When people find out that I am a psychologist, they often ask if I can recommend any good self-help books. In all honesty, I tend to steer clear of the self-help aisle at my local bookstore and avoid online advertisements for books claiming miraculous cures. Sure, it is hard not to get drawn in by the covers with their the bright colors, pithy titles and “experts” smiling from ear to ear. And there are plenty of experts out there to grab my attention including mental health professionals, athletes and television and movie personalities. But for the most part, I can generally resist the urge to learn how to fight stress in 10 easy steps or achieve happiness in seven days.
The success of these books, however, tells me that many people are lured to the self-help stacks strategically placed between the religion and science sections. The fantastic covers and seductive lure of easy fixes are too much for many. These books are meant to appeal to those of us who struggle with relationship problems, encounter stress and anxiety in our daily lives and have periods of feeling blue. In other words, at some point, they appeal to each and every one of us. They speak to life’s struggles, our vulnerabilities and our desire to avoid pain and suffering.
It’s not that I’m anti-self-help books. In fact, I have written a few of them over the years. My concern is that many books within the self-help genre have a major flaw–they are strong on hype, but weak on substance. They promise more than they can deliver. They are based on hyperbole and not so much on reasoned fact and science.
For example, ridding one’s self of anxiety or panic isn’t as simple as learning to take deep breaths or going to a “calm place” in your head. Sure, this can help but it’s no cure. And sometimes sadness can be a symptom of a psychiatric condition that no amount of “positive thinking,” will correct. In some cases, only the skilled intervention of a mental health professional will do.
One segment of your patient population that you may find this case to be particularly true for is veterans. In my estimation, service members are less likely to benefit from a self-help book compared to their civilian peers. The simple reason is that they already know most of the information found within these books. Early on, they are taught how to identify problems and generate solutions.
They are taught methods in decision making, stress management, and conflict resolution. In reality, they probably hear “adapt and overcome,” at least five times before lunch every day. And let me let you in on a little secret–the latter is the primary theme found within most self-help books.
What is the answer to the occasional blues or the stress life throws at your veteran clients every day? It is simple. Ask them to rely on their training. Encourage them to draw upon the skills and talents they’ve developed as a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine. Remind them to use their keen sense of awareness to identify the root cause of their distress. Tell them to deploy those resources that get them through harsh combat environments, challenging field exercises and extended separation from loved ones.
Indeed, they don’t need a book to remind themselves how to do these things.
If relying on their personal resources doesn’t do the trick, then additional professional help may be needed. As you are aware, sadness or anxiety that lasts for more than a few weeks or causes significant disturbances at home or work may be a sign of something more serious.
*A previous version of this article was published in Dr. Moore’s column Kevlar for the Mind, which is published in Military times.