Reading Self-Help Books May Cause More Stress, Study Finds


When people are down in the dumps, they usually do two things: consult a friend or read self-help books. In a new study, however, researchers suggest that dousing oneself with words from so-called inspirational books may cause a person to be more sensitive to stress and exhibit greater depressive symptoms.

More and more people in North America are turning to self-help books. In fact, the industry is said to be generating billions of dollars every year from consumer purchases. Despite the popularity of the said area of interest, little is researched or known about the features of the patrons, as well as whether reading such books is linked with physiological and or psychological indicators of stress.

The researchers of a new study conducted the first ever comparative analysis of self-help book readers and nonreaders, in the light of three key fields: psychological, neurological and endocrine systems.

The authors from the Center of Studies on Human Stress (CSHS) of the Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal enrolled 30 study subjects, of whom 50 percent read self-help books. They then conducted numerous measurements such as openness, compassion, self-discipline, emotional stability, self-esteem, extraversion and depressive symptoms. Stress reactivity was assessed by determining the amounts of salivary cortisol.

The consumers group was further classified into two categories. The first one includes participants who prefer reading problem-targeted books such as "Why Is It Always About You?" or "How Can I Forgive You?: The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To." The second subgroup is composed of study subjects who prefer to read growth-focused books such as "You're Stronger Than You Think" or "How to Stop Worrying and Start Living."

The findings of the analysis showed that readers of the problem-targeted books had more depressive symptoms and those who prefer to indulge in growth-focused reads had higher levels of stress reactivity compared to nonreaders.

According to the researchers, the underlying cause of the results cannot be precisely determined.

"Further research will help us learn more," said Sonia Lupien, the director of CSHS. She said, however, that the findings of the study, appear not to generate favorable outcomes.

Lupien further explained that if these self-help books are indeed effective, reading just one would be sufficient to provide solutions to problems. With this, she recommends people to read books that are backed up by scientific evidences and are authored by clinicians and researchers coming from reputable institutions, universities or facilities.

"Check your sources to avoid being disappointed," advised Lupien. Although a good science book cannot function as replacement for a mental health expert, it can help people better comprehend stress and anxiety, and subsequently push them to seek assistance.

The study was published in the journal Neural Plasticity.

Photo: Julia Manzerova | Flickr

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