Sunday, March 3, 2013

My Best Reading Recommendations for Mental Health

Confessedly, this is long overdue. Back in 2011 I resolved to make 2012 the Year of Self-Mastery, as in my neglectful upbringing I had accumulated a lot of mental health problems, as I dealt with a very self-destructive family. Unfortunately, it ended up being a tougher year than I imagined, even marked by the loss of the best job I ever had, and I ended up not doing a big writeup of what I've learned in the pursuit of mental health as I didn't feel qualified.

However! Not all is lost, for I think that while I put the finishing touches on my character I can at least direct you to the most important books and authors I have purveyed in my journey, and I think that, at least, should be sufficient for you to get started on your own journey for self-healing, self-mastery, and eventually self-perfection.

Yes yes, psychology is a gigantic field for which it may be centuries yet before we reach ultimate knowledge, and that even with the extravagant amount we already know it can take a person years to understand and resolve his own difficulties. It shocks me just how much I learn about myself as I get older; it took me years, for instance, to learn that concentration was so darn important to my well-being, and here I went years allowing the lack of it cause harm.

It may seem awkward for me to come out and talk about my mental health difficulties, but it's something I've spoken about at length for years in the past, so the can of worms has already been opened long ago. Besides, there's no shame in talking about something that most of us, in fact, have, no? Anxiety, worries, fears . . . it's all in us.

Note that in my list I'm not including just resources that are focused on mental health; in fact, most of them aren't. By "for mental health" I'm talking about the most important resources that have benefited my well-being regardless of what its explicit purpose is.

I encourage you to tackle the list as it addresses your personal life, and hope you get the same impact out of them as they've had on me, which has been deep and immense. It's an important consideration, as the number-one obstacles in any pursuit in reaching your highest are the ones in your head.

Regardless of however tough the world may be and may be getting, it's ourselves that stand in our way most of the time, our beliefs and mistaken approaches to life. With the knowledge these books contain, it doesn't have to be that way, ever.

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The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand

This is one book I've oft talked about, which I credit for my even being alive right now.

The worst part of my upbringing is that I was mindlessly taught many ideas that damaged me from the inside out, as I had no intellectual capability for understanding or refuting them before I became more philosophical minded. A friend of mine had praised Rand for her fiction while we were in high school, and out of curiosity during a spending spree at a bookstore I just picked this volume up; I actually hated Rand's fiction after having read Anthem earlier, and just decided to give her non-fiction a chance.

Just reading a few chapters emotionally overwhelmed me so much that I had to put it down and listen to music for three hours while my incredible euphoria wore off. It was the first time in my life I felt so intensely good. My life became immensely better instantly.

Without philosophically dissecting myself at length for its multifaceted effects, the two biggest values it bestowed on me were the understanding of how mentally destructive the act of evasion is and that second-handedness is an irrational way to set your standards and behaviors.

On evasion, I had resorted to repressing a lot of thoughts when I was a child because I learned from my elders that it has an impact on your moral status to have a "bad" thought, so I fought a battle with myself to ensure that I never had "bad" thoughts. It's a failing venture from the start, of course, because in order to specifically repress a certain thought you have to be semi-aware of what it is you're repressing, which makes it harder to not have that thought. My mind was under such immense pressure that the only major emotions I felt were a numb okayness while playing video games, extreme distraught, or never ending boredom. I hated my life and lived with suicidal thinking for years, starting in seventh grade.

After I read the chapter delving into the nature of evasion I learned that thoughts in themselves do not have moral status, which freed me up to examine all my doubts, discomforts, and whatever without fear of "thinking my way" into evil. (The unleashing of the repressions is probably what caused the euphoria.) At that point I went on a major hunt to understand where evasion existed in my life and to challenge it immediately. It even later caused me to become an atheist, as I saw a Youtube video challenging religion, scrolled past it since it made me uncomfortable, and then made myself watch it after I recognized that scrolling past it like that was an evasion.

As for second-handedness, a lot of people in my immediate family accept utterly what society deems is "right" and how they should live -- ultimately that "Other People's" thoughts and judgments are primary -- which resulted in paralyzing anxiety in me as a kid, making so afraid of what other people thought that I did little things like pick lint off my shirt neurotically. One time I even decided against buying a bubble bath I liked because visualizing people looking at me pick it off the shelf terrified me, so I stayed home instead. My anxiety was so severe I deprived myself of little values like that, because "what will other people think?"

Once I rid myself of "Other People" I was free to become an original human-being. I chose things that I liked because I liked them, not because other people told me I should like them. I made my own decisions and judgments. I lived life my own way. Except for the time it took to free myself of the bad habits, I could finally take my own path in life.

Regardless or not of whether you already have an opinion on Rand, she does have an amazingly intricate and wealthy non-fiction writing style, and if you know nothing about her she'll really make you think how your beliefs play out in your life. If nothing else, this would be the only book I'd recommend in my entire life; it saved me from going over the edge as a teenager, and helped make who I am today. It is, hands down, my favorite book of all time.

Mind Over Mood by Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky

This is probably the best book on personal introspection ever written. It does a great job of not only showing how it's our thoughts and beliefs that cause our emotions, but also what evidence to look for in reality to learn how to identify the ideological source of an emotion, and how to change them. I don't maintain the chart-like exercises as detailed in this book, but for my introspection journal it does go a great way in shaping how I frame my words.

In addition to the mindless beliefs I picked up as a kid, I also grew up with the belief that emotions were generated from nowhere and just happened, which made my emotional nature almost uncontrollable as a kid. I used to even blow up at relatives for making me feel bad in any sort of way, as within my belief that emotions were uncontrollable I thought they were manipulating me like a puppet on strings, and that I should hold them responsible for the emotions I feel, as they're "causing" it. Not so, as this book proves.

Though, to gain the full value of it, it is of utmost importance to make a habit of its suggestions if you want the effects to be long-lasting and permanent. You need to keep up the writing practice, or at least habituate how you *frame* your thinking, and be self-aware of what kind of conclusions you're reaching. It makes all the difference in the world.

The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge 

In pursuing mental health, I think that three realms are the ultimate fundamentals of what you need to affect in order to obtain complete success: Your psychological habits, the composition of your physical brain, and your whole-body health. We are a fused mind and body, so you must tend to the mind and body for any endeavor to be fully successful.

In that vein, while this book has nothing to do explicitly with mental health, it's nonetheless one of my top three reads in regards to mental health. It shows how the ways you stimulate the brain causes it to literally change in its composition, and if you read it with intelligent thoughtfulness you'll be able to derive for yourself what physical practices you can construct in your life to get the types of changes you want.

The way it's helped me is to understand that in order to change my psychological habits most effectively I need to keep in mind how I'm impacting my brain, and that the best methods are the ones that stimulate the brain in the most effective manner.

For instance, some time after reading this book I discovered that whistling, for me, was an excellent way of combating obsessive thinking patterns. I had a really bad habit of engaging in a particular negative train of thought, and the worst part is that it was ultra-hard to stop once it began since it was so strong a habit. One day I just randomly discovered I simply could not think at the same time that I whistled, so every time I felt the urge to do that compulsive thinking I just whistled for a few minutes and it drowned it out completely, making me feel better. In just a scant two weeks I had gone miles in dislodging that bad habit, and it's all because I learned that whistling makes it neurologically impossible to balance any other mode of thought allow for a shortcut of the sorts in changing my habits.

Additionally, this book also teaches me to be patient. Regardless of how quickly you can alter your abstract structure of your mind it takes time for physical changes to occur in the brain, so even if you're addressing your software beliefs effectively as detailed in *Mind Over Mood* it's going to take some time for it to get wired into your hardware brain.

The take home point is that while it isn't necessary to learn about the brain in pursuing mental health, it does go a long way in helping to understand how your brain responds to your thinking and various stimulus, and what would be some more effective habits, such as the whistling I described.

However, you'll have to do a little thinking on your own to reach how the conclusions of this book applies to your life, as, again, it's not explicitly about mental health, though it isn't hard at all to come up with practical applications; I was ripe with ideas every chapter.  

As a post-script, you may also want to consider some books from Daniel Amen, like Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, as he goes to greater lengths to detail what physical practices lead to healthful effects in the brain. I really liked his suggestion of aromatherapy, and went to my local perfumery to buy multiple vials of essential oils to sniff when I got stressed, and that went a long way to treating problems I had with rage for awhile; I just ran to the bathroom and whiffed a vial, and instantly the anger disappated.

However, I recommend Amen more for skimming; just skip straight to the practical advice. He's awkwardly religious, which doesn't fit in with his theme, and can be deterministic, asserting a bump on your head at age five could cause all your problems at twenty-five. Plus he does nowhere near as good a job explaining neuroplasticity as *The Brain That Changes Itself*, so it's best to go for that book to learn about the brain and just get concrete applications from Amen.

The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson

It may not be well-known that I'm on the Paleo diet, but it has had a drastic impact on my life. I first decided to try it when a friend had persuaded me to read Good Calories, Bad Calories, and in going in I expected no beneficial results except maybe some imperceptible extension of my lifespan; I thought I was already experiencing optimal health. It was anguish to struggle against my lactose cravings, but once I did I dropped about forty pounds, had my acne disappear, no longer needed sunglasses on sunny days, got whiter teeth, had drastically improved sleep, never got sick with a cold or flu, etc. It bestowed so many benefits that it was life-changing.

In fact, I would credit the Paleo diet for my major direction in life towards the culinary industry and for all my major food values such as dark chocolate. On the standard American diet I was sick all the time, and the food itself left me often feeling ill at times -- I often almost threw up my cereal in the morning, for years -- and actually hated eating because of it. Food did not truly become an enjoyment until I went Paleo, and after doing so I've wanted to become a chef, don't miss my old eating habits, and have a new lease on life.

Aside from the ideological matter of my upbringing, my diet was also horrid, and such terrible habits certainly screwed up the chemistry in my brain one way or another. My skin itched so badly sometimes I resorted to singeing myself with hot water to satisfy it. Good sleep was utterly impossible: I frequently woke up feeling the worst imaginable. My mood probably also swung violently in large part to my high-sugar consumption

This book is the most concise and well-written treatise I've read on what the Paleo diet should be and what it entails. It covers everything from what exactly is harmful about the typical American diet, what the Paleo diet composes of, and other practical advice such as how to obtain healthful sleep. Sisson also has a blog you can search through.

All I can say is I'd never be able to be so enthusiastic about life if I kept screwing up my body as previously. Your body includes your brain, and we already know how your brain can affect your thoughts; eat and live healthfully for a healthy brain and, as a corollary, a more healthy mind too. A sick body can lead to a sick brain leading to sick thoughts.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

My second favorite quote of all time is by Aristotle: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellent, therefore, is a habit, not an act." (My top one, of course, is "A giant is as a giant does," by Rod Serling.) I known for years that establishing good habits is pivotal to obtaining success in life, but despite the years of knowing that I've never seen the actual structure of "habit loops" put forth in such a clear way. Knowing what actually initiates and sustains habits makes it much easier for me to understand what it is I actually need to do to establish habits.

Regardless of how low it may be on this list, it's vitally important to understand how habits can make us do things that not only hold us back, but are even painful, which we can keep doing even if it doesn't feel good, because we've programmed ourselves that way. As mentioned above, I once had a horrible habit of indulging a particular train of negative thinking, and I had an incredibly difficult time stopping it since it was such a powerful habit. It caused me anguish, oftentimes for hours or most of the day.

 To change totally into a success-making human being, we must change our habits. All of them.

This really helps as it breaks down step-by-step as to how habits are actually formed, what cues them, what moves us to go through cycles, and how to best change them. You'll have far more power to change your habits if you get a more detailed view of them, rather than thinking of habits as just something you repeatedly do. 

This Art of Manliness article on concentration

I've already done a nice writeup on why concentration is important. Simply put, if you cannot concentrate well, you cannot effectively control your mind, and that has effects all over your life.

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Additional Reading

The above is the most important fundamental reading I've done. If you really exert yourself to keep up the practices you set up these are really all you need to read. Just be careful not to fall prey to the temptation to research endlessly for easier methods and further detail when you've really have all your tools at your disposal already, and that there's always time to improve your well-being. Doing something like meditation may seem like a "waste of time" in light of the other "productive" things you could be doing, but not really, considering going without could worsen your mood and lessen your ability to work well.

However, there is a few other resources I'd recommend which can contribute to well-being on a regular basis, though are more for enriching oneself after you get through the more vital matters above first.

Great biographies of great men

My reading hobby is to read the biographies of great men. I love it. Not only does it add immense inspiration into my life, it also gives me great knowledge as to how these great men obtained their successes, which encourages me to, as well, learn from their practices and implement them in my own life for my own success. Some biographies really rile me up too: I cried so hard at the end of a Walt Disney one that I nearly threw up.

What's so great about this type of biography is that is shows you concretely how greatness is possible in this world. When you look at what the Walt Disney company is today it's hard to see how it developed into that and appears almost mystical; yet, if you read Walt Disney's biography and see step-by-step how he became the success that he was you feel like your capable of achieving things at the same heights as him, and want to do it first thing upon putting the book down.

Although I have my own recommendations, I suggest reading biographies in accordance to your interest in the individual men, or in how their field affects your interests. If you like Disney movies, for instance, then naturally you'll probably like the Walt Disney biography. Or if you're interested old comics, you might prefer to read about Winsor McCay.

Just to toss out my favorites:


Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler (I didn't understand his greatness before, and so picked this up to find out. Now I understand.)


Winsor McCay : His Life and Art by John Canemaker (Little Nemo in Slumberland is one of my favorite comic strips. This book, too, made me cry at the end.)


Appetite for America by Stephen Fried (No one man other than Fred Harvey has contributed so much to establishing the restaurant industry in America, and he's one of my heroes accordingly.)

The Prime Movers: Traits of the Great Wealth Creators by Edwin A. Locke (This one is actually an intellectual treatise on the specific traits of great and successful men, but it is no less inspiring and moving. Many, many people are mentioned.)

My list shall ever expand, however. It's going to be a worthwhile life-long hobby, for me.

Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin

Referencing all the way to the beginning, one of the worst philosophical beliefs I held while growing up is the belief that my abilities were fixed from birth, so whenever I tried something new and wasn't immediately good at it I believed that meant I would never be good at it, as that innate talent wasn't there, and would give up. I gave up on a lot of things. Ayn Rand's *The Virtue of Selfishness* did well to help dispel that belief, but this book does a more thorough analysis of the nature of ability.

In short, this book asserts that talent -- innate skill, by its implied definition -- is a bogus idea, and that anyone who becomes great has actually had to do very thorough "deliberate practice" to get there. In other words, they had to work for it, and hard.

As for well-being, this ought to do well to let you know what the substance of great ability is composed of, and to understand we're simply not born with greatness within us; it has to be developed no matter what. There's good practical advice here.

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That, I think, is just about all that any person needs for the essential knowledge of what gives rise to mental health: Valid philosophical ideas, a way to identify and change one's emotions, a little knowledge of the brain, good physical health, good habits, good concentration, and the knowledge that greatness comes with very directed effort.

While I may have not reached my optimal health perse I think that from here it's all a matter of keeping up with practices to instill them as long-term habits, as I've already gone a long ways in changing myself for the immense better, such as ceasing my incredible repressions as a teen or transforming my body on the Paleo diet. It takes awhile, especially since it takes so long to learn how you tick, which may take decades to master given how we change over the years.

If you want to live a grand life, get out of your own way, in whatever fashion that you may be in it. After that the hardships of the world don't matter.

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