February 12, 2023
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Whether for helpful information, a relatable story, or just a way to escape, reading can be great for your mental health. Here’s a variety of books that have helped me over the years.
I’m a reader — always have been. The daughter of an independent bookstore employee slash lawyer, the love of words and language was imprinted early. Of the “Harry Potter” generation, my fondest memories are summer midnights battling my brother through the latest release on the front porch. Through my teens and twenties, I began to read less for fun and more for assignments, but even if it took me longer to get through my “pleasure” book, I always had one in the works.
Interestingly enough, the years that I read less correlate with some of the roughest years of my mental health diagnoses: anxiety and depression. Sometimes, picking up a book that will inevitably take you hours to read can seem like an insurmountable task. And compared to chores or other daily activities that are a struggle with depression, the thought of reading a book might feel frivolous. I would argue that it is anything but.
As an icebreaker at work recently, we discussed what we do for self-care. I discussed my early bedtimes, my animal friends, and my meal prep routines on Sundays. It was only after the call that I realized that reading is one of my key self-care tools.
Nonfiction books and memoirs have offered me shame-fighting validation and affirmation, and a fun novel offers both presence and escapism at the same time. Not to mention, talking with people about books or visiting a local independent store is a treasure trove of community and connection — the strongest protective factor for depression. Finally, finishing a book, or even reading a few pages, is an accomplishment! Chalking up small wins when depression strikes usually helps me to ramp up my motivation and worthiness.
Here are 10 books that have helped me navigate my depression or ease symptoms:
This one is a beautifully written memoir about life’s winters, literally and metaphorically, as in life’s hard times. These “winters” can be a gift — allowing space to turn inward, rest, and re-center. I read this book in October this year, and it helped me change my mindset around grueling Chicago winters, a season I and many others feel more depressed in. Reframed: Winter is a more cozy time for reading!
I’ve found symptom reduction in my depression by setting better boundaries — a skill I did not possess before reading this book. Tawwab is a boundaries champion, and she expertly explains what boundaries are, why we need them, and some symptoms you may be experiencing as a result of overly rigid or overly porous boundaries.
For example, I’ve discovered that I need a lot of alone time after social engagements, so I’ve learned to say no to protect my energy. If I overextend myself socially, I will feel more depressed the next day. I’ve also set some great work-life boundaries that make working from home feel distinct from my personal engagements.
Jenny’s writing is hilarious and relatable, and in this collection of essays, she explores life with treatment-resistant depression. Standout essays for me included a piece about navigating the health insurance system with mental differences and her recount of an experimental procedure. For me, personally, approaching depression with a degree of humor helps, but that may not be the case for everyone, so consume accordingly.
If you are struggling with grief, this book is for you. Joan Didion needs no introduction, and her recount in the wake of her husband’s passing is both heartbreaking and healing. I’ve seldom felt as alone or depressed as I have in the midst of grief, and this book pulled me out of an “am I crazy for feeling this way” spiral.
Self-compassion is one of my hardest “skills.” I struggle to forgive myself for things I wouldn’t bat an eye at another person doing. When I’m already feeling down, the self-judgment and criticism add to the heavy load. When it comes to growing a muscle, I love a formula, and Neff offers three practical elements to developing self-compassion — common humanity, mindfulness, and self-kindness. This research was referenced frequently in my intensive outpatient program.
A major bestseller, you may have seen this book around, and you can judge it by its gorgeous cover. I’ve read this book several times, and, in my opinion, it lives up to the hype. In a series of unique and unconventional essays, Doyle explores, amongst other things, her depression diagnosis and offers helpful strategies for both avoiding and climbing out of darker moments.
One of her hints: Write notes to yourself when you are in a healthy headspace to refer to when depression is more acute. These tiny reminders offer proof of life’s joys and the resiliency of the human spirit.
Maggie Smith is a brilliant poet, and I would recommend any of her collections. The poems in “Keep Moving” were written in the wake of Smith’s divorce, and the publisher’s website puts it better than I can: “This is a book for anyone who has gone through a difficult time and is wondering: What comes next?”
The focus of this book is Internal Family Systems (IFS) — an evidence-based therapy that posits that we all have different parts inside of us with their unique motivations and personalities. It helps me, personally, to view depression as something a part of me has rather than all of me or even my core self. IFS has been helpful to me in naming, interacting with, and understanding that part of me that just wants to feel safe, heard, and have its needs met.
Or any Matt Haig, really. Another incredible author living with depression. In this book, Haig offers digestible poems and insights that offer hope, perspective, and warmth. If you are looking for a novel, his “The Midnight Library” offers a life-affirming story of a young woman who takes her own life and then has a chance to view the “what could have beens.” Turns out, there was a lot worth living for.
Something about a “whodunnit” takes my mind out of unhelpful thought loops and negative self-talk. The quick plot and investigative nature of these reads give me something to focus on. The cozy mystery genre is particularly comforting when depression rears its head — the plot lines rarely focus on violence or sexual content. Here is a list on Goodreads.
I hope you find as much healing hidden in these pages as I did. I’d be remiss not to include a quick, shameless plug to purchase from independent bookstores or secondhand. Heck, maybe walk over to your local bookstore. After all, research shows that exercise can aid in symptom management for depression, too.
Medically reviewed on February 12, 2023
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