Self-Help: Popular, but Effective?

The help-yourself movement is booming. Can you benefit?

By Dulce Zamora
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

Alex Ramos has read more than a dozen self-help books, recognizing that only some of the advice works for him.

One recommendation that has profoundly touched his life comes from Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It encourages readers to visualize their funeral, imagining the type of eulogy they'd like to hear from people in various areas of their lives.

The exercise constantly replays in Ramos' mind, affecting his daily behavior and decisions. He makes sure to volunteer for his local parish when he has the time, at least tries to acknowledge homeless people who approach him (even if he doesn't always give money), and takes a deep breath when someone in traffic cuts him off. "I restrain myself from overacting," says the 31-year-old energy engineer, noting he doesn't want to be remembered as an angry person.

Self-Help Popularity Boom

Ramos is far from being alone in his reliance on advice from self-help books. The genre is so popular that The New York Times gives advice publications its own category in its best-seller list, distinguishable from fiction, nonfiction, and children's books. The current top hardcover advice book, The Purpose-Driven Life, by Rick Warren, has been a best seller for 18 weeks.

A recent weekly list of Barnes & Noble's best sellers also marks the trend: Three of the top 10 online sales are self-help books: Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution, by Robert C. Atkins, MD, The South Beach Diet, by Arthur Agatston, MD, and Atkins for Life, also by Atkins.

The inclination for self-help also appears to go beyond books, as the number of self-help organizations and online support groups has mushroomed in recent years. In 1986, the American Self-Help Group Clearinghouse had 332 associations in its roster. Now, it has more than 1,100 groups that meet either face-to-face or online.

To further illustrate the popularity of self-help, John C. Norcross, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Scranton, says studies indicate that at least 18% of Americans will visit at least one self-help group meeting in their lifetime, and at least 75% to 80% of all people with access to the web have already gone there for health information.

In fact, the help-yourself movement has become so pervasive and accepted that most psychologists recommend self-help resources to their patients as an adjunct to psychotherapy, adds Norcross, who has authored his own self-help book, The Authoritative Guide to Self-Help Resources and Mental Health.

A glance at several best-seller lists, including The New York Times, USA Today, and Publisher's Weekly, suggests that concerns about weight loss and diet (Curves by Gary Heavin and Carol Colman), finding the meaning of life (Self Matters by Phil McGraw), and advice on effective management (The One Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson) are some motives for people to buy self-help books.

On the other hand, people who look for self-help groups or online support groups often do so because they want to connect with others who are going through the same problems, says Edward J. Madara, director of the American Self-Help Group Clearinghouse. The most commonly shared troubles, he says, have to do with illness, addiction, bereavement, disabilities, and parenting.

"I think, in some ways, we have too much in the material realm, and not enough in terms of community and spiritual health."

Online, people who look for health information typically seek mental health topics, including how to deal with anxiety and depression, how to handle relationships, and how to manage kids, says Norcross.

Andrew Weil, MD, author of the self-help book, 8 Weeks to Optimum Health, has his own theory about the tremendous growth of the do-it-yourself industry.

"Our culture lacks a sense of purpose," he explains. "I think, in some ways, we have too much in the material realm, and not enough in terms of community and spiritual health."

Weil points out that the drive toward self-help may be part of a natural human instinct to look for fulfillment. In his book, he encourages readers not only to eat well for physical health, but to take time out for themselves and do volunteer work to bring spiritual and emotional satisfaction to their lives.

Indeed, both Madara and Norcross agree that the breakdown of family and neighborhood networks have caused many people to feel isolated and look for new sources of connection.

Effective Group Support

For 10 years, Claire Patterson endured the disease trigeminal neuralgia on her own. The disease causes severe facial pain, caused by a disorder in the nerve that affects the lips, nose, eyes, forehead, and jaw.