Psychology Self Help

Can Self-Help Books for Psychological Problems Help You? May 29, 2013
What to Look for in Self-Help Books and How to Use Them Effectively

Not everyone can afford to go to a psychologist, or perhaps you may prefer to first try to help yourself on your own. Research has shown that self-help books can be effective forms of treatment and in some cases may be as effective as professional treatment.

Choosing a self-help book can be a daunting process. There are thousands of books out there, and not all are of equal quality. In some cases the information in these books may be false or misleading, and could be harmful. Reading reviews of books on and other similar websites may be a starting point to narrow your choices. Getting advice from a professional can help point you in the right direction.

In a recent study, Redding and his colleagues examined the quality of 50 popular self-help books intended to provide help for anxiety, depression, or trauma related difficulties. Each book was independently rated by four Ph.D. clinical/community psychologists based on: the extent to which it was grounded in psychological science; whether it provided realistic expectations; whether it gave specific guidance; whether it did not cause harm due to false information; and its overall usefulness. The authors found considerable variability in the quality of these books. Their final ratings of these 50 books can be found in their article: “Popular Self-help Books for Anxiety, Depression and Trauma.”

When you are choosing a self-help book, consider whether it is written by a Ph.D. psychologist who has experience in the area he or she is writing about. The book should focus on a fairly specific problem area, rather than try to cover a wide range of problems. Avoid books that make unrealistic or grandiose claims, such as “becoming confident in ten easy steps,” or, “cure your fears in 30 days.” The book should be clearly written with user friendly instructions and step by step guidance on moving forward and using specific approaches. The book should provide a way of measuring progress. There should also be a section in the book that helps you deal with any setbacks or relapses, and another section that discusses how and when to seek professional help.

When you are using a self-help book, be honest with yourself. It is difficult to break old patterns. It is natural to find reasons or excuses not to do something. Usually the things that are hard to do, or that feel intimidating, are the areas you need to work on, but proceed with gradual steps from easy tasks to difficult ones. If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed, then take a break or pause, and move back several steps in your healing journey, and repeat the earlier steps to gain confidence. Don’t give up. If you find yourself despairing, seek support from a friend or seek professional help. Remember that change is difficult for everyone. Don’t beat yourself over the head, if your progress is slow. Be kind to yourself. Don’t expect perfection. Every small step forward is a victory.


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Gregory, R.J., Canning, S.S., Lee, T.W. & Wise, J.C. (2004). Cognitive bibliotherapy for depression: A meta-analysis. Professional Psychology: Research & Practice, 35, 275-280.

Redding, R. E., Herbert, J. D., Forman, E. M., & Gaudiano, B. A. ( 2008). Popular self-help books for anxiety, depression, and trauma: How scientifically grounded and useful are they? Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 39, 537-545.

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