13 Books To Read If You’re Anxious

Anyone who says they never get anxious is lying.

Sure, National Institute of Mental Health studies may say things like 1 in 3 people are affected by anxiety and 1 in 5 Americans in general suffers from clinical anxiety, but I’m not talking about official diagnosed anxiety. I get that’s real anxiety and I don’t want to disempower the word but I also think it applies to the more general definition of anxiety, that I feel, that I’m guessing you feel, too. 

I’m talking about spinning in your head while lying in your bed tossing and turning for a couple hours before falling asleep. I’m talking about sweating the big interview or big trip you have coming up to the point where it’s difficult to concentrate on anything else. I’m talking about thinking and overthinking and overthinking a decision till you ultimately just avoid the decision completely. 

I felt like this a lot when I was little.

I would get headaches all the time and need to miss piano lessons or Beavers. I slowly grew out of feeling anxiety so often but to this day despite, you know, writing and speaking full-time about living intentionally, I still get anxious bouts a few times a month.

What helps?

For me, a few things: journaling, going for a long walk, talking to my wife Leslie, doing a tough workout, calling up my parents, and… 

Books. 

Yes, books help me move through anxious bouts so often that I thought I’d take a deep comb through my shelf and pull out the ones I find myself turning to again and again to nudge my brain forwards...

13. How To Love by Thich Nhat Hanh. 

The prolific Zen monk’s simple little paragraphs about compassionate love. Great applying to those you love… and great applying it to yourself. 

12. Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosch. 

I worried this book could actually cause anxiety. Sort of like an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm does for some people. So that’s a risk. But I included it because there’s something about feeling connected to others who feel anxious which can help my own anxiety melt away. Despite the super rudimentary Microsoft-Paint visual style the content is an amazing introspection on the human condition on topics such as mental illness, depression, and, yes, anxiety. (Sidenote: Hyperbole and a Half was one of Sarah Andersen’s three most formative books over on the 3 Books podcast.)

11. The Art of Living by Epictetus. 

I stayed in a hotel called The Taj in San Francisco during the book tour for The Happiness Equation. It was my first time staying in an Indian hotel chain so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when I pulled open the top drawer of the bedside table and there was a copy of The Vedas lying there. But it was jarring. I’ve been used to seeing Bibles in hotel rooms my whole life. And then suddenly there was something else. “Hmmm,” I thought, “Maybe it’s not the Bible, per se, but a thousands-of-years old grounding and centering guidebook of stories and lessons for people far from home.” That got me thinking. What book would I put in the bedside table of my own hotel chain? (No, I don’t have one, but say I did! Maybe Pasricha&Pasricha? Our tagline: Least pronounceable hotel chain in the world.) (Btw, it’s pass-REACH-ah, in case you’re curious.) (No more brackets, promise.) What book would you include in your hotel chain’s bedside table? Me, pretty sure I’d go with The Art of Living by Epictetus. Marcus Aurelius and Seneca may command more of the Stoic philosophy spotlight, but I’ve found great joy paging through this two thousand year old book of simple philosophical notes written by a slave born on the edges of the Roman Empire in 55 AD. Perfect to flip through to wind your brain down before bed or to gently wake it up in the morning rather than looking at your cell phone (NSFW). Part of the appeal is that, despite being written so long ago, the book reads like an email you got this morning from a wise friend. Sample entry to share a taste: “It is better to do wrong seldom and to own it, and to act right for the most part, than seldom to admit that you have done wrong and to do wrong often.” (More sample entries can be found here.)

10. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. 

A completely simple guide to battling “Resistance” – the single word Pressfield uses to describe the set of emotions and barriers preventing you from doing work you love. For me anxiety gets swirled into this emotional stew. A helpful brain reframe. 

9. Yo! Yes? by Chris Raschka. 

Beautiful children’s book showing how easy it is to connect and friendify. My wife Leslie has been using this book in her elementary school classroom for years. It’s super short with only a word or two per page. Literary minimalism! (It’s like: “Yo!” “Yes?” “You!” “Me?” “Yes, you!” “No fun.” “Oh?” “No friends.” “Oh! … Me?” “You?” “Me!” “...Yes!”, etc) Wonderfully emotive illustrations help it serve children and remind adults like me to always try and offer each other tender connection. That it’s not hard to be kind. And that kindness greases every other movement. Written and illustrated by Chris Raschka who’s also the wonderbrain behind the incredible A Ball for Daisy and The Hello Goodbye Window

8. How To Develop Self-Confidence & Influence People by Public Speaking by Dale Carnegie. 

Is your anxiety about giving a speech, an interview, or a date? I give a lot of speeches and sometimes I get anxiety right before a big one. Enter this book. This book is a lot less known than How To Win Friends and Influence People because, I think, it’s slightly less applicable but it’s gold, honestly. Timeless advice showing how to make a speech (or a conversation) all about the listener. That’s the key. Favorite chapters were templates with examples on how to open and close speeches (i.e., arouse curiosity, share a human interest story, share a shocking fact, etc.). Perfect for anyone shoulder-tapped for a toast at a wedding all the way up to the corporate honcho in the big hat. 

7. The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida and translated by David Mitchell. 

According to the introduction, this is the only book ever written about autism … by someone with autism. Japanese teenager Naoki Higashida wrote this book with a Japanese alphabet pad and an assistant, one character at a time, and you can feel that slow tenderness and passion as he answers question after question. Why do people with autism talk so loudly and weirdly? Why don’t you make eye contact while talking? What’s the reason you jump? I’ve loved David Mitchell since Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green so I originally found this book while searching for bibliographical scraps. Turns out it’s incredible for anxiety because it pulls off an epic consciousness leap. You really feel like you’re living in another mind. A huge injection of empathy helps our own problems feel less important when we’re done. Side history: David Mitchell shares how his son has severe autism and he, like many, struggled to identify, relate, and support his child… until he read this book. He then worked with his wife to translate it at the request of friends and the book found a giant Western audience after The Daily Show trumpeted it and it hit The New York Times bestseller list. 

6. What To Do When It’s Your Turn (And It’s Always Your Turn) by Seth Godin. 

This book is a shot of nitro. There’s no way you can read it and not feel your confidence and energy lift up for your next project. Flip through it in an hour or two. A visually beautiful book from the incredibly wise master Seth Godin on taking risks, starting businesses, and just doing it.

!. Think Like A Bronze Medalist, Not Silver by Derek Sivers. 

This one isn’t a book but a blog post. Still, I feel like it deserves an honorable mention on this list so I gave it an exclamation mark instead of a number. Helpful perspective when I have anxiety because it’s a reminder to sometimes focus on gratitude over ambition, on being thrilled you made it instead of being bummed you didn’t, and on simply having enough versus always wanting more. 

5. Civil Disobedience and Other Essays by Henry David Thoreau.

The title essay is great but the one I really want to talk about here isWalking (link goes to full text). A fiery piece on the philosophical, meditative, and creative benefits of… walking. Leslie and I picked our house based on what we could walk to and I try and do most of my meetings walking. (Here's a great TED Talk on walking meetings.) This essay was both a justification and reminder of the benefits. As Thoreau says: “We should treat our minds, that is, ourselves, as innocent and ingenuous children, whose guardians we are, and be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust on their attention. Read not the Times. Read the Eternities. Knowledge does not come to us by details, but in flashes of light from heaven.” (Sidenote: If you want to go deeper on this topic, I recommend the Nassim Taleb essay “Why I Do All This Walking” and Austin Kleon’s tagged blog posts on Walking.)

4. The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha. 

Can I recommend my own book? The reason I wrote it was because my wife asked me for a divorce and my best friend took his own life right around the same time. I was in shock. I was spinning. I had to find a new place to live. I started up in therapy for the first time. I looked for any way to help avoid slipping down to emotional rock bottom. The awesome things in The Book of Awesome were the bounce from the bottom for me and I wrote one every single day for four straight years on 1000AwesomeThings.com. The best ones are in this book. (Here’s a TED Talk which shares more of this story.)

3. If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? by Kurt Vonnegut. 

Inspiring collection of commencement speeches by Kurt Vonnegut collected over forty years. Creates great perspective and incredibly grounding and centering. 

2. The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson. 

Have you by chance heard of this book? I’m guessing yes given it’s been on top of bestseller lists for years. I remember when it first came out booksellers I spoke to said it was the f-bomb that attracted folks. Later I heard folks say it was tapping into the emerging counter-anxiety trend of not giving a f*ck. But now that I’ve read it I can say… no, it’s the book itself. Pure solid gold life advice and mind-expanding philosophy told in a disarming, accessible, warts-and-all way by a new master. There’s less “new news” here but some pretty epic distillations of concepts that can otherwise feel too ephemeral or inaccessible. (P.S. Mark Manson is an upcoming guest on 3 Books and he just announced his new book.) 

1. Mindset by Carol Dweck. 

Check out this scenario from Page 8 of this book: “One day, you go to a class that is really important to you and that you like a lot. The professor returns the midterm papers to the class. You got a C+. You’re very disappointed. That evening on the way back to your home, you find that you’ve gotten a parking ticket. Being really frustrated, you call your best friend to share your experience but are sort of brushed off.” According to Carol Dweck, if you have a fixed mindset you’d think “I’m a total failure” or “I feel like a reject.” And if you have a growth mindset, you’d think “I need to try harder in class, be more careful when parking the car, and wonder if my friend had a bad day.” She points out it was a midterm... not a final. A parking ticket... not a major infraction. Sort of brushed off... versus getting dumped or screamed at. I’ll admit I was totally in the first camp. This incredibly readable book helped me understand how to develop a growth mindset across all spectrums of my life from writing to marriage to parenting. Since I read this book I began speaking differently to my children. And to myself.

I also did a condensed video version of this article on Youtube: