Tips on Using Self-Help Workbooks (for Social Anxiety)

self help photo

If you’ve stepped inside a bookstore lately, you’ve probably noticed a proliferation of self-help titles. The list of things you can improve about yourself is literally endless—and it can be hard to know who to trust or whether any of these books will actually help.

In the case of social anxiety, self-help books hold a special significance, as they can be accessed by anyone regardless of your current fears. If you’re too afraid to pick up the phone to call your doctor, ordering a book from Amazon might feel like a smaller first step that you can take.

At the same time, there is a risk with self-help books that you expect too much. A book is never going to replace an interaction with a mental health professional. What it will do is provide knowledge upon which you can act.

A study published in 2008 in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice examined 50 self-help books for anxiety and depression and rated books on four main qualities believed to reflect books that would help:

  • grounded in science, brings the knowledge of experts to you (e.g., cognitive-behavioral therapy)
  • realistic in their expectations (not promising a complete cure)
  • offered specific guidance (step-by-step instructions, user-friendly)
  • did no harm (did not provide false information)

The 10 top-rated books from that study included Dying of Embarrassment by Barbra Markway and The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook by Martin M. Antony.

What they found was that the best books (based on their criteria) had the following characteristics in addition to those listed above:

    • focused on a limited type of problem
    • were written by doctoral-level psychologists, often affiliated with academic institutions
    • offered a chance to monitor your progress
    • addressed relapse or setbacks
    • discussed co-existing disorders or problems
    • talked about when to seek professional help

Although that study touched on it briefly, I think one of the more important qualities of a good self-help book is that it is not overwhelming.

We are all busy, and it is often easier to keep doing what we are doing than to try to make a change. While self-help books are more convenient than visiting a therapist or life coach, if they are not put into practice, they are likely to have minimal effect. You need to apply the advice in the book to make progress.

I think there are two types of books that impede translating knowledge into action.

Those that provide too much information (overload) and those that provide no plan (lack direction).

Of course, it’s possible for a book to have both of these qualities—that would be the worst of all worlds.

When choosing a book, after you’ve narrowed it down to those that meet the above criteria (as best you can, based on reviews or referrals from others), try skimming through (in a bookstore if you can, or the library or online) and read a bit. All other things being equal (as described above), I’d choose the one that is easiest to read with the best action plan (often a workbook style). I’d also choose a book that you find inspiring.

Once you’ve chosen a book, how can you get the most out of it?

  • Keep a journal. Add your own thoughts and insights. This will bring the book to life for you.
  • Complete the exercises. This might seem obvious, but don’t jump ahead. Take the time to do any exercises in the book fully. Change involves thoughts, feelings, and actions all interacting. You might learn new things about yourself that you can use as you move forward in the book.
  • Take stock. At the end of each chapter or section, take stock and think about the impact of what you’ve done. Do you need to adjust or make changes?
  • Get an accountability partner. This could be a friend or family member, or even an online group. Meet once a week to discuss what you are reading.

In the Huffington Post article, “Why self-help books rarely work,” life coach and personal growth expert Matthew Jones writes “The book can change your perspective, but you must change your life.”

I’d like to relate an example from my personal life, not about social anxiety, but that shows how books can impart knowledge, but it is up to you to take action.

A couple of weeks ago, I was scrolling through Facebook and came across a video called “The Secret Reason We Eat Meat.” I was interested, so I started watching, but soon realized that the video was over 20 minutes long and I didn’t have time to finish all of it. It started out with Melanie Joy, a social psychologist, explaining the premise of what she terms “carnism,” or the ideology that creates a meat-eating society.

So I set the video aside to return later. Unbeknownst to me, it contained graphic videos of animal slaughterhouses midway through. Somehow, I managed to jump back into the video during one of these videos. It was as though I’d accidentally clicked on a slasher film—it really was that bad. Nervously I jumped ahead a bit and watched to the end. And then I read Dr. Joy’s book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows.

The book presented a logical argument regarding veganism and the secret ideology that promotes eating meat. It all made sense to me, from a logic standpoint. But if I had put that book down and went to eat a hamburger, would anything change? If I knew differently, but continued to do what I’ve always done, what was the point?

I hope that if you do pick up a self-help book, you will realize there is little point in just reading. You might gain knowledge, but you won’t change, and what you’ve learned will much more easily slip away.

If you find it hard, be accountable and then reward yourself in some way for taking action.

If you find it really hard, find a therapist to help you work through the book.

As for me, it’s been two weeks and I still haven’t eaten that hamburger.

Sources:

Huffington Post. Why self-help books rarely work.

Psychology Today. What you should look for in a self-help book.

Redding, R. E., Herbert, J. D., Forman, E. M., & Gaudiano, B. A. (2008). Popular self-help books for anxiety, depression, and trauma: How scientifically grounded and useful are theyProfessional Psychology: Research and Practice, 39(5), 537-545.

Wood, G. 3 top tips: How to get the most from a self-help book.

How to Overcome Social Anxiety and Reclaim Your Life

alive photo

Does it ever strike you as odd that social anxiety disorder (or SAD, as I will refer to it sometimes on this blog) is among the top three most common mental health conditions (yes, up there with depression and alcoholism), there are science-backed treatments for it that we know work, and yet around a third of people with social anxiety experience symptoms for 10 years or more before seeking help. Wait, what?

10 or more years? Like, were they locked in their homes or something?

Well, kind of.

Not locked in a house like Paul Sheldon was in Misery.

No, these people with social anxiety are living with some kind of virtual shackle, that stops them from waving at the neighbor, going to work, raising their hand in class, leaving the house, speaking—

You get the picture. And if this is you, that picture confronts you every morning.

So, it’s no wonder that these people don’t, imagine that, pick up the telephone and call their doctor

How would that go anyway?

“Good morning, Dr. X’s office, can you hold for a moment?”

“Uh.” . Click.

You know what? It’s really not their fault. And it’s not your fault. Because, you see, the world is not set up to help people with social anxiety get help. In fact, it’s pretty much stacked against you.

But still, 10 years? Surely you can do better than that. Let’s think about what contributes to that 10 year gap.

#1. You’re not motivated to change.

Okay, okay. Hear me out.

I don’t mean not motivated in the sense that you lay about in your pyjamas all day, eat bon bons, and binge-watch Netflix. Well if you do, kudos. You’ve found a way to earn a living that doesn’t require working, so good on you. Unless, of course, you’re living with people who are supporting you. Not good. Very bad.

No, I mean the type of lack of motivation that stems from fear of making a major life change.

Maybe you’ve settled into your way of life and somehow made it work for you.

Maybe your family doesn’t support you changing.

Maybe you have other mental health issues that make life a struggle in general.

Maybe you think the cost of getting help is out of reach.

Maybe you think there is no help for you, that you were born defective.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

I don’t know you or what reason you might have for not wanting to change.

I do know that if you ever want to get motivated to change there are 3 things you need to do:

  1. Become aware that you have a problem. Most people with social anxiety realize they have a problem, but they might think it is something they have to live with.
  2. Think about making a change sometime in the future. It doesn’t have to be tomorrow. In fact, it probably shouldn’t be.
  3. Start planning to work on your issue in the near future. Something like within the next month.

But what about the why? Why are you doing this if things are ho-hum now. If your family doesn’t support you. If you can’t afford therapy. If you can’t be helped.

Are you happy?

How could your life be better?

The answers to those two key questions will tell you if you can dig deep to find that motivation. Because it will always feel more comfortable to stay the same. And people will often be unsupportive. And you may run into roadblocks getting help (but there are ways around this—a topic for another post). And YOU CAN BE HELPED.

You all can be helped. Don’t believe otherwise.

#2. You don’t have the information to change.

So, if you’ve got the motivation that’s all you need, right? Yeah right. You need tools and information. You can’t do this alone (well, maybe you can—again, another post). But if you think you know it all already, you’re done before you start.

You need expert help to get through this and live well. Whether that comes in the form of medication, therapy, self-help books, online treatment modules, your cat telling you what to do (not advised, cats don’t know social anxiety)—it doesn’t matter. And you know, combining different methods might actually work the best, kind of like the shotgun approach.

#3. You are not putting what you have learned into practice.

Medication aside, overcoming social anxiety involves a lot of mental work. It’s very easy to slip up and return to old ways of thinking.

Perhaps you got better for a while and then went through a stressful time in your life and regressed. We’ve all been there.

Maybe you’ve read all the self-help books, but that’s all you’ve done is read.

Guess

what?

It’s not going to work if you don’t put in the work. Kind of like you can’t spend 4 months exercising like a madman and expect to then keep six-pack abs for the rest of your life.

Why do people expect that from the brain?

“Well geez, I got treatment shouldn’t I be fine now?”

“Well geez, did you dump your gym membership because you saw you were getting in shape?

What I am getting at here is that medication, therapy, and even self-help approaches are often time-limited.

We treat this as a mental health disorder that needs a short term fix. And I do understand that this is partly because it’s just not feasible to continue in therapy or on medication for an extended period.

But. Still.

We need to start envisioning mental wellness instead of focusing on mental illness. Especially for issues like social anxiety.

And we need to focus on maintenance of mental wellness among the healthy.

You can do this. You’ve got this. I believe in you.