Science and Sensibility

A psychological potpourri

How to Find a Great Psychology Self-Help Book

Separating self-help treasures from trash

You can access many psychology self-help books that top experts write. However, can you benefit from reading about how to combat anxiety, depression, and other psychological conditions? For example, if you suffer from anxiety or depression, you may be surprised to learn that using an anxiety or depression self-help book can be an effective way to combat these conditions (1, 2, 3, 4).

healing through reading approach can be especially useful if you believe you can address your problems if you have the tools (5).  Thus, if you believe that you can put psychological information to work, you are likely to benefit from a cognitive behavioral self-help manual (6). Even if you don’t think you can benefit, test that hypothesis. Select and read a promising book.

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Selecting Your Book

Psychology self-help books vary in caliber. Authors of evidence-based books normally deliver useful information. Books written by people, who knowingly or inadvertently engage in quackery, often overflow with malarkey.  So, how do you separate the treasures from the trash? Here are eight sample ways:

1. Look at the author’s credentials and reputation. Is the person a licensed therapist and\or nationally recognized expert?  Theme-centered books, such as on perfectionism, that doctoral-level mental health specialists write, have the greater potential for being helpful (7). 

2. Insightful and innovative therapists routinely create new techniques that can produce measurable outcomes that may be the next evidence-based techniques. Do you see evidence for these qualities in the author’s writings? An affirmative answer suggests the book might be worth reading.

3. Look for references in the text that give supporting evidence for the suggested techniques. 

4. You can normally have more confidence in a book anchored to research-supported therapy systems and experimentally validated techniques. For example, rational emotive behavioral therapy, cognitive therapy, multimodal therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy approaches, are research-supported, action-oriented, psychotherapy systems with principles and practices that translate into written self-help formats.

5. Look at the publisher. Does the organization have a good reputation publishing psychology self-help books?

6. Check the table of contents. Does the book cover the topics that are important to you? However, be careful. You may not be familiar with content that is useful for you to know. Some books have information about the topic that may be new to you.

7. Examine the references in the bibliography. Do they mainly come from professional journals and books written by experts in the field?

8. If the book has an index, does it cover a range of issues related to the theme of the book?

If a book appears to meet most of these criteria, you’ve taken a useful step in the direction of getting valid information. Now, how can you benefit from the information in the book?

Benefitting From Your Book

Let's look at four reasons for using a self-help book approach and seven ways to get the most from these readings.

Here are four reasons why you might benefit from a self-help book approach.

1. You can identify and flesh out key issues within a reasonably short time-span.

2.  You can return to review a section of the book that you once found helpful.

3. You can flag and highlight concepts that you find especially meaningful and useful that you can use to meet a new challenge.

4. You can quickly test an appealing idea. You can study an idea or exercise in depth. You can do something in between. Thus, you can pace yourself.

Whether you are working with an action-oriented therapist or working through your problems using a self-help book, or doing both, you are going to do most of the work. That work is positive in that you can develop self-efficacy (the ability to organize and regulate your goal-directed behavior to bring about a favorable outcome), build resilience, and credit yourself for the progress that you make in resolving your problems.

Here are seven ways to use self-help reading materials that you can also use in working with an action-oriented therapist who gives self-help behavioral assignments:

1. Select approaches that you think are most relevant for advancing your self-help agenda.  

2. Force yourself to follow through on meaningful exercises that you feel tempted to put off. These may be the exercises most worth pursuing.

3. Refuse to accept your own excuses for inaction. Waiting to feel comfortable or inspired is an excuse to procrastinate. If you think an action could be helpful, push yourself to do it.   

4. When you complete an exercise, you show yourself what you can do. How well did you do it? If you learn an important concept, and how to apply it, practice the principle until it becomes an automatic skill. In applying self-help methods, persistence predicts a successful outcome (8).

5. If you doubt your abilities to self-improve, take a moment to think about the many important things you’ve accomplished where you overcame your doubts.  I’ll bet you’ll see a link between allowing yourself to try, and the accomplishments that you earned.

6. You can take basic and advanced self-help ideas and find many ways to apply them to your life. For example, you can take what worked in one situation and apply it to another. This intentional generalization can result in solidifying the progress that you make.

7. Positive personal change—the kind that sticks—ordinarily takes time, work, and persistence.  As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Nevertheless, you may make rapid changes using insights you gain from your self-help readings.

Turning Any Psychology Self-Help Book into a Workbook

Workbooks rely on a higher-level involvement with the content and its applications. In short, such books tend to be more interactive. That's a plus in that the more practice you get in experimenting with valid concepts, the more likely you are to progress.

Few self-help books give you space at the end of each chapter for a framework to organize information that you found important. Even if a self-help book doesn’t give you space to record what you are learning and doing, you can do this for yourself and give yourself more of a feel of taking a workbook approach. 

Print the following workbook exercise and use a new form for each chapter.

Key ideas (What idea did you find most helpful in this chapter?):

Action steps (What main step[s] can you take to translate the idea into an assertive action?):

Execution (How did you execute the step[s]?):

Results (What did you learn?):

Revisions (What adjustments make sense to make? Test them and see what happens.)

Quality self-help readings rely on science, human insights, creativity, and an educational framework for you to develop coping concepts and to stretch your positive resources. Although self-help readings are an important resource for self-improvement, some may choose options that are more suited to their special learning and problem-solving styles.

1. You may benefit by group or individual therapy, or by working through problems with the help of a support group.

2. You may figure things out on your own.  

3. You may progress using a combination of counseling and self-help readings.

4. You may gain from Internet and computerized guided self-help programs.

Whatever you do, never give up on yourself!

© Dr. Bill Knaus, author of The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression (Second Edition)The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety, and The Procrastination Workbook.


1.  Gregory, R. J., C. S. Schwer, T. W. Lee, and J. C. Wise. 2004. Cognitive bibliotherapy for depression: A meta-analysis. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 35: 275–280.

2. Haug, T.,  T. Nordgreen, L.G. Öst, and O. E. Havik. 2012. Self-help treatment of anxiety disorders: A meta-analysis and meta-regression of effects and potential moderators. Clinical Psychology Review 32: 425-445.

3. Newman, M. G., L. E. Szkodny, S. J. Llera, and A. Przeworski. 2011. A review of technology-assisted self-help and minimal contact therapies for anxiety and depression: Is human contact necessary for therapeutic efficacy? Clinical Psychology Review 31: 89–103.

4. Wampold, B. E., T. Minami, T. W. Baskin, and S. C. Tierney. 2002. A meta-(re)analysis of the effects of cognitive therapy versus “other therapies” for depression. Journal of Affective Disorders 69: 159–165.

5. Burns, D. D., and S. Nolen-Hoeksema. 1991. Coping styles, homework compliance, and the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 59: 305–311.

6. Mahalik, J. R., and D. M. Kivlighan. 1988. Self-help treatment for depression: Who succeeds? Journal of Counseling Psychology 35: 237–242.

7. Redding, R. E., J. D. Herbert, E. M. Forman, and B. A. Gaudiano. 2008. Popular self-help books for anxiety, depres­sion, and trauma: How scientifically grounded and useful are they? Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 39: 537–545.

8. Gould, R. A., and G. Clum. 1993. A meta-analysis of self-help treatment approaches. Clinical Psychology Review 13: 169–186.

Dr. Bill Knaus, Ed.D., is the author of more than 20 books; one, "Overcoming Procrastination", was co-authored with Albert Ellis.


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