November 07, 2016

By Michael Reagan Jr.


Books can play a huge role in mental illness recovery. There’s even a name for it: bibliotherapy. Downbeat thoughts are like songs you cannot get out of your head. Books can help change the tune. Researchers have shown how reading can help not only help with stress reduction, it can assist with reading other people's emotions.

I’ve read dozens of books that have inspired and helped me. Here are a few to add to your bookshelf:

Self Esteem by Matthew McKay, Ph.D. and Patrick Fanning

This book is great at weaving personal stories with quick solutions. It shows how mental habits build up over years and how to reverse the direction. An early chapter names a problem many have: a downbeat internal voice, that McKay and Fanning call the “pathological critic.”

“Although the critic seems to have a will of his own, his independence is really an illusion. The truth is that you are so used to listening to him, so used to believing him, that you have not yet learned how to turn him off. With practice, however, you can learn to analyze and refute what the critic says.”

Self Esteem gets readers thinking about where they are in life and making small steps to feel better. The focus can help readers to stop looking up at individuals who are not portrayed in a realistic way, but resemble giant inflated balloons in a parade. 

The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne, PhD

Like Self Esteem, this book has a deceptive simplicity. One chapter outlines how people who have trouble dealing with strong emotions and struggle with perfectionism may also be likely to have problems with anxiety. Yet Bourne names problems without dwelling on them because he believes they can be solved—his faith in improvement is perhaps the most significant part of the book.

And his confidence comes through in lines like: “As you progress in your recovery, you may notice unaccustomed emotions and feelings beginning to surface … It’s entirely normal to experience feelings more intensely when you begin to face situations you’ve been avoiding for a long time. If this is happening to you, you’re on the right track.”

 Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp

Books by recovering addicts have an emotional fluency that can help readers figure out their feelings. These memoirs also connect what was keeping the authors down and how they have broken free. After rehab, Knapp wanted to have drink at an aunt’s house on Thanksgiving. The newly sober Knapp concluded that it came from a desire to show everyone in a room how angry and out-of-place she felt:

“I thought: This is why I drank: to medicate these very feelings. And then I tried to carry that idea a step farther. I thought: This is why I got sober, to deal with this anger this sense of disappointment. At last.

All these books deliver the same message: “We got through this. So can you.” Readers in recovery—so accustomed to hearing the opposite—will appreciate these stories of hope. And, yes, recovery has plenty of other steps. But just figuring out that you’re not alone and that people before you in similar situations have moved past their problems can be a revelation.

And if you have a stash of helpful books, make sure you share. You never know the number of lives you might help.


Michael Reagan Jr. is a graduate of the University of Maine at Orono. He works as community education and marketing coordinator for Lewiston Adult Education in Lewiston, Maine. He can be followed on Twitter at @MichaelReaganJr

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