Mental health is a lifelong journey for every human. It’s something that comes up a lot this time of year in particular as the holidays bring with them stresses, memories and not-so-welcome comments from family members you are generally able to avoid in the rest of life. As a family doctor, the number of visits on my schedule for anxiety, depression, grief, panic attacks and all manner of stresses dramatically increases leading up to Thanksgiving and doesn’t let up until well after New Year’s Day.
I have had a personal journey with mental health in adulthood that I appreciate in particular because I can truly empathize with others struggling. I’ve been in low, low places and I’ve been peacefully, truly, deeply happy. I’ve been on medication for depression, anxiety and post-partum mood changes. I’ve seen therapists. But, some of the most important work I’ve done to grow has been reading and self-reflection and I wanted to share the 5 key resources that have been the most helpful.
1. The Science of Happiness, by Stefan Klein
The first book that introduced me to the concept that you have some control over your own mental health was The Science of Happiness. I read this book at the end of undergrad as I was heading into medical school and it. changed. everything.
At that point, I had started to recognize that not only did my mood influence my behavior, but my behaviors influenced my mood and experience of life (hello, frontal lobe, welcome to the rest of the mature brain!). This book gave me powerful insight into the why of that and got me working on “Happiness Habits”. As a lifelong cynic who questions everything, I would never have believed any book telling me to do something without understanding why that would make a difference.
2) The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin
This book was my second mental health growth spurt and came much later. I had finished medical school and residency. Those 7 years were tough. We are confronted with very regular, literal life-and-death situations, sleep deprivation, lack of time for exercise or healthy hobbies, isolation from your loved ones and regularly feeling like you might be the dumbest person in the room – especially hard for those of us who used to be frequently the smartest person in a room (am I selling you on becoming a doctor yet??). I had been on and off medication and was ready to heal myself. I stumbled into this one at just the right moment.
Gretchen was in a similar place to me. We both were married to great people, had the family we planned, a nice home, a good job, but were still pretty miserable. I set out to do my own Happiness Project, setting out tasks, turning them into habits, and lo and behold!! I got happier! I was able to wean off medication in anticipation of getting pregnant again and wow, it really worked! I think I told everyone I know to go buy the book. You’re welcome, Gretchen!
3) The Universe Has Your Back, by Gabrielle Bernstein
Just when things had settled down a bit, life threw us another curve ball. My husband decided to go back to fellowship (extra medical training to specialize into a ‘niche’). Twice. This involved a 75% paycut, moving 4 times in 4 years, and, oh, we now had 2 babies and a puppy and I was also trying to be a good primary care doctor to brand new patients then having to ‘abandon’ them to move again over and over. It was rough. My rudimentary mental health skills weren’t really up to the task. The Universe quite literally barged in with The Universe Has Your Back and turned the tide.
I started it just as the girls were both sick at home, my husband was working 100 hours a week with a 3 hour commute, and I hated my own job at the time. We were massively in debt from the fellowships and had moved away from essentially all of our close support people. This book forced me to examine and change my own inner dialogue on a MUCH deeper level than I ever had before. The Universe began to quite literally speak to me, sparking several dramatic life changes that have turned into a happiness snowball effect. Can. Not. Recommend. Enough.
4) Girl, Wash Your Face, by Rachel Hollis
I probably don’t need to say a whole lot about this book since it’s blowing up the bestseller lists across the US and internationally. I might have fallen off the self-improvement wagon again as I had every other time had The Universe not led me to start working a side-gig that encouraged continuous personal development. We are expected to read 10 pages every. single. day. to improve your function in some way. They don’t specify what you read, just that you make it habit to work on yourself, a little bit, consistently. Even on the longest, most exhausted day, you can read 10 pages of something. Trust me. I picked this one next and found it inspiring, clarifying and full of real-life applicable advice.
I would add, however, that the part of it that most changed me and how I was doing with mental health was following Rachel’s podcast and posts on social media and going to the Made For More documentary – can’t WAIT for the next book which delves more into the action side of improving your life!
5) You Are A Badass, Jen Sincero
At the end of Rachel’s book, I couldn’t help but feel that I needed more direction. Rachel made me believe I was “Made For More”, but I didn’t quite know how to find what my ‘more’ should be or how to get there. You see, I had accomplished a lot by many measures – getting into a top medical school, becoming a Family Physician, making a healthy marriage and raising two (so far) thriving kids. From the outside, it looks like I am fairly good at setting goals and accomplishing them. The problem was, those goals were all externally defined – someone else said what the end result was and all the basics of how to get there. I felt gratitude for being ‘successful’ without ever stopping to think about where I might dream of being beyond that.
Enter, You are a Badass. Jen Sincero’s book blasted open my eyes to the concept that you can simultaneously be grateful for what you have and where you are in life ANNNND have huge dreams about where you are going ANNNNNND ANNND AND make that life happen, whatever it is. I can’t begin to explain how big of a revelation this was for me.
Jen breaks it down into how to get there in real terms, in cursy and hilarious fashion. With the help of this book, I have reached next-level happy. I discovered how to dream and made the first one of those dreams come true. I dreamed that even though we are on an incredibly strict budget, my husband and I could still go on a tropical vacation. I’ve never won or earned the “bonus” on any challenge in my life, but one came up in my side business with Nerium. Through goal setting, planning and consistent action, I earned a free, all-inclusive vacation to the Bahamas for us at a 5 star resort this June. BOOMSHAKALAKA!
Where are you now?
This journey has been my own. I readily acknowledge that everyone is starting or continuing on their own journey in different places. You may be light-years ahead of me, or struggling at the very beginning. I hope that one or more of these books might help some of you on the way. As always, this is my personal experience and not your own personal medical advice – talk your medical person if you need help.
Dr. Annie is a family physician and mom of 3 in California.