The 9 best books that help heal anxiety

I read widely and wonderfully while researching first, we make the beast beautiful, my book about my anxious journey. Actually, I’ve researched the topic for decades now and read many a fretty memoir, some more insightful and enriching than others.

Here’s my pick of the bunch with short reviews. Because I did promise I’d provide such a list in my book. I confess, though, I provide only nine…with an additional handful of others that I also found valuable.  I’m hoping you’ll all add to the list in the comments below so I can continue the journey (I’ll probably turn it into a meta-list later on, so feel free to add a comment or two as to why the read is so good).

My list of best books for anxiety

  • The Road to Character by David Brooks

The New York Times columnist (one of my favourites and whose pop-political-cultural thoughts I’ve explored here and here) explores the various anxious journeys that led some of history’s biggest minds to greatness. He pivots back and forth from this point: it’s character that we ultimately seek, not happiness or calm or balance. He warns that those who embark on the road to character don’t come out healed; they come out different. I’ve written more about this book here. Or buy it here.

  • An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison

Jamison is a psychiatrist and sufferer of bipolar disorder. This is her memoir. She hones in on the idea that the storms and bleakness and madness count for something. The restlessness will lead to something. I took great comfort from this book when I first read it almost 20 years ago. You can buy Kay’s book here.

  • The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey 

Elisabeth Tova Bailey was struck down with a particularly virulent strain of flu akin to CFS that left her debilitated for almost twenty years. Her memoir of the 12 months in which she waits out her illness watching a little snail that a friend delivered to her in a flowerpot sees her learn about slowness and stillness. Her understanding of the snail’s stillness over the course of 12 months mirrors her acceptance of her illness, and leads to a particular healing. Check out my review. Or buy the book here.

  • Your Voice in My Head by Emma Forrest

Forrest, a journalist with bipolar shares her grapplings with her weirdness and various breakdowns via what is almost an ode to her shrink. It’s a tender, sad and real read. It could be accused of being self-indulgent, in a Prozac Nation way. But it dodges such a call with the bravery and rawness of her writing. It’s unapologetic. And this frees it from contrivance. And freed me to dig down deep with her and to feel the freedom of it all. PS a big part of the book is her battle to recover from one particular ex…who is clearly Colin Farrell. She’s now married to Ben Mendelsohn, which I did not know until I checked some details on wikipedia just now. You can find Emma’s book here.

  • M Train by Patti Smith

Patti Smith, is of course the New York punk artist from the eighties who has now written multiple award-winning books. M Train is her real-time journey as an artist in her twilight years settled into  slightly eccentric ways of finding peace and identity and place. She’s not so much anxious as quirky. But I suspect her quirkiness has come from decades of making her beast beautiful. It’s an inspiring read for anyone wanting more permission to live the life they know is true to them. Check out my review. Or buy the book here.

  • Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living by Pema Chodron

The title says it all. The book is bang-on in terms of encouraging us all to come in closer to find peace. Chodron is an American Buddhist nun who has lived a full life (two marriage breakdowns in her twenties!) and defines anxiety as resisting the unknown. To heal we have to experiment with uncertainty, which is, she says, to grow up. You can find the book here.

  • The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry could write a phonebook and I’d read it. In this memoir he describes his crippling self-doubts, his needinesses, the greed of his addictions, his drive, shallow though he knew it was, for fame. I think what I gleaned from it was a new way of talking, vulnerably. It’s a courageous confession-ing, that brings readers in closer to their own loneliness and rawness. Buy The Fry Chronicles here.

  • My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind  by Scott Stossel

A lovely reader of this blog came to one of my talks in New York a few years ago and gave me this dense text-booky read by the editor of Atlantic magazine. While dense and detailed, particularly around the history of anxiety and also his long list of social anxieties (including his fear of vomiting), it is brought in close by a forthright honesty and anecdotes, like the time, as a house guest at Hyannis Port, he flees from an overflowing toilet (a result of his nervous stomach) wearing only a sewage-soaked towel and bumps into John F. Kennedy, Jr. Buy the book here.

  • Tristimania: A diary of manic depression by Jay Griffiths

I read this just as my book was about to go to the printers. It provides a glimpse of madness from inside the eye of the storm, which I found wonderfully comforting. But it’s also a high-brow read, by which I mean it’s elevated and lyrical and interspersed with poetic and literary moments that satiated my mind. I also loved that she had the same experience as me of a close friend questioning why she wrote the book, and providing the same answer:

“Why write about that terrible year?” a friend of mine asked me recently. “How can you want to revisit it?”

“Because manic depression seems to me a misunderstood condition,” Griffiths concludes, “and I want to describe it for those who have never experienced it but who perhaps know someone with it.” She continues, “If this book can befriend just one person in that terrifying loneliness, it will be worth writing.”

Uncannily, her cure, like mine, is hiking. She rounds of her year of bipolar by doing the Camino de Santiago. Weird, hey! You can find her book here.

Some extra reads

  • Monkey Mind by Daniel Smith.
  • The Good Life: What makes a life worth living by Hugh Mackay.

“No one can promise you that a life lived for others will bring you a deep sense of satisfaction, but it’s certain that nothing else will.” And on the great Australian social researcher goes to discuss how to go about better connection, selflessness and…coming in closer.

  • Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig
  • Changing Minds: The Go-To Guide to Mental Health for You, Family and Friends by Dr Mark Cross and Dr Catherine Hanrahan.

This is by the Dr Cross I meet up with in my book and who chats to me robustly about panic attacks v anxiety spirals. He’s also the expert in the ABC TV series of the same name.

As I say, please do add to the list in the comments and feel free to provide a line as to why I (and others) might find it helpful…

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