Could Self-Help Books Actually Be Stressing You Out?

Self-improvement books might just be counterproductive. (Getty Images)

According to researchers from the University of Montreal, consumers of self-help books are extra-sensitive and show more symptoms of depression.

Once the authors of this small study discovered that the self-help category generated more than $10 billion in the US a few years ago, they gathered 30 adults, where half of the volunteers were already self-help readers. The investigators then divided the participants into two groups—those who preferred problem-focused titles (such as Why Is It Always About You? or How Can I Forgive You?) and those who leaned towards growth-oriented books (like You’re Stronger Than You Think or How to Stop Worrying and Start Living).

Researchers also measured a few factors of these subjects, including stress reactivity (salivary cortisol levels), openness, self-discipline, extraversion, compassion, emotional stability, self-esteem and depressive symptoms. And what they found was that the problem-focused readers displayed greater depressive symptoms and the growth-oriented group showed increased stress reactivity compared to non-consumers.

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These conclusions have left the study authors pondering this question—do self-help books actually increase stress levels and symptoms of depression or have these readers become ultra-sensitive to life’s daily stresses? While they plan on conducting further research, Sonia Lupien, Director of the Center of Studies on Human Stress (CSHS), stated in a press release that consumers should turn to books with “scientifically proven facts” penned by “researchers or clinicians affiliated with recognized universities, health care facilities, or research centers.”

Jacqueline Hornor Plumez, Ph.D. a psychologist and author of The Bitch In Your Head: How to Finally Squash Your Inner Critic, is not surprised by these findings. “Well, sure these people are more stressed—they wouldn’t be buying these books if they weren’t!” she tells Yahoo Health. “The real question is, whether they get relief that lasts after reading one of these books.”

Overall, she doesn’t feel that all self-help books are created equal. “There are the books that are simply inspirational and tell you everything is going to be fine,” she explains. “While I think those have their place, I’m not sure their message has a lasting effect.”

However, she says a book that offers actionable tips can be more beneficial. “If you have a very specific problem you want to deal with, such as anxiety, depression, addiction, overeating, a marriage problem or trying to defeat self-criticism, a good self-help book will actually give you tools and techniques to deal with is disturbing you.” And while it may take time putting these strategies into motion, she adds that “its impact should have a longer-term effect.”

As for “the chicken or the egg” dilemma expressed by the researchers, Dr. Plumez doesn’t see the quandary. “Again, I don’t think anybody is browsing in the self-help book section unless they’re looking to deal with an issue or some stress in their life to begin with.”

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