10 books that helped me through trauma & PTSD

Six years after finishing EMDR therapy for diagnosed PTSD, I’m still not entirely sure how to relax completely. But I am so much better than I used to be. I’m living my life – and thriving.

I often catch myself holding my breath. Feeling on edge gives me a strange sensation of control. And physically I feel like I’m being chased by a bear too much of the time.

But I feel like I’ve got rid of 95% of the trauma symptoms.

What’s left could be down to other things, especially as I have Asperger’s syndrome. This probably contributed to my trauma response in the first place, after I saw my sister nearly drown and I struggled with my parents’ divorce not long after. I was also diagnosed with general and social anxiety at the same time as PTSD.

Now I’m in a much better headspace, my job is self-help and self-care: to be more conscious of my body, learn how to slow down, and keep reading books that help me to heal.

Here are the best books I’ve read to help me overcome trauma and PTSD, many of which I keep returning to.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy taught me about life

How can I not mention War and Peace? It changed the course of my life. I’ve read it five or six times since 2012, when I started this blog.

By reading so much Tolstoy, I’ve learned that life consists of many moments. Some are bad, but more of them are good.

While EMDR therapy was crucial in my journey of dealing with PTSD and making every aspect of my life easier, books like War and Peace have been firm friends on the journey. I’m not sure what my last ten years would have been like without it.

Cheryl Strayed gave me the courage to keep climbing the mountain

When I’m going through a tough time, I read Cheryl Strayed. My favourite book of hers is Brave Enough: A Mini Instruction Manual for the Soul – her collection of quotes. Her words are a fantastic balm for anxiety and depression, especially these, from Wild:

“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me.”

Reading Cheryl Strayed also encouraged me to travel and go on more adventures, another reason I’ve got so much better in the last few years. By pushing my limits physically, I’ve realised how strong I am mentally.

Mary Oliver reminded me to heal in nature

Devotions is a collection of more than two hundred of Mary Oliver’s best poems. Mary Oliver is one of the best authors for calming me down during anxious moments, and her books helped me when experiencing PTSD symptoms, too.

Treasure the words of “The Summer Day”: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Then, turn to “The Old Poets Of China” when the world offers you its busyness: Now I understand / why the old poets of China went so far and high / into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.

And finally, read “I Go Down To The Shore” for an amusingly firm response from nature to our anxieties: Excuse me, I have work to do.

Getting Past Your Past helped me get the benefits of EMDR on my own

EMDR changed everything for me. Although I know that CBT has been incredibly powerful for millions, the few sessions I tried left me a complete mess afterwards.

That’s not to say that EMDR is easy – it forces you to relive the most difficult moments of your life, and I spent many a session crying and having panic attacks. But the thing is, it taught me how to deal with it.

EMDR did so much more than I thought it would. Not only did it help me to view the traumatic events of my life through a new lens, it gave me the confidence to speak up, be seen, and make bold choices that others didn’t expect.

Francine Shapiro’s self-help book for EMDR, Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy, is such a valuable resource to complement therapy or to give you a gentle introduction.

Gertrude Bell’s diaries showed me the type of life I wanted to lead

Gertrude Bell is one of my heroes. Born to an affluent family in Victorian England, she chose to live an incredible life: reaching the summits of unclaimed peaks in the Swiss Alps, deciphering code in the war, negotiating between tribes, translating Persian poetry, and changing the landscape of the Middle East. Georgina Howell tells her story in Queen of the Desert.

Although much is uplifting and inspiring about her life, some sadder moments come as a warning. It’s one of my most precious books; one I know I’ll keep returning to.

Healing Without Freud or Prozac reminded me of the mind-body connection

I remember finding Dr. David Servan-Schreiber’s self-help book for trauma and depression, Healing Without Freud or Prozac, so useful when I was going through a difficult patch. It’s also one of the reasons I decided to start EMDR therapy when I was at university.

While Freud and Prozac may well help you, in my own life these alternatives – including EMDR therapy, yoga, and meditation – suited me better. Make sure that you get the help you need, though: some of these treatments might be a great help in collaboration with other therapy and medication, but not enough on their own. You know yourself.

A similar book about the mind-body connection and trauma is The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk M.D. The On Being podcast episode with the author is fabulous too.

Rupi Kaur’s poetry showed me strength and boldness

This is the easiest to read and most mainstream choice on this list, but I loved The Sun and Her Flowers. Here’s one of my favourite poems from the collection:

what is the greatest lesson a woman should learn

that since day one
she’s already had everything she needs within herself
it’s the world that convinced her she did not

I read it long after I had EMDR therapy and been through the worst of my PTSD symptoms, but it acted as a top-up of sorts. Quite stereotypically, this book also helped me through a difficult breakup.

“Ulysses” by Lord Alfred Tennyson guided me forwards

I’ve written before about how memorising poetry has helped me to get through anxiety, and Tennyson’s “Ulysses” is my go-to favourite. You might recognise it as the poem that M, played by Judi Dench, reads towards the end of the Skyfall movie.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield
.

Lucy
It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at livewildly.co.