be me, exactly as I am and including my autism spectrum disorder / Asperger’s. But needless to say, that’s been difficult in the last year.

Burnout in 2021

Like so many others, I’ve been stuck in environments I can’t control and lost the personal space I need to unwind, thrive, and just feel sane.

The short version of my story is this: I was meant to move to Japan with Iain, that didn’t happen, we spent a year apart with me living at my parents’ houses, and when he came back to the UK we spent four months living with his parents.

My body, mind, and spirit did not fare well. My nerves became a jangled mess, my autism got way more sensitive, and I haven’t been able to work or summon any sort of creativity for months. My projects are on hold and my expectations of what I can realistically do are lower than they’ve been for a long time.

I’m only now starting to put the pieces back together after we moved to Copenhagen last month (and got married!) Having my own space, an environment I can control, and lots of time for peace, slowing down, and choosing the pieces of my life going forward has meant everything to me.

As expected, books are also a big part of how I’m getting through burnout. Books have helped me through anxiety, trauma, accepting myself as a woman with autism, and so much more – I knew they had some wisdom to share with me now.

Bibliotherapy for burnout

On the days when even getting out of bed felt too overwhelming and I just wanted to hide, I’ve turned to books. Now that I’m in a better environment and starting to feel brighter, I’m keeping up my reading therapy rituals.

I’ve had some lapses (I’ve written before that when I stop reading, generally it’s a sign I’m in a bad place or on my way there), but luckily not for too long.

My bibliotherapy plan for burnout has been two-fold:

  1. I’ve been choosing books that let me retreat into worlds that intrigue me, soothe me, and show me windows of opportunity in my own life.
  2. I’ve made my reading time as sacred as possible. There’s nowhere else I’ve needed to be, all I’ve had to do is grab a blanket and a cup of tea and immerse myself in words.

Here are some of the books that have been helping me through burnout this year and guiding me towards peace, balance, and energy on the other side. If you’re in a similar place right now, I hope they help you too.

Books to read during burnout

1. The Middle of Somewhere by Sonya Yoerg

“A troubled, young widow hikes from Yosemite Valley deep into the wilderness on the John Muir Trail to elude her shameful past…”

One of the silver linings of my burnout is that it’s got me reading fiction again. Burnout really isn’t a time for most self-improvement books or anything too strenuous. Instead, I’ve been choosing books that help me retreat into other worlds and lives for a while.

The Middle of Somewhere was one of the novels that got me reading fiction again. It’s the story of Liz Kroft, who, as her thirtieth birthday approaches, is heading for the hills with her emotional baggage. She’s looking forward to the three weeks of solitude she craves, until her boyfriend, Dante, decides to tag along.

At the start of the book, Dante’s presence in the story frustrated me (perhaps because I love heading into the wild alone so much), but he grew on me. The Middle of Somewhere is about guilt, loss, forgiveness, and what it means to be a flawed human being. It was a great book for me to read at this time.

“She crawled out of the tent and started over by breaking camp—undoing what she had constructed the night before. When it was as it had been, save for a few boot marks, she returned to the task of walking. But she did not walk over the same ground—everything was new, in the intricate and fractal sameness of rock, lake and sky.”

The Middle of Somewhere by Sonya Yoerg

More books like The Middle of Somewhere:

  • Where the Forest Meets the Stars by Glendy Vanderah – Another book with a YA-vibe about a blossoming relationship in the wild and a mysterious companion to the couple’s journey. Glendy Vanderah has also just published a new novel about love, loss, and self-discovery called The Light Through the Leaves.

2. Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

It’s not just you: the world we live in is anxiety-inducing. And it only seems to be getting more so. Notes on a Nervous Planet is Matt Haig’s exploration of how modern life feeds our anxiety – and how to live a better life.

“Remember no one really cares what you look like. They care what they look like. You are the only person in the world to have worried about your face.”

Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

More books like Notes on a Nervous Planet:

  • Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig – Perhaps Matt Haig’s most popular non-fiction book, this is an especially good choice if you’re experiencing depression or know someone who is (which, statistically, means we should all probably read it). If you want to try his fiction, The Midnight Library is a great place to start too.

3. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko is a big book. It’s a big book to carry about. And there are very big themes inside. It weaves the saga of a Korean family that moves to Japan but struggles to truly integrate, even as generations pass and fortunes change.

I loved retreating into its pages day after day, checking in on how the characters’ lives were evolving and how their family’s fate was changing. There are some heavy themes though, so if you prefer or need something bright and breezy right now, maybe pick something else up on this list.

“Learn everything. Fill your mind with knowledge—it’s the only kind of power no one can take away from you.” Hansu never told him to study, but rather to learn, and it occurred to Noa that there was a marked difference. Learning was like playing, not labor.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

More books like Pachinko:

  • Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese – One of my most recommended books – it’s about the lives of two twin boys brought up by doctors in Ethiopia on the surface, but really it’s about much wider themes of life, loss, and ambition.

4. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I’d heard people talking about Where the Crawdads Sing for a long time before I actually read it. I’d automatically shelved it in the “airport reading” section of my brain, thinking I wouldn’t get much from it. That said, one day I started the Kindle sample as something low-pressure and easy to read. And I actually loved it.

With a huge number of reviews, most of them skewing positively, Where the Crawdads Sing gained visibility as a top pick for Reese Witherspoon’s book club. It’s an easy book to read, but – and some critics will probably disagree with me here – I loved how it was written.

The author, Delia Owens, was a nature writer by trade before she turned to fiction, and it shows. She’s crafted a book that’s an ode to wild places and the sanctuary they provide, and the detail and passion behind the author’s descriptions of nature are stunning.

We meet Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl, who’s survived for years alone in the marshland that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and building an encyclopaedic knowledge of the natural world. But when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the local North Carolina coastal community immediately suspects her and her quiet life in the wild is shattered.

“Let’s face it, a lot of times love doesn’t work out. Yet even when it fails, it connects you to others and, in the end, that is all you have, the connections.”

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

More books like Where the Crawdads Sing:

  • Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver – One of my most treasured books, it’s about life unravelling one summer by the Appalachian Mountains.

5. Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life by Tara Henley

This book was really my thing. Tara Henley, a Canadian journalist, navigates her own burnout in a society that can feel optimised for anxiety and exhaustion with a memoir that so many people will relate to this year.

Taking time off from the frantic newsroom, Tara instead looks for different ways of living. In Lean Out, she explores the worlds of self-sufficiency, homesteading, and financial independence and retiring early (FIRE) among other options for a slower, simpler way of life.

“When you’ve been hyper-competent—a giver of all things to all people—it’s hard for others to comprehend that you are down for the count. Since everybody needed something from me, I couldn’t ask anybody for help. So I stopped responding. What I did instead was walk.”

Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life by Tara Henley

More books like Lean Out:

6. Down to Earth: A Guide to Simple Living by Rhonda Hetzel

Over the last week, I loved settling down in the evenings to spend an hour reading Down to Earth. Rhonda Hetzel writes like the Australian friend you wished you had, offering neighbourly guidance on how to encourage your carrot seeds to germinate, save cash on groceries, knit your own dishcloths, and brew ginger beer.

“Simple living is not about buying a lifestyle, it’s about building a life – using what you already have.”

Down to Earth: A Guide to Simple Living by Rhonda Hetzel

While taking time off work, I’ve been exploring how I can steer my life further in this direction. I loved growing my own vegetables last summer, and already have pots of carrots, radishes, peas, spinach, and kale emerging from the soil on our balcony here in Copenhagen.

Down to Earth has been a wonderful treasure trove of ideas to accompany my urban vegetable garden and help me to slow down, focus mindfully on small projects and tasks around the house, and disconnect from online life.

More books like Down to Earth:

  • Animal, Vegetable, Mineral by Barbara Kingsolver – If you love Barbara Kingsolver’s fiction, give her non-fiction a go with this collection of essays. The book charts her decision to move from Arizona to the Appalachians in pursuit of fertile earth and local, seasonal food – much of it fresh from her own garden. She navigates the line between environment call to action and celebration of simpler living wonderfully.

Retreat Into The Sanctuary & Enjoy Seven Days to Reset

Love books, feeling a little lost right now, and looking for some comfort and guidance forwards? I made The Sanctuary exactly for this.

It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at livewildly.co.

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