I first started experiencing anxiety as a teen. It was mostly social anxiety: I hated drawing attention to myself, having to speak in front of others, and being in social situations where I was judged. I intentionally did badly in exams so I wasn’t praised in public. At university, I dropped out of mandatory debate classes because they made me so nervous.
My social and general anxiety disorders were due to a combination of Asperger’s syndrome, the PTSD I was also later diagnosed with, and being an extreme introvert.
I’ve come a long way since those years, mostly thanks to EMDR therapy but also by reading a lot of great books for anxiety. I still hold too much tension in my body and struggle to slow down, but I’m in an infinitely better headspace.
So here we go, my best bibliotherapy books for anxiety that I think you’ll like too…
1. How to Relax by Thich Nhat Hanh
Oh, all the things we can learn from Thich Nhat Hanh… I love the Buddhist monk’s “How to” books, especially How to Love – which improved my relationship in so many ways with its timeless wisdom – and this book, How to Relax.
2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
“If life could write, it would write like Tolstoy,” wrote Isaac Babel.
War and Peace will forever feature on most of my lists of recommended books, especially when they’re books for anxiety. Read War and Peace to learn about life, slow down and appreciate the details, and glimpse new dimensions of our humanity.
3. Enchanted Forest: An Inky Quest and Coloring book by Johanna Basford
It’s neither a novel nor a non-fiction book, but it’s an excellent book for anxiety in any case – a colouring book. Buy one of Johanna Basford’s wonderful colouring books, treat yourself to a new set of pens, and rediscover the joy of making pretty pictures.
4. Zen: The Art of Simple Living by Shunmyō Masuno
Simple pleasures are a powerful antidote to feeling burnt out and anxious. Find them in Shunmyō Masuno’s beautiful little book, Zen: The Art of Simple Living.
5. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
In the first book of the His Dark Materials trilogy, Lyra Belacqua and Pantalaimon, her animal dæmon, live half-wild and carefree among scholars of Jordan College, Oxford. That’s until her destiny takes her to the frozen lands of the Arctic, where witch-clans reign and ice-bears fight. Her extraordinary journey will have immeasurable consequences far beyond her own world.
This gift edition has a beautiful cover from illustrator Melissa Castrillon.
6. The Waves by Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf’s writing is nothing short of a work of art, and no more so than in The Waves.
7. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
A discreet advertisement in The Times, addressed to “Those who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine”, is the impetus for a revelatory month for four very different women in The Enchanted April.
High above the bay on the Italian Riviera stands San Salvatore, a mediaeval castle. Mrs Wilkins, Mrs Arbuthnot, Mrs Fisher and Lady Caroline Dester, each quietly craving a respite and a break from rainy England, come together to unwind and enjoy the Mediterranean spirit, building friendships they had all longed for.
The Enchanted April is a perfect book for unwinding with, wherever you are in the world.
8. Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig
If you suffer from anxiety or depression, read Matt Haig. He’ll ease your worries, help you be kinder towards yourself, and show you a gentle way of understanding and healing your mind.
9. City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
One of the best books I read in 2019, City of Girls is your invitation to escape into 1940s New York and unwind with the magic of the glamour, showgirls, and high spirits of the time. You’ll also meet Vivian, a young woman whose evolution and navigation of her own anxieties and insecurities is wonderful to watch and learn from.
10. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
After only reading this old book club favourite recently, Cutting for Stone quickly become one of my best-loved novels. Set in Ethiopia, Abraham Verghese spins the tale of two identical twins, Shiva and Marion, who are torn apart and brought together by love, medicine, and family.
I picked up this book to help me unwind from work stress, and it worked: it’s the perfect big book to escape into when you need a relaxing evening.
11. Wabi Sabi by Beth Kempton
Relax and unwind learning about the best Japanese wisdom for a perfectly imperfect life in Beth Kempton’s lovely little book, Wabi Sabi.
12. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
I received a beautiful copy of Swallows and Amazons as a child, and I’ve only rediscovered it lately. Ease your tension with this childhood escape into the magic of adventure, the camp on Wild Cat Island, and the able-bodied catboat “Swallow”.
13. The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down by Haemin Sunim
This is one of the books I’ve talked about most on this blog, and one I know a lot of you love too. Read The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down to change your pace of life and find time to enjoy the journey, with an open heart and a calm mind.
It’s one of my favourite self-help books for anxiety: gentle, soothing, and beautifully illustrated.
14. The Hobbit: Illustrated Edition by J. R. R. Tolkien
Head of on an adventure into new worlds and leave your anxieties behind with The Hobbit. For an extra dose of relaxation, choose this illustrated edition by Jemima Catlin for beautiful images to take in alongside Tolkien’s timeless words.
15. Radical Compassion by Tara Brach
Tara Brach is one of my best-loved authorities on mindfulness and loving-kindness – if you haven’t spent time with her soothing meditations yet, I’d wholeheartedly recommend them. Radical Compassion is Tara’s latest book, sharing her wisdom into how we can best love ourselves and the world.
16. Silence: In the Age of Noise by Erling Kagge
A welcome celebration of one of the most precious resources we have: silence. Written by Norwegian explorer, writer, and publisher Erling Kagge, Silence: In the Age of Noise is easy to read in a couple of sittings but will stay with you much longer.
17. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis de Bernières
One of the classic novels of the last thirty years, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is a vacation in a book – not always an easy one, but a rich and engaging escape from life’s stresses into the love stories and adventures of the isle of Kefalonia.
18. Gratitude by Oliver Sacks
A small but mighty book, Gratitude is Oliver Sacks’s most tenderly-curated collection of essays. Dr Sacks reflects on and gives thanks for a life well-lived, expressing his thoughts on growing old, facing terminal cancer, and reaching the end with wisdom and appreciation.
It doesn’t take long for Oliver Sacks’s writing to soothe my spirit and help me to breathe easier. This book makes for a perfect gift, too – I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve given it to.
19. Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane
Delve into British nature writer Robert Macfarlane’s most recent book, Underland, for an enthralling education on the life, magic, and history that lies beneath us.
Woven through Macfarlane’s own travels are the unforgettable stories of descents into the underland made across history by explorers, artists, cavers, divers, mourners, dreamers, and murderers, all of whom have been drawn for different reasons to seek what Cormac McCarthy calls “the awful darkness within the world.”
20. A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson
When looking for books for anxiety, it’s hard to go wrong with Bill Bryson. A Walk in the Woods is his story of hiking some of the most breathtaking terrain in America, covering majestic mountains, silent forests, and sparkling lakes from Georgia to Maine. Pick up a copy to hear about Bill’s time on the trail and the memorable faces – human and otherwise – he meets along the way.