• Elspeth Robertson

Notes on a Nervous Planet: Book Review

Welcome, welcome, welcome! I am truly so excited that you are here.

I have always been a huge bookworm and truly believe in the power of reading to increase creativity, connect us with a community of readers and to open our eyes to different worlds that we might not have experienced.

I wanted to share this love with you all, and the best way that I could think to do this is to introduce each month a book which focuses on therapy, self-help or psychoeducation. I find that mental wellness education still feels inaccessible to a lot of individuals due to stigma associated with reading these texts, the triteness of a lot of popular self-help books and the huge depths of texts available. Where do you even start? Start here - let's normalize attending to our mental health through reading and learning!

My November pick for the newly instated Intrinsic Book Club is Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig.

I picked up the book from one of the little free libraries near my home and found it has a sticky note attached to the title page: “Life is wonderful! And so are you.” If that isn’t the best way to start a book, I don’t know what is.

The book houses one of my now favourite quotes that inspired the idea for this book club:

For me, this book was love in action. Each section made me giddy for more. The writing expressed what I understand to be true about the state of our “nervous planet”. I felt seen and reflected back in the simplest and most beautiful way, like how the light hits water just as the sun is about to set. Golden hour.

This book is a little bit unconventional. Rather than a straightforward memoir or psycho-educational book divided neatly into chapters and sub-chapters, it is instead a collection of observations of how modern life feeds anxiety, and how to live a better life, from a writer who developed anxiety, panic disorder and depression in adulthood. He writes about wellness holistically - how we cannot separate our minds from our bodies, from our external environment, from our society, from technology, so we need to take all of these factors into account when exploring how to be "happy" in this modern world. The book is written in short sections (some only half a page long) that chronicle personal experiences, list reasons to be happy, and contemplate the myriad of reasons why evolution has not prepared us to live in this modern, technologically advanced, nervous world. The author backs up key facts with science education and quotes from notable figures.

My Three Biggest Takeaways:

As a mental health professional, I have a lot to say about this book. My three biggest takeaways from this book include how mental health problems are normalized and contextualized, how the technological and industrial revolution is looked at as a driving force behind the rise of anxiety we are seeing in our communities and how the importance of understanding the links between mind and body is crucial to understanding mental wellness.

Normalizing and contextualizing mental health problems.

On his experiences with depression, anxiety and panic attacks, Haig writes:

“It’s an illness. Like asthma or measles or meningitis. It’s not a guilty secret. The shame people feel exacerbates the symptoms. Never let other people make you feel it is a weakness or flaw inside you, if you have a mental health problem.”

These are powerful, life-changing words. Researcher Brené Brown writes about the experiences of shame as a driving force behind many mental health problems: addiction, eating disorders and social anxiety, to name a few. The experience of shame is counteracted only with empathy and understanding for the underlying humanness of each individual who may be experiencing these problems. Haig’s writing is filled with empathy, and he contextualizes mental illness as not just the problem of the individual, but a community and societal problem. There are reasons why mental illness and the shame that so oftentimes surrounds it is so prevalent now in our society, and much of those reasons can be traced back to how we care for one another. Rather than jumping straight into ‘fixing-mode’, sometimes being a witness to another’s pain and responding with empathy can be the most powerful interaction. Sometimes a “that sucks” is all you need.

An in depth look on the technological/industrial revolution.

In contextualizing mental health problems within larger society, Haig writes about how quickly the experience of being human has changed in recent years. Don’t feel like yourself? Okay, what has changed? Only everything, all the time - technology, and health care advances, recent poll numbers, Tik Tok trends, and now the rapidly evolving public health crisis that is on everybody’s mind.

“When looking at triggers for mental health problems, therapists often identify an intense change in someone’s life as a major factor. Change is frequently related to fear. What happens when whole societies - or a whole human population - undergo a period of profound change? Just as technology has always been the deepest root of social change, so this dizzying pace of technological change is triggering other changes.”

This provides context for why it feels like we can never keep up. It would be physically and mentally impossible to do so. Haig highlights the Centre for Humane Technology, a group of former tech employees set up the centre “realigning technology with humanity’s best interests and reverting the digital attention crisis”. Practicing digital wellness and advocating for humane technology policies can be a big step in the right direction for enacting positive social and mental health changes.

The understanding that mental health and physical health are connected

Holistic medicine and counselling is focused on understanding the connections between body and mind rather than drawing a line between them. If I am in session with a client, I know that they are not going to be fully present with me if they are in pain, or feeling hungry for example. Inviting clients to shift into a more comfortable position and offering the opportunity to eat and drink within session is how I try to attend to the whole human self, as Haig would say.

“Mental health is intricately related to the whole body. And the whole body is intricately related to mental health… The line we draw between minds and bodies makes no sense the more we stare at it, and yet we base our entire system of healthcare on that line. And not just healthcare. Our selves and societies, too. It’s time to change this. It’s time to rejoin the two parts. It’s time to accept our whole human self.”

This was highlighted for me not only because I do try to see my clients from a broader perspective than just what is happening in the mind, but maybe because it feels more personally relevant to my mental health journey. For me, my biggest symptoms of anxiety are sleep disturbances, migraines and hives. Anxiety presents in big physical ways usually when I am not connected to how I am feeling, when I am ignoring my basic wellness needs. Now I know that when I can’t sleep or my head hurts, or I start getting itchy, it might be time to practice some mindfulness, to take a walk out in nature, to get off the computer and rest. Everything is connected, and once we start to recognize these connections, we can begin to truly nourish ourselves based on what we need, rather than how we think we should respond or react.

Does this all make sense? I hope so. Mental wellness is complex and our world is complex. Sometimes we just need a starting point for understanding this complexity. I think this book fits the ticket in a lot of ways.

Consider this book if:

Consider this book if you liked the recent Netflix film the Social Dilemma or if you have enjoyed any of Haig's other introspective novels. The Humans was one of the first I read by Haig, about an alien who comes to earth and is quite astonished by human’s customs and communications, but eventually gets bowled over by the immense love that lurks in seemingly hidden corners of society. I read this book almost five years ago now and distinctly remember that the ending made me cry at work (as I sneaked chapters at my desk). I later handed it to my dad and begged him to read it so I would have someone to talk to about it. I am excited to get my hands on his newest book the Midnight Library for exactly this reason.

More reading:

Matt Haig has also written a more personal memoir Reasons to Stay Alive about his experiences with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. Although I have not yet read it (it is on my list!), the jacket claims that it is uplifting and inspiring for those who are in the depths of mental illness or who want to learn more about the experiences of mental illness. The Goodreads description claims: “Matt’s frankness about his experiences is both inspiring to those who feel daunted by depression and illuminating to those who are mystified by it. Above all, his humor and encouragement never let us lose sight of hope... Matt is adamant that the oldest cliché is the truest—there is light at the end of the tunnel. He teaches us to celebrate the small joys and moments of peace that life brings, and reminds us that there are always reasons to stay alive”.

If you are interested in reading more about the connections between shame, empathy and healing, Brené Brown's I Thought it was Just Me is a great place to start. She also has a podcast Unlocking Us where she talks with guests about vulnerability, bravery and other topics she has come across in her research.

Stay Connected

For the remainder of November, I will be sharing some digital wellness tips, and art and journal prompts based on excerpts from this book.


The purpose of this article is to focus on the content of a psychoeducational book for the intent of normalizing attending to mental wellness and building a community of informed readers. All opinions shared are solely those of the author and should not be misconstrued as counselling or art therapy treatment. If you are struggling with your mental health, there are options available for you. Find a counsellor in your area on www.counsellingmatch.com