Book Review: The Feeling Good Handbook

August 8, 2009 at 8:43 am | Posted in Book Reviews | 2 Comments

Today I want to review one of my favorite personal development books: David Burns’ The Feeling Good Handbook. This is one of the seminal works concerning cognitive behavioral therapy, which is one of the few therapeutic treatments that has strong clinical evidence to support it. Cognitive approaches have fallen out of favor recently with the rise of mindfulness meditation, but in my experience, Burns’ approach remains the most effective therapeutic treatment for mild to moderate depression.

That said, probably the greatest weakness of the book from a bipolar person’s perspective is that he addresses unipolar depression and anxiety, but not the problems peculiar to bipolar depression. However, since most bipolar people experience crippling depression and anxiety at one time or another, the book is still well worth the price of admission.

The book begins with a brief theoretical introduction. Essentially, practitioners of cognitive behavioral therapy argue that your emotions result from your thoughts, and that by replacing negative thoughts with positive ones, you can improve your mood dramatically. For bipolar people, and perhaps for all people who suffer depression, it admittedly isn’t that simple. But if you accept that you have to attack your disease from every angle — physical, psychological, spiritual, and so on — then the exercises here can prove invaluable.

After a basic introduction, the author provides sections that address three areas of concern: “How to Conquer Depression and Build Self-Esteem” (self-esteem has, of course, taken a beating lately in public discourse, but I follow Burns in emphasizing its importance); “Feeling Confident: How to Conquer Anxiety, Fears, and Phobias”; and “How to Strengthen Relationships Through Better Communication.” The first section offers a number of ways to break out of a bad mood, while the second is divided into advice and exercises for more specific concerns: social anxiety and performance anxiety, for instance. The third is a little different in that it gradually teaches both the theory and practice of good communication.

Though I use all three sections regularly, I find myself returning to three portions again and again: “A Prescription for Procrastinators,” “Public Speaking Anxiety,” and “The Five Secrets of Intimate Communication.”

Burns’ advice for procrastinators — or, rather, the specific exercises he forces his readers through — is nothing short of brilliant. Every single time I’ve found myself procrastinating about an important task, I turn to this section, and it gives me a swift kick that sends me into action. I use this all the time, and as long as I use it, I don’t procrastinate. The trick, of course, is to persuade yourself to use it.

I turn to the section on public speaking again and again as well. I give a lot of presentations at work, and though I am a confident presenter, I find that it still helps me to break through the jitters and do the best job possible. One great section teaches readers how to deal with hostile questions, my deepest fear when presenting. Once I’ve had a little refresher, I always feel more confident facing any audience.

I work through the section on communication less frequently than I should, probably, but it still has influenced my communication style profoundly. For Burns, good communication consists of expressing your thoughts and feelings honestly, and listening with empathy to the other person. Pretty obvious, right? But how many people actually live up to this ideal in the heat of the moment? Again, Burns breaks it down into doable steps and shows you explicitly how to communicate well with important people in your life.

Now, this book is not entirely perfect. As I said above, it doesn’t take bipolar depression into account. His techniques are also only mildly effective for profound depression. And finally, his conversational style does occasionally grate on me, mostly because he uses such odd, outdated expressions. (This from a person who thrives on 19th century slang — but it does annoy me when someone talks about behavior “turning you on” or “off” in something other than a sexual sense. Too Early Baby Boomer for me, I suppose.)

All told, though, this book should form a core part of your self-help library. And you do have a self-help library, right?

I’ll try to post again later today, but I may be too busy living life.

Love to all.



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  1. […] Done (or GTD to his many devotees). With the exception of David Burns’ work, which I reviewed here, I haven’t found any that address a major reason for poor productivity and putting things […]

  2. I am reading your blog every day. It’s great!

    I found the book very helpful when you recommended it a few years ago. I forgot about the performance section. I am taking an audition on the 28th, so I will eagerly reread it.

    Love to you, too!

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