Dr. Thomas's Favorite Self-Help Books
Updated: May 12
I love books. All books. Poetry books. Medical books. Books on religion, marriage, and food. But when I was a 3rd-year psychiatry resident, one of my best teachers required that I was part of a book club once a week. I was 9 months pregnant. I hated the idea of a mandatory book club at 9 months pregnant - and by extension, I hated the book that was recommended. It was a workbook on changing your thoughts, and I had to dedicate 20 minutes, 3 days a week to completing it. I resented the whole deal. I would sit with my book and talk to it at home - telling it just how much I hated it. However, I forced myself to read through the entire book, and finish the exercises we were assigned each week.
I noticed that despite my resentment of this workbook and the process it made me go through, my ability to think through problems and uncomfortable emotions was steadily improving. I noticed that I was beginning to automatically catch negative thoughts early on, so that they had less power to make me feel badly. I finally admitted it to myself, the workbook... worked! Now, this book, "Ten Days to Self Esteem" by Dr. David Burns, is one of my favorites to recommend to my very own patients.
Today, I wanted to provide a list of the books I refer to most, just in case you're interested in self-help books and don't know where to start. These are "classics" when it comes to mental health workbooks and subject books, I believe, and are usually good go-to, first-line resources.
This is the book that started it all for me. Filled with rating tools for depression, anxiety and relationship satisfaction - as well as strategies to catch and reframe automatic negative thoughts, Ten Days to Self-Esteem provides numerous exercises and worksheets to monitor and change your thought process. The premise, based on CBT principles, is that your thoughts precede your feelings. Thinking better leads to feeling better. Thank you, Dr. Person, for introducing me!
Considered one of the best sources of coping strategy direction, The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook by Matthew McKay and others, is based on DBT, a therapeutic technique that teaches people how to deal with overwhelming emotion, impulsivity, and interpersonal difficulty. It also teaches mindfulness techniques that help to alleviate distress.
Frequently recommended for people with Borderline Personality Disorder (or traits), this is truly a great read for anyone often overwhelmed by emotion.
I discovered this book when I was studying for my psychiatry board exams. I'd go to the bookstore and do the exercises on my study breaks - and I loved it! Even though I don't live with OCD, I found the background information, testimonials, and exercises very interesting. I have used The OCD Workbook by Dr. Bruce Hyman and Cherry Pedrick with my patients countless times and always get good feedback on this one! There's a newer addition available, so check that out.
What works best to treat anxiety? Skills! Medications, supportive counseling, general good health and diet and exercise all play a part. However, anxiety management skills are absolutely essential in learning how to live a life not unduly limited by worry, fear and panic.
Like all workbooks, they require commitment to reading, practicing and completing them to be most effective.
Are you looking for resources to improve your sexual functioning? Many people are. As a sex therapist, one of the most common complaints I receive from men and women alike is a mismatch of sexual desire, drive or libido with their partners. What do you do if your desire is lower than your partner's? What do you do if your responsiveness is different, too? Is there anything you can do to help your partner feel more comfortable about intimacy?
Come as You Are by Dr. Emily Nagoski and She Comes First by Dr. Ian Keene offer a storehouse of information. In the former, women learn how to understand their sexual response as distinctly different from those of their male partners - and see that it's completely "normal" to feel differently than men do about sex. "She Comes First" has helped many men feel proficient and have a better since of understanding about the female sexual response cycle.
Posttraumatic Stress research pioneer, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk offers a tour de force with his book The Body Keeps the Score. He offers an in-depth look at the emotional, psychological, and neurological impact traumatic life events may have on people. 70% of adults in the United States have experienced a traumatic life event, and 20% of those people will develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). With over 40 years of research and experience in the field, Dr. Van Der Kolk's book has truly revolutionized the field of PTSD study.
Literally, ANY book by Brene Brown is a gift to all of us working in the mental health world. With an initial focus on shame studies, Brown authors books on authenticity, vulnerability, self-concept and in Braving the Wilderness, loneliness vs. belonging. Visit her website here or catch her Netflix showing, "The Call to Courage".
And for the little ones....
Have any children struggling to cope with frustration, help-seeking and independence?
"Zach Gets Frustrated" by William Mucalhy and Giraffe Asks for Help by Nyasha Chikowore offer children excellent strategies to develop introspection, coping techniques and promote confidence as they meet their developmental milestones.
Augmenting your work in counseling with books, workbooks and stories is always a great way to go. If you have questions about anything you read in a book, ask your mental health provider or primary care doctor. And if anything suggested in a workbook doesn't resonate with you, skip that particular exercise or section. Always make sure, though, that you get workbooks in print - electronic books won't work for taking notes and referring back later.
I hope books are a pleasant surprise on your journey to finding and living your very best life. Happy reading!