Can Reading a Self-help Book be as effective as Therapy?

The ultimate goal of therapy… it’s too hard a question. The words come to me like tranquillity, like fulfilment, like realizing your potential.” – Irvin D. Yalom

Have you ever used a self-help book to help overcome a psychological or emotional problem in your life?

Many years ago I was struggling with depression and anxiety. It was having a big negative impact on my life. I needed to do something to help myself, but what?

I resisted seeking professional help and choose a different approach.

One day, after some home research, I found myself in a bookshop browsing the self-help aisles searching for a specific title. That specific title was ‘Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy’ by David Burn.

That one book provided me with everything I needed. It helped me gain a better understanding of my suffering. It taught me the importance of disconnecting from the insanity of the thinking mind.

Fast forward 15 years and I am now a qualified counsellor helping people come to terms with their psychological and emotional issues. So knowing what I know now would I still recommend a self-help book?

Not all self-help books solve problems

My answer- ‘SOMETIMES!’

Let me explain.

Generally self-help books fall into 2 categories:

•          Problem Focused books.

•          Growth Oriented books

Problem Focused books contain descriptions and specific techniques how to recognize and manage symptoms associated with problems such as depression or anxiety.

Growth Oriented books focus on identifying strategies to become a better you and reach personal outcome goals. They are less prone to address specific issues.

Understanding these differences is important in picking the right self-help for you. 

Picking the right self-help book for your needs

Take a look at this recent list of Amazons top 10 self-help titles:

  • Unfu*k yourself: Get out of your head and into your life – Gary John Bishop;
  • Can’t hurt me: Master your mind and defy the odds – David Goggins;
  • Girl, stop apologizing – Rachel Hollis;
  • The subtle art of not giving a fu*k: A counterintuitive approach to living a good life – Mark Manson;
  • The 7 habits of highly effective people – Stephen R Covey;
  • Maybe you should talk to someone – A therapist, HER therapist and our lives revealed – Lori Gottlieb;
  • Dare to lead – Brené Brown;
  • How to win friends and influence people – Dale Carnegie;
  • Unlimited memory: How to use advanced learning strategies to learn faster, remember more and be more productive – Kevin Horsley;
  • Atomic habits: An easy and proven way to build good habits and break bad ones – James Clear.

 I have read 60% of the titles listed. Excellent sources of knowledge. Each has something unique to say that gets you thinking.

However, the message, in most cases, is not specific to your situation and needs. They fall into the self-help category of ‘growth oriented books’.

Alternatively, finding a problem focused book will address specific step by step strategies for tackling specific problem.

After doing my research, David Burn’s ‘Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy’, came out on top for me. It gave me all I needed to conquer my depression and anxiety.  

So what made this self-help book so special?

Find a book recommended by the experts

There’s evidence to suggest self-help books are effective in the treatment of psychological and emotional conditions. David Burn’s “Feeling good” is an impressive standout.

In 2003 John Norcross released a book called ‘Authoritative Guide to Self-Help Resources in Mental Health’. He asked more than 2,500 mental health professionals to provide recommendations on self-help titles their clients had tried. 

David Burn’s book came out on top.

Similarly, in a recent national survey of mental health professionals, ‘Feeling Good’ was rated the most frequently recommended self-help book for people suffering with mental health issues.

Nearly 40 years after it was published, ‘Feeling Good’ remains in the number 1 spot on Amazon for books on depression. Amazingly, over 4 million copies have been sold in the US alone.

David Burns provides an easy-to-understand method which allows us to understand how our minds tend to distort our thoughts that lead to depression, anxiety, and anger. The theories and techniques in this book are based on scientific research.

He has done a great job of essentially replacing the need for a real therapist. Any time I come across someone who needs a therapist but can’t get one for some reason, this book is my recommendation.

What should you being looking for in a good self-help book?

The features that make self-help books effective or not

In a review of 50 self-help books, research by Redding and colleagues assessed the qualities of the most effective and least effective books.

The top 5 most effective self-help books shared several common features:

  • They all covered specific anxiety disorders
  • Relied on cognitive behavioural therapy exercises
  • Had doctoral-level authors
  • Cited peer-reviewed journals or professional literature.

The least effective 5 self-help books:

  • Offer unconventional or non-scientific approaches.
  • They tend to cover multiple problems
  • Make claims beyond the evidence supported by current research.
  • Authors of these books were not mental health professionals

6 Tips to help you select the Perfect self-help book

Understanding what commonly makes a self-book effective gives you some insight in what to look out for.

Based on what we know here’s 6 tips for selecting a self-help book that has a good chance of working:

  1. Look for a self-help book that focuses on a limited range of problems.
  2. Check the author credentials.
  3. Avoid books with claims that appear too good to be true.
  4. Is the book based on scientific evidence?
  5. Look for a book that provides specific guidance for implementing the self-help techniques.
  6. Look for a book that helps you monitor your progress.

Common cited criticisms of self-help literature

Self-help books have considerable potential if we choose wisely. However, it’s important to remember getting the wrong self-help book can set you back in your search for answers to the dilemmas you face. 

So what should you be mindful of before you make that decision to use a book to help you with your issue?

Generally there are 4 key areas for consideration:

  1. Self-help books utilize a “one size fits all’ approach. There is no allowance for individual personality, diagnosis, or personal circumstances which may reduce effectiveness.
  2. “Do it yourself” techniques can be incorrectly actioned by the individual. This improper implementation of treatment can potentially result in symptoms getting worse.
  3. Extravagant titles offer overstated claims and promises without clarifying any limitations relating to self-administered treatment.
  4. Critics claim the majority of self-help books published have never been validated by research.

The implications a self-help book failing to help relieve distress symptoms cannot be underestimated.

What are the benefits of seeking therapy help from a mental health professional?

What a therapist offers that a book cannot?

The essence of all successful therapy is the connection between you and your therapist- “therapeutic alliance”.

This is the most critical quality in all therapy that can never be replicated by reading a book.

A book can never:

  • Treat you as an unique individual
  • Know what you are thinking and feeling
  • Give individualised feedback
  • Help you through emotional challenges and triggers
  • Meet you where you are at
  • Provide tailored professional support and guidance to meet your needs
  • Provide a safe environment to be heard and validated.

The need to take responsibility

Ultimately, people don’t always have access to adequate therapy treatment. They may live in isolated areas, or can’t afford the professional services. This offers a possibility for self-help books to fill the gap.

If that becomes your course of action it’s essential to remember you need to be the one who takes responsibility for your actions. This is where many fall short.

You need to decide how the ideas you read about can work given your circumstances and surroundings. The book can change your perspective, but you must do the work to get you there.

You could read every single self-help book ever published on weight loss, but if you don’t apply that knowledge things will not change.

Books make the work a bit easier, but you do not want to become a passive consumer of knowledge. You need to implement what you learn and creating something new.

In my view self-help books appear to be an available alternative for people unable to or reluctant to engage in psychotherapy.

In an ideal world, self-help books would be based on principles with scientific evidence and research. They would be thoroughly tested to determine if:

  • Consumers can understand and correctly follow them.
  • Consumers actually get better.
  • Books provide ways for readers to evaluate their progress.
  • Books would be up-dated in accordance with new research.

Regrettably, only a tiny minority of self-help books in the market place have been evaluated to meet these guidelines.

I’m not against self-help books. They have a place and I read most that become available. However, I do believe it can be potentially harmful for someone who is struggling with severe emotional distress to be put in a position where they put 100% faith into a book that makes huge unfounded claims or offers miracle cures.

I often recommend books to clients to give them a better understanding of their condition if I feel it will help. There are many great self-books worth a read, but going from theory to practice is a big leap without a parachute.

If you are mentally or emotionally struggling there can be nothing more supportive than seeking help from a mental health professional. They have the expertise and training to guide you through the storm.

What are your thoughts around this topic?

Have you ever tried to use a self-help book to overcome an emotional issue in your life? What was the outcome?

Please feel free to share below.

Also, if you need any help please reach out.

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