I read like it’s my job. Always have. I have a virtual bookshelf on my website and for-real bookshelves all over my house. Books are the perfect portal for anxious introverts, the ideal escape for homebodies, and a great way to eavesdrop on the lives and places and experiences of other people (which, I confess, I adore doing). I am all of the above, so reading is my happy place. And although I’m a fiction girl, I do love me a good memoir, any nonfiction related to anxiety, and the occasional “self-help” kind of book.
What follows is a list of books that have been instrumental in teaching me some key aspect of what has become my holistic healing modality for transforming anxiety into something valuable and informative in my life. Basically this, for me, is a life-changing list…
1. 10% Happier by Dan Harris
I cannot say enough good things about Dan Harris and what he’s up to in this book + the app, follow-up book, podcast, and company that have grown out of it. This is a man who had a panic attack on live TV in front of millions of people (he’s an anchor for Good Morning America), got clean (he had a penchant for cocaine and ecstasy), and started meditating because, “Damn it, let’s give it a shot. Carpe diem, and whatnot.” <~~~ That’s what went through his head while on vacation, filled with research on Buddhism and scientific research on the benefits of meditation, after “reading yet another book about Buddhist meditation.”
This book is part-memoir, part-research, and comes from the perspective of even the most skeptical and anxiety-prone. Harris is hilariously glib about such industry icons as Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle, and never fails to incorporate his own successes and failures throughout the journey.
If you’ve rolled your eyes at the thought of meditation or felt sure that you were too anxious / old / religious / secular / skeptical / uninformed / not the right “kind of person” to meditate, this is the perfect book.
A few favorite quotes…
“Your demons may have been ejected from the building, but they’re out in the parking lot, doing push-ups.”
“The ego is never satisfied. No matter how much stuff we buy, no matter how many arguments we win or delicious meals we consume, the ego never feels complete.”
2. May Cause Miracles by Gabrielle Bernstein
Gabby Bernstein has been a favorite of mine since back in the day when she wrote Spirit Junkie. And although that book is what hooked me, I truly believe May Cause Miracles is some of her very best work to date. The tagline goes like this: “A 40-Day Guidebook of Subtle Shifts for Radical Change and Unlimited Happiness,” and you guys, I’m telling ya, IT IS.
My problem with *so many* self-help books is that I don’t want to read 200+ pages of the same thing cover-to-cover, so I wind up setting it down after chapter 2…and sometimes I never pick it up again. This one, though, is designed to be read in bite-sized chunks for 40 days, making it really accessible.
New coaching clients often ask me if my program “works.” And every time I tell them no, it doesn’t. The program, homework, resources, tools, and results do not work. THE CLIENT has to work. People have to put in the work in order for anything written on a page or any tool offered to have any impact whatsoever. Same with this book. It includes daily affirmations and carefully designed homework and feels like a gorgeously curated program, but it doesn’t “work.” You have to put in the work with this one to reap the benefits. And it’s totally worth it.
3. The Relaxation Response by Dr. Herbert Benson
This truly one of the OG’s in the world of stress management and the positive effects of meditation. It may seem outdated, since it was first published in 1975, and stuffy, since it’s written by a Harvard Medical School professor. But! Dr. Benson truly speaks the language of *healing*. And that is one of the greatest gifts of this book.
Dr. Benson’s research is largely centered around hypertension and heart disease, which makes his findings not only quantifiable but important in all aspects of human health, from emotional to physical. He starts with the fight-or-flight stress response, a term coined by Walter B. Cannon (also a notable Harvard professor) and brings light to its obvious opposite: the relaxation response (sometimes called rest-and-digest).
We all know that stress (and anxiety) are triggered by a number of different experiences, situations, life circumstances, etc. Dr. Benson figured that, perhaps, relaxation could also be “triggered” and set out to extract the “essential components that would elicit the Relaxation Response.” What it eventually boiled down to was: 1) “repetition of a word, sound, phrase, prayer, or muscular activity,” and 2) “passively disregarding everyday thoughts that inevitably come to mind and returning to your repetition.” Which looks a bit like…meditation (!).
Anyway, the book goes on into amazing detail and even if hypertension doesn’t affect you, I can almost guarantee it affects someone you know, and regardless of that, the research is astounding because it shows how meditation actually creates the opposite of stress in our bodies. So, basically, read it. :)
4. Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin
This book is all about habits and since habits truly rule our lives, this book in an important addition to the list. We have habits that we are aware of (practicing yoga every morning) and habits that we don’t pay much attention to (brushing our teeth) and habits that work for us (reading before bed) and habits that trip us up (after-dinner dessert…every night).
But more than just shedding light on habits and how we can encourage our good habits and slow our bad habits and create new habits that actually stick, this book is also about knowing who you are in the first place, so that you can encourage / slow / create habits in a way that really works for YOU. Gretchen lays out the framework for the Four Tendencies in this book (questioner, obliger, upholder, and rebel) and most people fall easily into one of the four categories. Instead of arguing with who you are, you can embrace your nature and develop habits aligned with that. It makes habit-making SO much easier because you’re not stuck trying to shape-shift into a more “convenient” version of yourself in order to make the new habit stick.
Some great quotes from this book:
“The biggest waste of time is to do well something we need not do at all.”
“We won’t make ourselves more creative and productive by copying other people’s habits, even the habits of geniuses; we must know our own nature, and what habits serve us best.”
“When we do stumble, it’s important not to judge ourselves harshly. Although some people assume that strong feelings of guilt or shame safeguards to help people stick to good habits, the opposite is true. People who feel less guilt and who show compassion toward themselves in the face of failure are better able to regain self-control, while people who feel deeply guilty and full of self-blame struggle more.”
5. A Life Worth Breathing by Max Strom
No list on healing anxiety holistically would be complete without a book that focuses on the power of yoga in transforming the mind, body, and spirit and this book is an oldie but a goodie. Max is known for taking this ancient practice and making it accessible to the modern-day yogi by offering his interpretations and relaying the importance of living your yoga practice *off* the mat.
For me, there is no perfect book on yoga because it’s not something that can be learned or conveyed on the page and because it’s not the same for everyone and because it’s just so much more than language could possibly begin to relate. Yoga is no sprint; it is a looooooong marathon that builds and plateaus and alternately convinces you that you’ve been practicing since your first yoga class…but then again, maybe you just started practicing something new happened or shifted or you heard that thing the your teacher always tells you in a brand-new way and you felt it in your bones and so NOW it feels as if you’re practicing yoga.
All of that said, I believe that Max’s book goes a long way towards inviting yogis deeper into the practice and introducing those who have maybe never practiced before into the magic of this endeavor.
“Do you think the world really needs you to be crippled with guilt? Learn from your errors. Make a pledge to change. Transform from a victim to an activist. Make amends, and, if appropriate, work to help those you have harmed. There are many people who need you, especially your spouse and your children. And they need you whole and happy. We all need you that way.”
“I attribute much of my rapid transformation to learning how to breathe well early on. That is when things really started to move. Through the breathing practice I really felt the way I thought.”
6. Food: What the Heck Should I Eat? by Dr. Mark Hyman
Here’s what I looooove about this book even more than everything else I love about this book: there are *no* dietary recommendations that smack of trendy fads. Dr. Hyman doesn’t tout the Ketogenic diet above the Paleo diet above the Vegan diet, etc. He makes room for everyone’s beliefs, desires, and bio-individuality and then gives the facts and the research plain and simple. IMHO this book is a unicorn in that way; he’s not selling his trademarked diet plan or any crazy supplements that you don’t need. He’s educating us about food. Done.
Sure, I guess you could argue that he uses the first however-many pages of this book to introduce what he calls the Pegan (Paleo Vegan) Diet, but overall, the book just gives solid recommendations re: food.
I include this book on this list because 1) we definitely needed a book about food because food is at the crux of what goes wrong, and right, for so very many people, 2) I love Dr. Hyman and believe him to be a very credible source, 3) he systematically goes through the different “categories” of food (i.e. Grains, Dairy, Fruits, Poultry, etc.) and their impacts on the body and the environment, and 4) it’s extremely informative without being sensational…and in today’s environment, there’s no greater (and smarter) way to educate and enlighten others than calmly and rationally laying out the facts, amiright?
7. Carry On, Warrior by Glennon Doyle
Especially if you’re a parent and especially if you’re sober - but maybe not because Glennon speaks the Truth and the Truth is applicable no matter who you are or where you are in life - this book is for YOU. I mean, the tagline is, “The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life.” So. Pretty much for everyone.
Glennon is a true, in-her-bones, deep-down w.r.i.t.e.r. She has the gift of standing back and observing and then putting all the pieces together in words on paper in a way that you’re like, “YES!” that make you wonder how you didn’t see it or say it that way before. Like I said, she speaks the Truth.
This book is a collection of essays from her blog, Momastery, so you can read it all at once or you can read a handful of pages over the span of all kinds of time. Fair warning: when one speaks the Truth, things are not pretty, convenient, or designed so that you can feel comfortable. You’ll recognize yourself somewhere in these pages and it may not be the self that you want to recognize. Just sayin’. But here’s the thing: Glennon is one of those people that I call up in my mind’s eye when I need to remind myself that there is no such thing as other people’s children. And that life is brutiful (brutal and beautiful). And that I can do hard things.
Like, she says stuff like this…
“Every single child is gifted. And every child has challenges. It’s just that in the educational system, some gifts and challenges are harder to see. And teachers are working on this problem. Lots of schools are trying to find ways to make all children’s gifts visible and celebrated. And as parents, we can help. We can help our kids who struggle in school believe that they’re okay. It’s just that there’s only one way to help them. And it’s hard.
We to actually believe that our kids are okay.”
“I pray and pray for God to help me feel some peace and stillness in the midst of my mommy life instead of feeling constantly like a dormant volcano likely to erupt at any given moment and burn my entire family alive. And God says: Well G, here’s the thing. Peace isn’t the absence of distraction or annoyance or pain. It’s finding Me, finding peace and calm, in the midst of those distractions and annoyances and pains.
So he sends me Smelly Coughy Guy, a kind (yoga) teacher, and an otherwise quiet room to practice finding peace.
Smelly Coughy Guy is actually part of he answer to my prayers. He’s helping me.
I am learning a little more each day.”
8. The Sleep Revolution by Arianna Huffington
For all of you out there who think that rest, bedtime, and lots of sleep is for chumps, get this book immediately. Actually, that goes for all of the books on this list: whichever grabs you as the least important or whichever turns you off the most is probably the one you need the most. But, I digress…
The Sleep Revolution is the result of Arianna Huffington’s pretty dramatic breakdown from sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and burnout. In the preface to the paperback edition, she talks about how the conversation is slowly shifting away from simply having to convince people that sleep is important and is starting to focus on the matter at-hand: sleep is vital for our wellbeing, health, productivity, and happiness.
This book goes into history, science, dreams, what to do (and what NOT to do), and how very impactful sleep is in all aspects of our lives. But this book isn’t all “here’s what you’re doing wrong” and statistics and studies and scientific mumbo jumbo and “SLEEP MORE.” This is a book that speaks to the soul about this most basic of human needs. It’s a really beautiful exploration into the sacredness of sleep.
A few great quotes…
“By helping us keep the world in perspective, sleep gives us a chance to refocus on the essence of who we are. And in that place of connection, it is easier for fears and concerns of the world to drop away.”
“These two threads that run through our life - one pulling us into the world to achieve and make things happen, the other pulling us back from the world to nourish and replenish ourselves - can seem at odds, but in fact they reinforce each other.”
9. Meditation as Medicine by Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa & Cameron Stauth
Ohhhh you guys. This book. This is a heavy read and it’s got everything from science to yoga and it’s amazing. Putting meditation in the spotlight and using it as a powerful internal healing modality may be a relatively new idea, but the concepts are ancient and have been used in traditional Eastern practices forever.
Now that I’ve scared you away by telling you this is a heavy read, please don’t be scared away. Meditation IS medicine. And this book isn’t titled thusly for no reason.
Some favorite takeaways…
“We now know that molecules of emotion can literally be stored away in the body, just as surely as you store soup in your cupboard. When these molecules are released, and finally begin to circulate, they can allow people to feel emotions that had long been stored away. This commonly occurs when patients do breath work. They frequently feel an onrush of emotions - for no logical reason - and then often associate these emotions with long-buried memories.”
“…breathing is the only action in the body that has a dual control system - it can operate consciously, through the voluntary nervous system, or unconsciously, through the autonomic nervous system. Because of this unique aspect, breathing is the one function of the body that can allow the voluntary nervous system to reprogram the autonomic nervous system.”
10. The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown
I think this is perhaps the least suspecting of Brene Brown’s work. You cannot go wrong with any of her books, but I chose this one because she lays out 10 guideposts for living a wholehearted life and dedicates an entire chapter to managing anxiety, “Guidepost #8: Cultivating Calm and Stillness - Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle.”
I have talked with one-on-one clients often about the habits we get into around anxiety and how we get stuck in patterns with this emotion, experiencing the results of that pattern sometimes more often than we truly feel the emotion itself. Living a lifestyle of anxiety is a great way to put it…and cultivating the resources of calm and stillness is an ideal daily practice to introduce here.
Brene is the researchiest self-help author I’ve ever come across. She has these theories about behavior and emotions and then she goes to work studying the hell outta them, often surprising herself and finding nearly unanimous results in certain avenues of inquiry. She’s a writer who constantly reminds me how freakin’ ALIKE we all are; our day-to-day details may look different, but when you dig down to the deep (aka good) stuff, we are all so similar it’s staggering.
I think this nugget sums things up nicely, and hopefully makes you want to read more:
“I used my research to formulate a plan to lessen my anxiety. The men and women I interviewed weren’t anxiety-free or even anxiety-averse; they were anxiety-aware. They were committed to a way of living where anxiety was a reality but not a lifestyle. They did this by cultivating calm and stillness in their lives and making these practices the norm.”
11. You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero
This last one is the super-rare exception to my “can’t read a self-help book cover-to-cover” rule. I flew through this one, taking notes and cracking up. I always trust people who have the experience about which they preach, and Jen has been in the trenches. Her journey has meandered through debt, years struggling to make a decent living doing what she loves, and ultimately going out on her own and creating the job she wants to have, with all of the attendant difficulties (starting a band named Crotch, debunking affirmations, and bird rescuing among those difficulties).
Throughout this book, Jen asks powerful questions that, if you take a moment and really consider them, will blow your heart wide open. Wholly approachable and really funny, this book (and it’s sequel, You Are a Badass at Making Money) is one you can return to for both a deep lesson and a good laugh over and over again.
Some great quotes…
“You are responsible for what you say and do. You are not responsible for whether or not people freak out about it.”
“Start noticing the things that drive you nuts about other people, and, instead of complaining or judging or getting defensive about them, use them as a mirror. Especially if you find yourself getting really worked up. Get mighty real with yourself - is this quality something you have yourself? Or is there a certain aspect to it that you’re loath to admit is just like you? Or does it remind you of something you’re actively trying to suppress? Or avoid? Or that you’re actively doing just the opposite of? Or that you’re threatened by? Become fascinated by, instead of furious about, the irritants surrounding you and get yer learnin’ on.”