Are self-help books a recipe for increased stress?

Consumers of self-help books are more sensitive to stress and show higher depressive symptomatology, according to a new study.
Pedro Ribeiro Simões

Self-help books may not be doing the best for people who read them who were more sensitive to stress than others, a study by the University of Montreal suggests.

It found that consumers of the books are more sensitive to stress and show higher depressive symptomatology. The results were published in the journal Neural Plasticity.

"Initially, we thought we had observed a difference in participants in terms of personality, sense of control, and self-esteem based on their self-help reading habits," explained Catherine Raymond, first author of the study.

"In reality, there seems to be no difference between those who read and those who do not read these types of books. However, our results show that while consumers of certain types of self-help books secrete higher levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) when confronted with stressful situations, consumers of another type of self-help books show higher depressive symptomatology compared to non-consumers."

The researchers recruited 30 participants, half of whom were consumers of self-help books. They measured several elements of the participants, including stress reactivity (salivary cortisol levels), openness, self-discipline, extraversion, compassion, emotional stability, self-esteem, and depressive symptoms.

The group of self-help book consumers was itself divided into two types of readers: those who preferred problem-focused books (e.g. Why Is It Always About You? or How Can I Forgive You?: The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To) and those who preferred growth-oriented books (e.g.,You're Stronger Than You Think or How to Stop Worrying and Start Living). The results showed that consumers of problem-focused self-help books consumers presented greater depressive symptoms and that growth oriented self-help books consumers presented increased stress reactivity compared to non-consumers.

What is not clear from the study is whether reading self-help books increases the stress of self-help readers or whether they are more sensitive to stressful situations.

"Further research will help us learn more," says Sonia Lupien, Director of the Centre of Studies on Human Stress (CSHS) based at the University of Montreal.

"Nevertheless, it seems that these books do not produce the desired effects. When we observe that the best predictor of purchasing a self-help book is having bought one in the past year, it raises doubts about their effectiveness.

"Logically, if such books were truly effective, reading just one would be enough to solve our problems."

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