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Your Self-Growth Reading List: 4 Books to Enhance Your Mental Health

Summer brings the promise of moments with feet up and a good book in hand, hopefully near a lake or the ocean. The night before I leave for a trip, I question if I really need to bring 4 books for a 3-day weekend at the beach.

It’s an ongoing struggle to choose what to take and what to leave home.

Part of my job is to read a lot, for my own training and to vet resources for clients. There are many high-quality resources available to support individuals in leading rich and meaningful lives; it can be overwhelming to know where to start.

My bookshelves at home and the office are maxed out, with the overflow stashed in closets and the trunk of my car (the purgatory for books traveling between home and the office).

Perhaps you’re hoping to take advantage of the slower pace of summer to step back and hit the reset button.

If you are looking for reads to enhance your mental health, this short-list from my bookshelf is targeted to prompt reflection and encourage action towards a meaningful, healthy, whole-hearted life.

Get Reflective: Rising Strong by Brené Brown

Brené Brown’s TED talks made her name synonymous with vulnerability, shame, authenticity, and courage. Brown has studied human nature with depth, intent, and compassion.

Her earlier books gave us permission to be ourselves and be imperfect in a world that trains us to hustle for our worthiness and hide our true selves.

Her writing can be painfully revealing—she’s traveled to the center of the human soul and back again—but her words wrap up some of the darkest, most painful aspects of our lives in the light of acceptance and hope.

In her 2015 release, Rising Strong, Brown leaves no stone unturned when it comes to the hardest parts of our stories.

Her book provides a structure to acknowledge the stories in which we’re living, get curious, and take agency over how our stories will play out for the rest of our lives.

The hook: “When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write the ending.”

Brown recognizes that the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves directly shape our lives and relationships. When we face challenges, conflicts and failures every day—usually accompanied by intense emotions—our mind is quick to fill in the gaps with assumptions based on our history.

It’s not uncommon for individuals to be reliving past hurts in the present moment.

However, we are often numbed by these patterns, because changing them requires we face head-on our family dynamics, heartbreak, failures, insecurities and judgments. We feel pain, we respond, and quickly move forward while stuffing down our discomfort. Repeat.

Rising Strong is a handbook for owning your story, which is therapist speak for acknowledging the elephants in the room. It’s a call to get curious about the patterns in your life and relationships which leave you feeling stuck and frustrated.

If you’ve ever wondered “Why the heck do I feel this way?” this book provides structure for the brave process of answering that question and choosing truth over comfort.

Purchase Rising Strong by Brené Brown here!


Get Out of Your Head: The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris

Maybe you’ve stepped into summer with the hope that this will be the summer when you have the time and energy to get your life in order and find lasting happiness.

All I need is ___(fill in the blank)___ and life will be great. Maybe you’ve become wise to that trap want to start living your life now, even if you’re still waiting to meet a life partner, land the dream job or lose 10 pounds.

It can be tricky to know how to do that because our head often gets in the way. Russ Harris presents a compelling argument that our insistence on waiting for ___(fill in the blank)____ thing to start living gets in the way of living the very life we want.

If you find yourself stuck in insecurity, doubt, or stress while waiting for the next break, consider this summer read. Harris will guide you through the process of getting out of the happiness trap, with his humorous and honest experiences as a medical doctor and mental health professional.

The Happiness Trap will provide you with mindfulness-based skills to change patterns of thought and behavior that fuel avoidance, stress, and disconnection from what’s most important to you in life.

It will challenge you to step back, define your values, and take action towards living out your values to create a meaningful life.

Purchase The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris here!


Get Organized: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

According to Charles Duhigg’s review of the research, habits shape our brains and shape our lives. The Power of Habit will help you tap into the secrets of behavioral science to help you change ineffective habits and move you towards your goals.

Duhigg argues that we spend our days responding to cues in our environments to engage in certain behaviors. If we are rewarded for those behaviors, the link between cue and behavior continues, and a pattern is enforced.

You may be trying to reach a goal like training for a race, but can’t stick to your training schedule. Perhaps you’ve discovered that old habits can be tough to break, and new habits hard to establish.

Duhigg offers that understanding how habits are formed can help you shape new habits through the creation of new cues and rewards in your environment. His book will support you in doing just that.

My personal arsenal of cues and rewards includes yellow legal pads, blue felt tip pens, and an unexpected app called Habitica.

Purchase The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg here!


Get Moving: Spark by John J. Ratey

Spark puts the science of the mind-body connection in the hands of the people. It’s for the biology nerds out there, but also any individual who is curious about how moving their body can change the way they think and feel.

Dr. Daley, a supervisor in grad school and a fellow PB contributor, introduced me to this book and I can’t thank her enough (Hi, fellow biology nerds).

The most powerful thing about reading this book is that its accessible language will help you understand how your nervous systems impact your physical experiences of stress, anxiety, depression, ADHD, women’s health, learning, aging, or addiction.

Knowing what is happening in our body can make it less scary, and also validates our experiences.

Personally, I find comfort in knowing that when I can’t play it cool in a stressful situation, I am simply experiencing the nervous system’s stress response—which evolved for the purpose of fighting off predators in caveman times but is not so helpful during a podcast recording.

Once I understood how the stress response worked, I could take physical action to respond to stress differently.

We often think our brains are shaping our bodies, but our bodies can also shape the brain. The value of understanding your nervous systems in the context of your mental health is that this knowledge will empower you with physical strategies to enhance your coping skills.

Reading Spark is an investment in your brain health and will guide you in strengthening the muscle of your brain through exercise.

Purchase Spark by John J. Ratey here!

Sometimes we need extra support along the way. If you are overwhelmed with uncomfortable thoughts or emotions as you read, seek out a mental health professional in your area. The books above are not a substitute for therapy!

Click here for more content by Elise Howell, LPCA!

Elise Howell, LPCA
Elise's passion is to collaborate with teen girls and their families in navigating the unpredictable years of adolescence, and supporting women in cultivating healthy relationships with their whole selves. She engages with clients' strengths to help clients process their stories, build skills to move them towards their goals, and reconnect with what’s most important to them in life. When she is not watching classic romantic comedies, Elise enjoys kayaking, hiking, and beach days with her husband. She loves all things Harry Potter and musical theater.


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