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Self Help Books that Work

Some are backed by science; others are bunk.

Every so often when you pour out your troubles a confidante will recommend a particular self-help book. She might even give you her copy.

It's easy to feel dismissed. After all, aren’t your problems much much worse than everyone else’s?

Okay, you know that’s not true, but it feels that way anyway. The truth is that self-help books can be as effective as standard medical care for mild depression and some other problems. Most of the effective books rely on cogntive-behavioral exercises: you'll be asked to notice unhappy thoughts, evaluate how true they are, and substitute more accurate ones. The books can't replace a therapist, if you need one, but they can beat meds.

John Norcross, coauthor of a professionals' guide to self-help resources, asked more than 2,500 mental health providers to rate the self-help titles their clients had tried. David Burns’s Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, came out on top. Two autobiographies that offer coping strategies for mood disorders were also popular: William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Kay Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind.

Feeling Good has at least one study behind it: in one small 2010 trial, doctors told depressed patients to follow its advice and compared them to a control group of patients who received standard medical care, which usually included an anti-depressant. Both groups showed significant improvement, doing about equally well.

In another study, mildly depressed people met for a 90-minute class weekly for 8 weeks, in which a teacher walked them through exercises written by the Scottish psychologist Chris Williams, author of Overcoming Depression and Low Mood: A Five Areas Approach. About half of them were taking anti-depressants as well. Six months later, they were doing far better than a control group that was receiving standard medical care, which again included anti-depressants for about half.

Self-help books can work for other issues beside depression. Check this list of highly-rated self-help books, based on Norcross' research, dealing with anger, anxiety, lack of assertiveness, grieving, marriage, and more. Consider a book when you’re too embarrassed or shy to talk: there’s some evidence that self-help books work particularly well for sexual problems, for example.

The British National Health Service (NHS) has endorsed book therapy, also known as “bibliotherapy,” in a program called “Reading Well: Books on Prescription,” which includes a list of books backed up by scientific evidence, according to the agency. The public gives the program high marks.

For depression, the NHS recommends Williams’ book mentioned earlier; Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think, by Dennis Greenberger and Christine A. Padesky; and Overcoming Depression: A Self-help Guide Using Cognitive Behavioral Techniques, by Chris Gilbert. The agency also has an arm that promotes fiction, poetry, and memoirs as mood-boosters, though without studies to back them up.

The British are really into reading! For a fee, you can even get a personalized reading prescription from a private British organization called The School of Life.

Although your friend’s pick may be wonderful, be careful: some self-help books contain bunk. For example:

Don't accept on faith that venting anger will make you less angry. Notice what happens when you vent. Do you get angrier?

Pouring out your despair in a journal may not help, either.

Repeat after me: Visualizing that you’ll find a parking spot or do well on a test does not make it happen. No, it doesn't. Magical thinking is popular, but can back-fire. When you come down from your cloud, you might feel worse. At best, you've wasted your time.

Put the bad book aside and try another, preferably one recommended by psychologists. When you arrive at the voice that speaks to you—and make a real effort to do the exercises--you could be well on your way.

A version of this story appears on Your Care Everywhere.

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