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Summary: Reasons to Stay Alive: An optimistic memoir about depression and anxiety by Matt Haig

Key Takeaways

  • If you are a person who wants to learn more about depression and anxiety, and how to overcome them, then this book is for you. In this article, we will summarize and review the book Reasons to Stay Alive: An optimistic memoir about depression and anxiety by Matt Haig, and show you how it can help you understand and improve your mental health.
  • Are you ready to discover the reasons to stay alive, and the ways to enjoy and appreciate your life? Then read on to find out more about this book and how it can inspire you to live fully and happily.

Reasons to Stay Alive (2015) tells the story of Matt Haig’s struggle with depression and anxiety, which was so severe that he had constant panic attacks and feared leaving the house. It reveals how Haig learned to channel his natural intensity into the creation of art and developed some unusual techniques for easing his distressed mind.

Introduction: Become inspired to befriend your demons.

What would you do if, without warning, you were no longer able to make sense of the world around you? If the very fabric of your mind seemed to unravel, and you were suddenly unable to think?

In his early twenties, after experiencing a panic attack so severe that he was unable to leave the house, Matt Haig had to grapple with precisely these questions. The answers he arrived at are both inspired and inspiring. Rather than avoiding his discomfort, or numbing it with drugs and alcohol, he allowed himself to feel fully for the first time in his life.

In these summaries, you’ll learn how Haig developed a method of fighting fear with fear, and refused to allow himself to hide in his comfort zone. You’ll also learn how books became a lifeline for him, providing company when he was at his loneliest and giving him a language to understand his experiences.

In these summaries, you’ll discover

  • why being depressed made Abraham Lincoln a great leader;
  • how running and meditation can make us feel better; and
  • why men are more at risk of dying by suicide.

Book Summary: Reasons to Stay Alive - An optimistic memoir about depression and anxiety

Matt Haig suddenly began to experience intense anxiety, and it affected every aspect of his life.

On a warm sunny day in Ibiza, Spain, Matt Haig experienced a rush of panic so intense that he couldn’t get out of bed. He was 24 years old, and had been living in a beautiful villa with his girlfriend, working at a nightclub over the summer.

He’d been drinking a lot and was sometimes worried about what to do with his life, but up until then he hadn’t felt particularly depressed. Then the panic began.

For three days, Haig could neither sleep nor get out of bed. The panic was constant, unrelenting. His heart pounded so hard he felt sure he would die.

The key message here is: Matt Haig suddenly began to experience intense anxiety, and it affected every aspect of his life.

At one stage, the feeling of panic became unbearable, and Haig seriously thought about taking his own life. He even went and stood at the edge of a cliff near the villa, willing himself to jump off. But the thought of the pain his death would cause his loved ones held him back.

His girlfriend, Andrea, was, understandably, very worried. She insisted they visit a doctor, who prescribed some tranquilizers. They didn’t help much, but at least they dulled Haig’s senses long enough to allow him to return home to the United Kingdom, where his parents were anxiously waiting.

To an outsider, their lives in the United Kingdom might have seemed very peaceful. Haig lounged around the house, read the paper, did some cooking. But his thoughts were anything but peaceful. He was in the grip of a toxic combination of depression and anxiety. While the depression filled him with dark thoughts, making him feel worthless and futureless, the anxiety flooded him with constant panic.

Even a trip to the corner store became a major ordeal. Haig would set off to buy something simple like a bottle of milk, and start hyperventilating as soon as he left the house. He’d start hallucinating that demons were taunting him, or imagine that something terrible was about to happen.

Inside the shop, his anxiety would become even worse. He’d become so overwhelmed by all the products with their bright labels that he could barely find the milk. When he finally found it, he still had to suffer through a social interaction with the cashier, trying desperately to appear normal.

There were warning signs that could have alerted Haig to the coming breakdown.

Can intense anxiety and depression really strike like a bolt from the blue? Such a bolt seemed to have struck Haig. The abrupt onset of what he describes as his “breakdown” was terrifying. It felt as though a switch had been flipped in his brain, triggering a sudden malfunction. However, in retrospect, he can see that he started feeling anxious long before the panic attacks he experienced in Ibiza.

The key message in this summary is: There were warning signs that could have alerted Haig to the coming breakdown.

Haig remembers first feeling anxious at the age of ten. He always hated when his parents went out at night, and he can vividly remember sitting at home as a child, waiting for them to return, fearing the worst. Had they been in an accident? Or mauled by wild dogs?

This separation anxiety only increased during his teenage years. When he was 13, for instance, he went on a school camping trip and had to sleep in a barn with the boys in his class. This made him so anxious that, while fully asleep, he began shouting and then sleepwalked to a window and punched his arm through the glass.

Haig’s anxiety didn’t disappear when he went to college, either, though he dulled it with alcohol. But even a few stiff drinks couldn’t stifle the panic he felt when he had to do a 20-minute presentation on cubism for an art history course. The thought of speaking in public made him want to hyperventilate, but there was no way to get out of it. He hid in the toilet until just before the class began, and then forced himself to stumble through the notes he’d prepared. The intense pressure took a toll. It made him derealize for the first time: he started to feel completely detached from his body, like he was on the outside, looking in.

Of course, it’s easy to see warning signs in retrospect. At the time, these incidents felt normal to Haig. And, in a sense, they are normal. We all have experiences of feeling anxious from time to time. But when does an anxious feeling turn into a full-blown breakdown? Haig believes that his anxiety got so bad because he tried so hard to repress it. He desperately wanted to fit in with the people around him, so he tried to tone down his anxious intensity, or drown it out with booze.

We don’t know exactly what causes anxiety and depression, and there is no one-size-fits-all way to fix it.

Modern medicine has come up with cures for ailments that, just a few decades ago, seemed incurable. HIV is now no longer a death sentence, and childbirth is not an experience that women have to fear. We’ve become used to finding scientific answers to all our problems.

Unfortunately, the scientific research is much less conclusive when it comes to depression. What causes it? How can we fix it? There is no definitive answer. And there are many conflicting theories.

The key message here is: We don’t know exactly what causes anxiety and depression, and there is no one-size-fits-all way to fix it.

For a long time, researchers have believed that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Specifically, that people with depression have low levels of serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that scientists believe helps regulate your mood. That hypothesis has spawned a six-billion-dollar pharmaceutical industry.

But it’s not that simple. While pharmaceutical drugs do help millions of people, there are many others who experience no benefit from taking them. Or who have better results from drugs that target completely different brain chemicals.

Some scientists even believe that chemical levels have nothing to do with depression. They claim that depression is the result of a malfunctioning nucleus accumbens – the tiny area in the center of your brain that is thought to be responsible for pleasure and addiction.

All of these theories have been criticized for seeming to treat brains as though they exist separately from people’s bodies. But we only have to look at some of the symptoms of depression and anxiety to know that no such separation exists. Many of Haig’s symptoms were intensely physical. Anxiety manifested as tingling sensations all over his body and as hyperventilation. Depression felt like a physical pain lodged heavily in his chest.

There’s also the fact that human bodies don’t exist in a vacuum. According to Jonathan Rottenberg, an evolutionary psychologist, our social environments have as much of an effect on our mental well-being as our brain chemistry.

All of this is to say that understanding what causes depression is very complex. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to fixing it. And, sadly, there’s not always a magic pill. But, like the author, you can find your way out. But first you’ll have to accept the inherent complexity of the condition, and find tools that work for you.

People with depression, and especially men, suffer from social isolation.

If you break your leg, you get a cast and crutches. People can immediately see that something has happened to you and will often try to help. Strangers will give up their seat on the bus. Friends will drop off groceries. It’s not easy. But at least people know to treat you with care.

Depression and anxiety aren’t only hard to handle; they’re invisible. Haig could be in the grip of a terrible panic attack, but from the outside he would just seem a bit slow or distracted. A very observant person might notice that his pupils were dilated, but they’d have no idea what he was really going through.

The key message here is: People with depression, and especially men, suffer from social isolation.

On one of his lowest days following the breakdown, Haig began sobbing in his parent’s bedroom. His father walked in, and wrapped him in a tight hug. For a moment, Haig felt comforted. Then his father whispered, “Pull yourself together.”

His father was just trying to help. He desperately wanted his son to get well. But asking Haig to pull himself together was asking the impossible. Haig felt like his mind had disintegrated. He didn’t have enough control to banish that feeling. He needed people to allow him to show how terrible he was feeling and support him in that, rather than telling him to get it together.

The fact that men aren’t given space to talk about their feelings can have deadly consequences. Though twice as many women suffer depression as men, men are much more likely to take their own lives. In the United Kingdom, men die by suicide at three times the rate that women do. In Greece, the rate is twice that, with six male suicides for every female suicide.

These statistics are alarming. It seems that many men believe that suicide is the only way out. Haig thinks that this won’t change until we learn to talk about depression. It took him ten years to talk openly about what happened to him. But he was always able to talk honestly to Andrea, which he believes saved his life.

Discussing depression and anxiety should carry no more stigma than discussing a broken leg. We should regard it as something normal, not something shameful. As something that can happen to anyone, and doesn’t say anything about who they are. And as something that requires care and support.

Books became a lifeline for Haig because they gave him language to understand his experience.

Imagine you’re trying to explain something to a good friend. You open your mouth; you form the words; but your friend doesn’t understand you. You try and you try, but it’s as though you’re speaking gibberish, and your friend only stares at you uncomprehendingly.

That was how the author felt after his breakdown. He felt utterly unable to explain to family and friends how he was feeling. Their worldview was so different from his that it was like – to use the author’s words – “trying to describe earth to aliens.” What made it worse was that he could barely explain his experience himself. He was so buried in the depression and anxiety that he lost all perspective on his own situation.

Here’s the key message: Books became a lifeline for Haig because they gave him language to understand his experience.

In the midst of this anguish he found an unlikely lifeline: books. Reading books is often seen as a form of escapism, but for the author it was the opposite. It was a way to find himself again.

Reading about Holden Caulfield’s wry cynicism in The Catcher in the Rye, or about Albert Camus’s alienated protagonist in The Outsider, made him feel less alone for the first time. He could tell that the authors understood what it was like to be isolated from society, and to experience suffering.

Literary language can be bizarre. Writers use poetic license to describe the world in heightened terms. But it was precisely such language that helped Haig make sense of his experiences. After all, the way he saw the world was now nothing like the way “normal” people saw it. Poetic language offered a means of describing his experience to himself.

Books also allowed him to borrow a sense of purpose. While his own life, to put it bluntly, had “lost the plot,” the protagonists he read about lived exciting, action-filled lives. They traveled to distant countries; they fought in wars. In his deep depression Haig felt like he had no future, but it was comforting to read about other people who did.

Fourteen years after his breakdown, Haig has finally found the words to describe his experiences of anxiety and depression. His book is now a guide that other people can hold onto, proof that there is a future waiting, even if you can’t see it at the time.

Haig started to recover by running toward what he most feared.

A few months after his breakdown, Haig woke up and thought idly about the day ahead. Then he realized with a shock that the thought hadn’t been laced with any anxiety. It was just neutral. It was the first time he’d felt calm for months. A few days later, he enjoyed the feeling of sun on his face. This, too, was a novel experience: he hadn’t registered feelings of pleasure for a long time. These interludes of calm gave him hope. They seemed like small but promising signs that he could get better.

The key message here is: Haig started to recover by running toward what he most feared.

But those interludes of calm were few and far between, and Haig’s hope soon gave way to darker thoughts. He worried constantly that his depression and anxiety meant that he was losing his mind. This is called meta anxiety, which can be defined simply as worrying about worrying. Meta anxiety can keep people stuck in a frantic cycle – anxiety begetting anxiety begetting anxiety. It was the same for Haig, until he found a way to use it to aid his recovery.

Haig was terrified of being alone, leaving the house, or interacting with other people. Gradually, his world had become smaller and smaller. About four years after his breakdown, Andrea, his girlfriend, surprised him with a spontaneous trip to Paris for his birthday. The idea filled him with horror. He could hardly walk down the street without having a panic attack, let alone travel to another country.

But then he started thinking about what it would mean if he couldn’t go. A scared voice in his head told him that if he didn’t go he really would be – the word felt unavoidable – “crazy.” So, combatting his fear of public spaces with his fear of mental collapse, he decided to take the trip. While he felt very anxious throughout his stay in Paris, he didn’t have a panic attack. He got through it better than he thought he would. And being in a new place gave him perspective on his life. It literally made his world bigger, and allowed him to take his own thought processes a little less seriously.

By running toward his fears, Haig was able to slowly discover that what he believed wasn’t necessarily true. He could behave strangely in a shop and the world wouldn’t end. He could have a panic attack on the train and live to tell the tale. He was much more resilient than his depressed and anxious thoughts had led him to believe.

Having anxiety and depression can make you more perceptive and empathetic.

It may surprise you to hear that Abraham Lincoln struggled with depression. So did Winston Churchill. Both of these men were formidably ambitious and had impressive careers. They also spent large parts of their lives feeling anxious and depressed.

While it’s sometimes said that they achieved so much in spite of their depression, you could also formulate it differently. Perhaps they were able to achieve what they did because they had experienced anxiety and depression.

The key message in this summary is: Having anxiety and depression can make you more perceptive and empathetic.

That might seem counterintuitive. We’ve just spent a long time talking about how depression can immobilize you and colonize your mind with terrifying thoughts. How could that be conducive to leading a country?

Well, depression makes you intensely aware of how painful life can be. Perhaps the deep empathy that allowed Lincoln to be able to see how inhumane slavery was came from his experience of depressive breakdowns. Winston Churchill was one of the first European leaders to intuit how dangerous the Nazi party would become. It’s very likely that his intimate knowledge of the darker sides of life gave him the sensitive perception that other leaders lacked.

Experiences of depression and anxiety create a thin skin that allows you to be intensely present to the world around you. This isn’t only useful for politicians. Many esteemed writers have turned their perceptive understandings of the world into art. And Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream wouldn’t exist if Munch hadn’t had a panic attack when he was on a walk at sunset.

Haig had always resisted his own intensity. He hated the fact that he was so sensitive, that he cried easily. But after his breakdown, he slowly came to embrace being thin-skinned. It was overwhelming, but it was also what enabled him to become a writer. And even apart from his professional life, it’s what has allowed him to enjoy his life so fully in the present.

Being thin-skinned means that he stays close to his feelings. During the breakdown those feelings were largely negative, but they can also be extremely positive. They make him feel deep joy at spending time with his children. Or weep in appreciation when reading a good book.

Having experienced depression and anxiety means that he doesn’t take any part of his life for granted – neither the good nor the bad, the dark nor the light.

Recovery from depression isn’t linear.

People often think of recovery moving in a straight line. That you’ll move slowly upward from mental distress to health, and be “cured.”

The reality is much messier. Fourteen years after having the breakdown in Ibiza, Haig has stopped waiting to completely recover. He’s realized that his moods will go up and down, and that he won’t always feel good. What he knows now is that anxious states will pass. And that life can be richer and more enjoyable than he ever would have imagined while in the grip of the breakdown.

The key message here is: Recovery from depression isn’t linear.

Instead of looking for a magic cure, Haig has developed a set of daily tools to make himself feel better. Some of the tools are very simple, like eating well and getting enough sleep, and wearing clean clothes.

He knows that when he takes care of his body, his mind feels good, too. So he goes running, tearing along the pavement every day. After a long run he’ll be breathless and sweaty and much more relaxed than when he started.

To slow down his anxious brain, he started practicing yoga and doing meditation. Unsurprisingly, slowing down his movements and breath also calms his racing thoughts.

He also limits his time on social media like Facebook and Twitter. Instead, he tries to spend more time with the people he loves, hanging out with Andrea, who he’s now married to, and their two children.

He also still indulges in his greatest addiction of all: reading. Reading and travel allow him to get out of his own head and into someone else’s, which is a skill that he channels into his writing.

Perhaps most importantly of all, he’s very patient with himself. When he had a panic attack at a party full of important writers and ran away, he didn’t spend a lot of time beating himself up about it. Instead, he celebrated the fact that he’d even dared to go to the party, a feat which would have been unthinkable in his recent past.

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution for curing his depression, Haig has found solutions that make it easier to live with, and very many reasons to stay alive.


The key message in these summaries:

When you’re in the grip of anxiety and depression, you view the world through a distorted filter. It feels like life will never be enjoyable again, like you have nothing to look forward to. But that’s not true. With time you’ll be able to regain your sense of perspective, and develop tools to start feeling better. Having experienced anxiety and depression will give you an enhanced sensitivity to the world. This can be overwhelming, but it can also fill you with delight.

Actionable advice:

Pinpoint what improves your mood.

The things that make you feel good or bad are as unique as your fingerprints. For one person, peace comes from dancing in the center of a mosh pit. For another, from a bout of silent meditation. Make your own list of things that are sure to put you in a good headspace, and practice doing at least one every day.

About the author

Matt Haig is the internationally bestselling writer of six novels, including the New York Times bestseller The Midnight Library and How To Stop Time. He has also written award-winning children’s books. His work has been translated into thirty languages. He has written two memoirs, Reasons to Stay Alive, an international bestseller, and Notes on a Nervous Planet.


Psychology, Nutrition, Biography, Memoir, Mental Health, Self Help, Autobiography, Mental Illness, Death and Grief, Depression, Anxiety, Philosophy, Humor, Inspirational, Coping with Suicide Grief


The book is a memoir by British author Matt Haig, who suffered from severe depression and anxiety in his twenties. The book recounts his personal journey of recovery, as well as his insights and observations on the nature and causes of mental illness, the stigma and misconceptions surrounding it, and the strategies and resources that can help people cope and heal. The book is divided into five parts, each corresponding to a stage of Haig’s experience: Falling, Landing, Rising, Living, and Being. The book also includes lists, statistics, quotes, anecdotes, and advice that illustrate and supplement Haig’s main points. Some of the topics that the book covers are:

  • How Haig developed depression and anxiety while living in Ibiza with his girlfriend, and how he contemplated suicide but decided to stay alive for the sake of his loved ones.
  • How Haig returned to England and stayed with his parents, who supported him through his darkest moments and helped him find professional help.
  • How Haig gradually recovered from his depression and anxiety, with the help of medication, therapy, reading, writing, exercise, nature, and mindfulness.
  • How Haig learned to accept and appreciate his life, his relationships, his work, and his identity, and how he found joy and meaning in the small and big things.
  • How Haig continues to deal with his mental health challenges, and how he shares his story and his wisdom with others who may be going through similar struggles.

The book is a honest and inspiring account of Haig’s struggle and triumph over depression and anxiety. Haig writes with clarity, humor, and compassion, sharing his personal and intimate details, as well as his universal and profound insights. The book is not a self-help manual or a medical guide, but a personal and literary exploration of the human condition, the challenges and opportunities of living in the modern world, and the power and beauty of the human mind and spirit. The book is not only informative and educational, but also entertaining and moving. The book is a testament to Haig’s courage and resilience, as well as his creativity and generosity. The book is a valuable and uplifting resource for anyone who has experienced or knows someone who has experienced mental illness, or anyone who wants to learn more about this important and relevant topic.

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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