Anyone who has ever watched "Oprah" knows that the American public has a voracious appetite for self-help. And according to a 2000 study in the journal Psychotherapy (Vol. 37, No. 4, pages 370-377), about 85 percent of psychologists recommend self-help books to their clients. But with all the books out there-and more being published as you read this-how can a practitioner know which ones to recommend?
The 2,000-plus tomes published every year are of widely varying quality. Many may be useless yet essentially benign, but some carry harmful messages, says John C. Norcross, PhD, alluding to a recent bestseller that proclaims that positive thoughts attract positive events and negative thoughts attract bad events.
"So if something bad happens to you, it's your fault!" exclaims Norcross, the lead author of the Psychotherapy article and an expert on self-help and bibliotherapy.
Psychology has an obligation not only to warn clients about volumes that don't work but also to steer them away from ones that can be destructive, he says.
Norcross's research has found no correlation between how popular a book is and how effective its treatment methods are.
"Ninety-five percent of self-help books are published without any scientific evidence to support that they work as self-help," he says.
In the absence of empirical evidence, practitioners are forced to rely on personal experience of what works and colleague recommendations. There are many good books out there-too many for one article to chronicle. However, in the spirit of colleague recommendation, here are a few member favorites.
Anneliese Singh, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Georgia and a private practitioner in Atlanta.
Singh's eclectic list includes titles that tell the real stories of people's lives:
"Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia," by Elizabeth Gilbert (Penguin, 2007). Gilbert's humorous, wide-ranging tale brings home the challenges of the search for self and the pain of loss. Reading about someone else's struggles illustrates the realization that these are universal themes and the client is not alone, says Singh.
"YELL-Oh Girls: Emerging Voices Explore Culture, Identity and Growing Up Asian American," edited by Vickie Nam (Harper Paperbacks, 2001). Clients usually find one story that speaks to them in this collection written by Asian-American girls and women. "They really connect with the women in the book and start talking about their own problems through the characters," Singh explains. "That's really helpful-we've been taught [as Asian- Americans] not to speak about our experiences."
"Asian American X: An Intersection of Twenty-First Century Asian-American Voices," edited by Arar Han and John Hsu (University of Michigan Press, 2004). These stories speak to the search for identity and the tension between Eastern and Western values. Singh often recommends this title to her gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender clients because one of the stories discusses how coming out is often more difficult for Asian Americans than others due to cultural norms about sexuality and gender.
David Ranks, PhD, practitioner and University of Utah medical school professor.
In his practice, Ranks emphasizes mindfulness, which he calls "the most powerful tool I have come across in therapy." His recommendations include:
"Beginning Mindfulness: Learning the Way of Awareness," by Andrew Weiss (New World Library, 2004). "A very practical step-by-step guide to mindfulness training," says Ranks.
"The Miracle of Mindfulness," by Thich Nhat Hanh (Beacon Press, 1999). More than a how-to, this book conveys the joyfulness and playfulness that can come from mindfulness in everyday life.
"Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living," by Pema Chodron (Shambhala Classics, 2001). Chodron writes about a Tibetan Buddhist technique, tonglen, in which one breathes in and pictures the most painful and difficult things and then breathes out and pictures clarity, calm and peace-a practice Ranks finds helpful for patients who want to release anger and other negative emotions.
Fran Grossman, PhD, a Boston University professor emeritus and private practitioner.
Grossman, who mostly treats people with histories of childhood trauma, recommends:
"Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence-from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror," by Judith Herman, MD, (Rivers Oran Press/Pandora List, 2001). This book's historical background, which details how childhood abuse and other traumas were often not acknowledged until recently, is essential in helping clients understand people's reluctance to talk about these topics, believes Grossman. The book's stories help patients realize that they aren't alone, she adds.
"Victims No Longer: The Classic Guide for Men Recovering From Sexual Child Abuse," by Mike Lew (Harper Paperbacks, 2004). As one of the first books specifically for men, says Goldman, "it's very sympathetic and empowering." Lew discusses the ways in which society hampers male victims' ability to acknowledge abuse and get treatment.
"Sex Smart: How Your Childhood Shaped Your Sexual Life and What to Do About It," by Aline P. Zolbrod, PhD, (PageFree Publishing Inc., 2005). The book covers touch in infancy, overcoming negative emotions about one's body, and the ways people learn about gender roles. "It's appropriate for anybody, but I use it for people who are particularly struggling with sexual issues," Grossman says.
Sari Shepphird, PhD, a Los Angeles practitioner
Shepphird, who specializes in eating disorders, says many people come into treatment not knowing much about their illness. But through patient education, they can gain "a sense of hope and direction," she says. She recommends:
"Anorexia Nervosa: A Guide to Recovery," by Lindsay Hall and Monika Ostroff (Gurze Books, 1998), written by two people who have recovered from the condition. In addition to sharing their experiences, the writers give an overview of the treatment research. Shepphird also recommends "Bulimia: A Guide to Recovery," (Gurze Books, 1999), which takes a similar approach with bulimia.
"Hunger for Understanding: A Workbook for Helping Young People to Understand and Overcome Anorexia Nervosa," by Alison Evors and Sophie Nesbitt (Wiley, 2005). Written for adolescents and teenagers, the book features activities, question-and-answer portions and material readers can use to open up discussion either in group situations or in one-on-one therapy. Shepphird says the workbook uses a cognitive-behavioral and psychoeducational-based approach.
Simon Rego, PsyD, attending psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City
Rego recommends books that draw on the techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy:
"Overcoming Depression One Step at a Time: The New Behavioral Activation Approach to Getting Your Life Back," by Michael E. Addis, PhD, and Christopher R. Martell, PhD, (New Harbinger Publications, 2004). The book encourages readers to focus on activities that give them pleasure and tackle tasks that give them a sense of accomplishment, starting with easier ones, such as those found in daily routines. "It's amazing how when you start doing something productive, your motivation will increase," says Rego. "Activity often precedes motivation, rather than follows it."
"The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook: Proven Techniques to Overcoming Your Fears," by Martin M. Antony, PhD, and Richard P. Swinson, PhD, (New Harbinger Publications, 2000). It uses an active cognitive behavioral approach, says Rego. The workbook guides socially anxious people through skill-building exercises, so that they can face stressful or anxiety-inducing activities and working their way through them.
"Overcoming Obsessive Thoughts: How to Gain Control of Your OCD," by Christine Purdon, PhD, (New Harbinger Publications, 2005). Rego says this book discusses not just compulsions but also addresses primarily obsessive themes that are often not included in other books such as aggressive thoughts about sex and harming self or others, and scrupulosity-the excessive concern with morality and religion such as a continuous fear of sinning or angering God and being condemned to hell. The book emphasizes several cognitive strategies that can help people reassess obsessive thoughts and better understand the difference between having a bad thought and committing a bad deed.
"The 60-Second Shrink: 101 Strategies for Staying Sane in a Crazy World," by Arnold A. Lazarus, PhD, and Clifford N. Lazarus, PhD, (Impact Publishers, 1997). This short, fun, "amazingly helpful" book takes on areas such as procrastination, rapid relaxation, meditation, problem solving, apologies, panic attacks and anger, Rego says.
Steven Tovian, clinical and health psychologist in the Chicago metro area
Tovian sees clients with clinical issues such as depression, but also sees many patients with chronic pain. He recommends:
"The Pain Survival Guide: How to Reclaim Your Life," by Dennis W. Turk, PhD, and Frits Winter, PhD, (APA, 2005). Part of APA's LifeTools Series. The book's structured approach-10 steps to managing your pain-helps patients understand the treatment of chronic pain and the factors that may influence their pain, such as depression, anxiety and lack of engagement in daily life. "Pain patients have a high rate of burnout, hopelessness and depression, and this provides a structure for dealing with those feelings," Tovian says.