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5 Best Books for Dealing with Anxiety and Depression

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5 Best Books for Dealing with Anxiety and Depression

Depression blows. Anxiety isn’t any fun either. And perhaps the only thing worse than the well-intentioned friends and family who implore you to just “get over it” or advise you to “keep your head up” is the fact that there are approximately 3,102 crappy books out there promising to wave a little wand and sprinkle fairy dust in your ass, and everything will instantly be better.

In my experience, the best books on dealing with anxiety and depression are the best because they are honest about the situation. There is this thing that sucks, and you’re not going to magically make it go away. You have to deal with it, engage it, wrestle with it a bit and become stronger in the face of it.

I get hundreds of emails every month from people who struggle primarily with anxiety and depression. Many of them are looking for a solution or a piece of wisdom or advice. Unfortunately, the only thing I’m qualified to send them is this new care bear emoji I got on my phone. And that’s probably not a long-term solution for them.

So instead, I will send them here, to these books.

I’ve read a lot of books about anxiety and depression over the years and these are some of the best ones I’ve come across. They’re way more qualified than I am to help you through whatever suckage you’re experiencing. And this way, when nothing works and the world is still a steaming pile of dogshit, you can blame them and not me.

Books about mental health come in three flavors:

  1. Greater Understanding/Research – These are books that explain what the latest research suggests that’s happening in your life/brain and what the most effective treatments may be. Building your understanding and knowledge about your problem can often be enough so that you can take care of it from there.
  2. Feeling Less Alone – These books are written primarily to inspire hope. Usually, the author has suffered from the same problem as you, except that their situation was orders of magnitude worse than yours. This has the double-whammy effect of a) reassuring you that you’re not the only one to go through shit like this, and b) that there is hope — if this guy/girl made it, so can you. “Feeling Less Alone” books tend to be the most emotionally powerful (and best-written) of the three flavors.
  3. Exercises/Actions – I’m personally not a huge fan of books that want you to take out a sheet of paper every other page and write a bunch of crap down. But I know some people are. And I know that some of these exercises can be highly effective. And if the exercises are well-done (usually constructed by a therapist/psychiatrist with tons of experience) you can get good results from these books.

All three flavors can be more/less useful given the situation/personality/tastes of the reader. That’s why I’ve specified the type for each book below.

One last statement before we get to the books. Why anxiety and depression together? Well, because they often occur together. In fact, they occur so often together that people will mistake one for the other. A close friend of mine recently spent the better part of a year constantly complaining of anxiety and stress, and upon a couple months of therapy, discovered that she had actually been deeply depressed. Similarly, I felt depressed for a brief period at the beginning of this year and looking back, it turns out I was incredibly anxious about something in my life and the feelings of lethargy/meaninglessness were merely my ways of escaping that anxiety.

So anxiety and depression are like two peas in a pod. Sonny and Cher. Bonnie and Clyde. Piss and vinegar. They’re a package deal. Much of what you’ll get from these books is an understanding between the two and recognizing when one or the other takes over.

The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon

Noonday demon: an atlas of depression

Focuses on: Depression
Type(s): Feeling Less Alone and Greater Understanding/Research

Solomon calls his book “An Atlas of Depression” and once you’ve covered about half of the 688 pages, you start to realize why: this is everything you would ever want to know about depression—the personal experience of it, the medical experience of it, the pharmacological treatments, the history of it, the cultural interpretations of it, and of course, Solomon’s own struggles with it. The book is a lot to take in. What carries the book, though, is the combination of how well-written it is, along with the shocking severity of Solomon’s own story.

I’m going to be honest. I’ve been reading about depression and mental health for many years. I’ve even suffered from some mild depressive episodes myself. I had no idea the depths this thing can reach. This is the only book I’ve ever read that makes me understand why a person might choose to end their own life.

Reading Noonday Demon changed a number of my attitudes and assumptions that I’ve had about not just depression, but antidepressants, therapy, and mental health. Had I read it while depressed myself, it would have surely given me more hope for my own situation, as well as helped me navigate getting myself out of it.

First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson

First, we make the beast beautiful

Focuses on: Anxiety
Type(s): Feeling Less Alone and Greater Understanding/Research

I loved this book but I don’t think everyone will. This is mostly due to Wilson’s writing style and, I suppose, the way her brain works. Like a chronically anxious person, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful is frenetic and at times, overly-energetic, leaping from story to story, back ten years to ahead five years to childhood to imagined old age, from personal disaster to scientific research to that thing my meditation teacher told me that, by the way, totally didn’t work, but hey, it’s funny now, looking back.

I enjoyed it because my brain (and writing) sometimes operates in the same way. But I’ve seen reviews online from anxious people who have commented that the book actually made them more anxious, just by reading it. Obviously, that’s not the goal.

But all of that aside, I think this book is the best demonstration of what it is to actually live with severe anxiety and still find a way to function and thrive in one’s life. Wilson has suffered from bipolar disorder, eating disorders, manic episodes, and intermittent depression. But the anxiety has always been there. Intensely there. And she’s somehow leveraged it to get her places. I’ve always argued that the key to anxiety is not getting rid of it but merely directing it in more productive ways. The heart of First, We Make the Beast Beautiful is the same argument, demonstrated through a vibrant (and slightly crazy) life that is unlike anything else I’ve quite come across before.

(Note: This book is not out yet in some countries.)

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns

Feeling good: the new mood therapy

Focuses on: Both
Type(s): Exercises/Action

Godwin’s Law famously states that the longer any internet discussion continues, the probability of someone being compared to Hitler approaches 100%. Well, in my experience, the longer an internet discussion about depression, anxiety, or any other mental health problem goes on, the probability that Feeling Good gets recommended to them also approaches 100%. I see this book mentioned everywhere.

That’s because if you were going to write a comprehensive, “This is what three months with a CBT therapist would be like,” book, full of enough exercises to fill a small notebook, you’d have Feeling Good. Burns has done a fantastic job of essentially writing the closest replacement to a real therapist, and as a result, pretty much any time I come across someone who needs a therapist but can’t get one for some reason, this book is the insta-recommendation.

The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living by Russ Harris

The happiness trap

Focuses on: Both
Type(s): Greater Understanding/Research and Exercises/Action

I love this book. It was quite influential on me when I read it years and years ago and I was upset recently to find out that I had inadvertently ripped off one of the exercises in it in my Self-Knowledge PDF (it has since been fixed and credited appropriately).

Harris is probably the most visible proponent of something called ACT or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT is a relatively new form of therapy that argues that the key to dealing with depression, anxiety, or addiction is to not necessarily to remove bad feelings, but rather to develop mental tools and habits to simply weather them more effectively. Whereas CBT is focused on channeling pain and suffering into more productive interpretations and actions, ACT just says fuck it, bad feelings are bad feelings and they don’t necessarily have to mean anything at all if we don’t let them. To me, ACT is one of a number of more recent developments in psychology that incorporates some of the benefits of mindfulness, with a zest of eastern philosophy thrown in.

The Happiness Trap is also one of the most approachable and enjoyable psych reads out there. The writing is clear and fun, and the exercises are engaging. In my opinion, the best pop psychology books bring some humor and humanity to the subject, and this is one of the few books that pulls that off really well.

Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff

Self-compassion: the proven power of being kind to yourself

Focuses on: Both
Type(s): Greater Understanding/Research and Exercises/Action

In The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (yes, I had to find a way to plug my own shit here), I made the point that true self-esteem can’t be a measure of how someone feels about their successes, it must be a measure of how we feel about our failures.

This isn’t a terribly original idea. People have been shitting on self-esteem for a couple decades now. But Neff is the first psychologist to conceptualize an alternative metric for self-esteem: self-compassion.

People with self-compassion can weather failures, can forgive themselves for screwing up, can accept their insecurities and flaws and try despite them

Ignore the cheesiness of the title here. Self-compassion is the answer to every time you’ve ever heard someone say, “hey, don’t be so hard on yourself,” without any explanation of how to not be so hard on yourself. Neff has not only proposed this as a more effective measurement of psychological health than self-esteem but she’s also done research into how we get there. How do we cultivate self-compassion? How do we forgive ourselves for fucking up, for not living up to what we want from ourselves, for having failures and down moments and days where nothing seems to go right?

Like many pop psychology books, her examples and anecdotes are sometimes cliche-ridden, but the central idea is important enough that this book is still worth a read if you are the insanely self-critical type.

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