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What You Should Look For In a Self-Help Book

A research study ranks the top books on depression and anxiety.

Self-help books are popular, but how useful and scientifically accurate are they? A study published in Professional Psychology, Research and Practice sought to answer this question.

The authors of the study wanted to find out whether books purporting to give sound psychological advice were consistent with science, and whether or not the material was presented in a manner that consumers could use in “self-diagnosis and treatment.”

To limit the scope, they only looked at books designed to help with depression and anxiety. To select the books, they looked at rankings and by cataloging the shelves of major book-store chains. The study included 50 books.

The raters included four psychologists affiliated with academic institutions. Each was or had been an active clinician, treating patients with anxiety symptoms and depression. All had conducted research on depression and anxiety. Three out of the four raters sat on editorial boards of scientific psychological journals.

They used a rating scale that looked at the following five factors: 1) the extent to which the book was grounded in psychological science, 2) whether or not the book provided realistic expectations, 3) whether or not it gave specific guidance, 4) did it “do no harm”, i.e. give information that was clearly false, and 5) the book’s overall usefulness.

The top 10 rated books from this study include (title followed by primary author):

1. The OCD Workbook, by Hyman, B.M.

2. Dying of Embarrassment, by Markway, B.

3. The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook, by Anthony, M.M.

4. Overcoming Compulsive Hoarding, by Neziroglu, F.

5. Stop Obsessing, by Foa, E.B.

6. The Cyclothymia Workbook, by Prentiss, P.

7. Bipolar Disorder Demystified, by Castle, L.R,

8. Feeling Good, by Burns, D.D.

9. Overcoming Compulsive Checking, by Hyman, B.M.

10. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders, by Penzel, F.

Based on this study, here are some tips on selecting a self-help book that has a good chance of working.

Look for a self-help book that focuses on a limited range of problems. The books that ranked the highest were ones that focused on a specific disorder, such as social anxiety disorder, or a specific problem, such as hoarding.

Check the author credentials. The authors of the study found that the books that ranked the highest were written by doctoral level psychologists, often ones affiliated with an academic institution.

Avoid books with claims that appear too good to be true. This may be obvious, but all of us can get sucked into wanting a book that will solve all our problems. If a book claims to do too much (for example, banish anxiety symptoms forever), you should be wary. This study found that 32% of the 50 books reviewed promised a complete cure!

Is the book based on scientific evidence?
This may be difficult for a consumer to know, but in general, the books that rated highly in this study were based on cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). More recently, there have been other types of therapy that have evidence to support their effectiveness. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) are two examples. There is also an explosion of books based on mindfulness practices, but I’m not aware of specific research on the effectiveness of mindfulness-based self-help books.

Look for a book that provides specific guidance for implementing the self-help techniques. Flip through the book and see if it looks like the book contains step-by-step, user-friendly instructions. Online sites frequently let you preview some of the book, often a whole chapter.

Look for a book that helps you monitor your progress. Many of the books that ranked highly in this study had forms and worksheets to track your progress. This isn’t necessary; you can always make your own forms. But having this kind of structure to the book is helpful.

Does the book address the possibility of relapse or setbacks? Again, you can browse the table of contents to see if this aspect is covered. Only 50% of the books in this study alerted the reader that setbacks are common and how to deal with them.

Does the book contain information on possible co-existing problems/disorders? Although this study found the most helpful books were ones dealing with a specific disorder, in reality people often have more than one disorder (called comorbidity). This should at least be mentioned in the book because it can often make self-help strategies more difficult.

Is there a section on when to seek professional help? The majority of the books reviewed did not prepare the reader for this issue. In other words, the authors presented an overly optimistic outlook that a book alone would lead to sustained improvement.

This was an overview of the study: Popular Self-Help Books for Anxiety, Depression and Trauma: How Scientifically Grounded and Useful Are They? Published in Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, by Richard E. Redding, James D. Herbert, Evan M. Forman, and Brandon A. Gaudiano. 2008, Vol. 39 (The link is to a PDF file, in case you want to see all 50 books that were ranked.)

Shyness is nice and
 shyness can stop you
 from doing all the things in life
 you’d like to.

–Ask, by The Smiths (Read how we named our blog.)

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I also write at The Self-Compassion Project, with its own Facebook page here.

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I am the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment, Painfully Shy, and Nurturing the Shy Child. Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety & Phobia was found to be one of the most useful and scientifically grounded self-help books in a research study published in Professional Psychology, Research and Practice. I’ve also been featured in the award-winning PBS documentary, Afraid of People.

Photos: Flickr, CC, Phing and Luisvilla

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