There are several well-written self help books for depression available. But very few excellent ones. Also, there’s a lot of crap out there.
This article helps you navigate through the self help jungle, offering you three extraordinary volumes bursting with psychological exercises which actually work.
At the end, there is a surprise – a self help tool packaged in an unusually creative format.
Now, sharpen your machete and follow me into the jungle.
#1 Acceptance Commitment Therapy as self help for depression
Before we open the #1 self help book for depression, let’s take a closer look at the psychological method behind it.
What is Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT)?
The commitment part of ACT refers to the idea that you can achieve mental health by committing to actions that are consistent with your values. This is basically done in two steps:
- Identify what is important to you.
- Take concrete steps in that direction.
Easier said than done? You bet.
In addition to formulating your values and the meaning of life, ACT will give you a massive toolbox full of techniques for managing critical thoughts and painful emotions. Eventually, you’ll learn how to do the things most important to you no matter how you feel. And no matter what the screaming choir of critical voices in your head says about it. Eventually, the critical choir will quiet down, as if you’ve turned the volume down on a mental stereo.
ACT is based on six core principles:
- Defusion: Relating to thoughts and painful feelings in a new way, giving them much less influence over your actions.
- Acceptance (or Expansion): Making room for feelings and sensations, instead of fighting them.
- Contact with the present moment: Focusing on the present, instead of dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.
- The Observing Self: Connecting with a powerful aspect of human consciousness.
- Values: Connecting with what is most important to you.
- Committed action: Learning how to live according to your values.
Now, let’s open the self-help book:
Harris’s book is one of the best self help books for depression and anxiety. But I believe anyone who reads it will benefit immensely. After all, people with depression and anxiety disorders are not the only ones who struggle with internal criticism and not living according to their values.
What I like most about this self help book are mainly four things:
- The book involves a rich flow of metaphors and similes, providing you with direct experiences of theoretic concepts. It’s not just words. The concepts connect to vivid images in your mind.
- It gives you hands-on techniques for managing critical thoughts. You don’t even need to put the book down to try them. One of the most useful lessons you’ll learn from this book is to observe thoughts, without judging if they’re good or bad. Actually, there are no good thoughts. And no bad thoughts. The only thing that matters about a thought is whether it’s helpful or not. If it helps you live a meaningful life – you listen to it. If not – let it be.
- ACT is action-focused. It tells you to take action. And not just any action. You are guided to choose specific behaviours, aligned with your core values and your purpose in life.
- Perhaps the very best thing about ACT is that it acknowledges that LIFE IS UNCOMFORTABLE. Happiness is not equal to a hassle-free existence. A meaningful life is not without struggle. And if we expect life to be effortless, we set ourselves up for failure. ACT takes this into account. It doesn’t trick you into thinking that the method is a magic pill which will make all your pain and trouble magically disappear. It teaches you how to deal with your pain and your troubles in a constructive way.
Interested in doing a few ACT exercises? Visit this in-depth article:
#2 Interpersonal Psychotherapy as self help for depression
The psychological method behind our second self help book for depression is called Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT). It’s an evidence-based psychotherapy recommended for depression by the American Psychological and Psychiatric Associations.
IPT is based on the fact that how you act in relationships is closely related to your mental health. Depression can both be triggered and maintained by interpersonal problems. At the same time, improving your interpersonal skills is severely antidepressant.
When you engage in self help IPT, you will choose one out of four interpersonal problem areas as your focus. All of them are connected to depression:
- Interpersonal conflict. This area may be the focus of your self help therapy if conflicts and arguments with another person are affecting your ability to function. Or, if a conflict has been going on for such a long time that you’ve given up hope of ever resolving it.
- Life transitions. A life transition can be any major change that you experience throughout life, such as moving to a new place or living with new people, losing your job or getting a new one, getting married or divorced, changes in your health status, having a baby, winning the lottery…. and so on. Transitions are difficult, even when you experience the change as positive. Sometimes, transitions can make you feel inadequate or unprepared, or affect your social support system.
- Complicated grief. Complicated grief may be the focus of your interpersonal self help therapy if someone in your social circle has died and you find it difficult to function because of the loss. Naturally, the death of a loved one will affect your ability to function for a period of time, but not forever. Grief is labeled complicated when you want to resume some of your usual activities, but can’t. Perhaps the feelings of sadness, guilt or loss are still debilitating long after the person has died?
- Social isolation. In IPT, the social isolation focus is applied when you have a long history of not being able to connect with others. Perhaps you’ve experienced a lifetime of inadequate and unsupportive relationships? Or perhaps you find it challenging to maintain meaningful relationships with loved ones?
Whatever problem area you choose as your focus, IPT will give you tools to improve your situation. Among other things, IPT will teach you:
- Effective communication
- How to recognize and modify your interpersonal style
- How to deal with the difficult people in your life who contribute to your depressive symptoms
- How to get closer to the people who support you and contribute to your wellbeing
- To identify and understand expectations in relationships
- To decide who you want to connect with
- To decide who you want to disconnect from and why
So, instead of keeping track of your mental processes, IPT focuses on getting you to connect with the people who make your life better. As the authors of our second self help book for depression put it:
“Who wouldn’t rather hang out than do homework?”
Now, let’s open the book:
Even though it’s self help for depression, I wish everyone would read this book. Depressed people are not the only people who struggle with communication, closeness, expressing feelings in a constructive way and reflecting on relationships. This book can be helpful, with or without depression.
What I like most about this self help book is:
- It’s obviously written by experts with years and years of experience treating depression with IPT. The authors intuitively know how depressed people think and feel when confronted with the exercises. They give immediate support and practical advice for how to handle obstacles. The tone is friendly, experienced and warm… Honestly, I wish this writing couple was my grandparents.
- This book recognises the inescapable correlation between the quality of your close relationships and your long-term happiness. It’s not your stuff, your education or your weight that determines how joyful or pleased you are with your life – it’s how you handle and build your relationships.
- A whole chapter is devoted to EXPECTATIONS. Sometimes, the relationship itself may not be the problem. Your expectations of the other person may be the villain. IPT will help you uncover your expectations, find out if they are met or not, and reflect on whether they are realistic or whether it’s in your best interest to adjust them.
- Dr. Ronald Frey has extensive experience treating men who work in organizations typically dominated by traditional masculine norms, such as the military and the police. He created sections throughout the book called ”guy-talk” where he addresses topics which depressed men in particular tend to struggle with.
Are you interested in learning more about male depression? Read:
#3 CBT as self help for depression
I bet you’ve already heard about Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT)? CBT is one of the most popular and effective psychological treatment methods available. It’s based on the notion that our thoughts, emotions and behaviours impact each other.
I’ll give you an example.
Let’s say your friend didn’t call as promised. If you struggle with depression, you know that a depressed brain will interpret most events in a negative way. So, let’s say that the first thought that popped into your mind was:
“They don’t care about me”
Most of us don’t question the thoughts that automatically pop into our heads. We tend to believe they tell the truth. Because they feel true. And when you believe the thought “They don’t care about me”, it will inevitably impact your mood.
You will automatically feel sad, lonely or angry. This mood state will again impact your thought processes. After a while you may spiral into thinking “No one really cares about me”, “There must be something wrong with me” or “Everyone I know is selfish.”
These negative thoughts and feelings will impact the way you act. If you believe that no one really cares about you, you probably won’t pick up the phone and call your friend to see how they are. Instead, you may withdraw and stay at home for the rest of the day. At least, that’s what I would do if I believed those thoughts.
So, feelings, thoughts and behaviours impact each other. And, when going through depression, they have a tendency to create negative spirals.
The good news is that changes in one (thought, feeling or behaviour) will induce change in the others.
Let’s say you did pick up the phone to call your friend, despite your negative thoughts and emotions. Perhaps you found out that your friend was stuck in unexpected traffic and couldn’t dial your number while driving. And that they were really sorry. And that they had thought about you the whole time. This scenario would probably trigger a different set of thoughts and emotions than you would get from staying at home and not reaching out to your friend.
CBT will teach you how to take advantage of the connection between thoughts, feelings and behaviour.
Now, let’s open the next self help book for depression:
Feeling great is the sequel to Feeling good (written in the 80’s) and focuses mainly on the cognitive side of CBT. The book is based on 40 years of CBT research and the exercises are very effective for managing your negative thought patterns.
What I like most about this self help book is:
- It emphasizes the importance of managing your resistance to treatment. Most (or all) people who struggle with mental health issues experience some form of resistance to getting well. Recovery is difficult. If you’re suffering from anxiety, you eventually need to face your fears and do the very things you spend so much energy avoiding. And if you’re going through depression, you will need to do CBT homework, even though your depression makes your mind slow and distracted. This book dives deep into the problems and benefits of resistance.
- The first part of the book teaches you how to become a mini-therapist by applying CBT tools to real case examples featured in the book. When it’s time to analyze your own thoughts and behaviours, you already have some training.
- The book gives you extensive knowledge of cognitive distortions – highly misleading ways to think about yourself, other people or the world. When depressed or anxious, our thoughts rarely reflect reality. And we tend to indulge in all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralization, mental filtering, emotional reasoning, mind reading, should-statements, labeling and all sorts of distorted thinking. This book will show you exactly how to disarm your negative thoughts.
A fair warning: If you’re allergic to exclamation marks – stay far away from this book.
Surprise alternative #4
Our fourth self help tool for depression is not a book. It’s a chatbot. And it’s based on modern research on depression and Behaviour Therapy (BT).
Instead of trying to change your thought patterns, Behaviour Therapy focuses on what’s in your immediate control – your actions. BT shows you what actions lead you out of depression and how to create antidepressant routines and habits.
So, if you prefer interacting to reading, I recommend the Depression App from Flow Neuroscience. It includes over 50 interactive therapy sessions divided into 7 courses. And your virtual therapist, Flow, will guide you from start to end.
My favourite part of the treatment programme is the course called “Choosing your actions”. It will teach you basic techniques from Behaviour Therapy in a super quick and accessible way. Among other things, you’ll learn the Tiny Habits Technique, developed at Stanford University. It’s a method for creating new healthy habits with minimal effort. And it actually works.
In contrast to the self help books, this app is completely free. And you can download it here.
There are quite a few well-written self help books for depression available, but navigating through the self help jungle can be a difficult task. So, as an attempt to ease confusion and spare you a lot of time, I recommend three self help books:
And one virtual treatment programme:
#4 The Flow Depression App
Thank you for your attention!