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Mindfulness and Coping Skills for Mental Illness: Five Best Books on How to Deal with Depression

For those experiencing depression and anxiety, it can be a struggle to find truly practical tools and skills to help you cope on a day-to-day basis. Rather than some vague aspirational aid from motivational quotes, it’s important to find a considered and constructive approach to dealing with the causes and symptoms of mental illness. One of the most popular techniques in recent times has been the practice of mindfulness. The definition of mindfulness is the peaceful mental state achieved by focussing on the present moment, calmly acknowledging any negative thoughts, but refraining from engaging with them. While mindfulness has its basis in spiritual practices from around the world, most famously from Buddhism, it has been taken on in secular psychology in a range of ways, from personal meditation to group therapy approaches such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), and it has been found to be helpful for the treatment of many different types of mental illness. The aim of mindfulness is to pay full attention on the present, and in so doing help people learn to acknowledge their incoming negative thoughts without engaging with them, as well as minimizing distraction from ruminating on the past or future. This process of “decentring” helps to disengage from self-criticism and negative thinking patterns and can help relieve symptoms such as worry, fatigue, and dysphoria.

Although hugely popular, the uptick in the practice of mindfulness is still relatively new, and so the efforts to test the scientific facts behind the benefits is ongoing, however the statistics from studies show signs of positive results. The surge in the popularity of mindfulness has led to a greater awareness of its uses in treating disorders, and with it a decrease in the stigma of talking about it, and so there has been a wave of new books on the topic and its applications. It is these books that we will take a look at in this reading list.

A number of the recommendations in this list deal directly with the application of mindfulness coping skills to mental illness, however others give more general advice on how to incorporate mindfulness into day-to-day life. In both cases, the advice and activities can be used and applied by anyone looking for how to deal with depression and anxiety. It should be noted that these practices can be used on their own or in conjunction with other treatments, however if you are suffering from depression, anxiety, or any other kind of mental illness, it is important to seek professional medical advice and discuss the best treatment approach for you and your situation.

The Mindful Way through Depression

This authoritative guide was created by four differing professionals within the fields of clinical psychology and medicine, their varying fields offer unique insight in the practical application of mindfulness to the experience of depression. The book is split into four parts, the first focusses on the ways in which depression manifests and the cycles that can form from certain thought-processes and attempts to “fix” ourselves. The following three sections move through the process of adopting mindfulness practices, from the initial introduction to the concept, to ways it can be used to improve emotional well being, and ultimately how it can have a positive impact in your life overall. The book aims to bring readers away from the mentality of trying to fix what they feel is wrong with them when they begin to feel depressed, as this typically leads to a cycle of self-blame and ultimately a spiral of depression. Instead they hope to give readers the tools to disengage from these self-critical thoughts before they begin a downward spiral. The tone of the book is gentle and reassuring, without being placatory. The experiences of people who formed a test group for the book are intermingled with clearly laid out statistics and graphs, while the exercises and activities are straightforward and explained simply. The CD, which accompanies the book, carefully guides the listener through the meditative practices described in the book.

This book can also be coupled with The Mindful Way Workbook, created by the same authors it gives readers an eight week step-by-step guide for building mindfulness practices. These books are an excellent starting place for anyone interested in how to use mindfulness to help with their depression, the medical perspective of the book along with its approachable style make it an ideal starting point for exploration of the topic.

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The Headspace Guide to Meditation and Mindfulness

Headspace, the website and app that offers its users guided meditation sessions, has become a cultural touchstone for modern meditation practice and as of April 2016 it claims to have over six million users. The success of the app is perhaps due to the simplicity of its mission: get people to take 10 minutes out of their day to sit in the here and now. The strategy has been immensely popular and so the founder of Headspace, Andy Puddicombe, has taken the site’s approach and transformed it into a book. Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk, began the Headspace concept “to make meditation accessible, relevant and beneficial to as many people as possible.” Certainly his book achieves these aims, there is sense of familiarity and gentle guidance that makes his mediation exercises exceptionally approachable. He opens the book with his own story, taking the reader through the steps that led him to becoming a Buddhist monk and later a leading voice for meditation and mindfulness in modern society. This section is key, as it is Puddicombe’s familiar and affable tone, soft humour, and earnest demeanour that really carry the book. Once he has established the friendly, if occasionally twee, voice of the book, it is easy to be led through his bite-sized exercises. The instructions are clear and straightforward, rather than heaping on the detail, he delivers simple instructions that are then expounded through anecdotes drawn from his experiences and the experiences of others he has met through his work. As the book progresses, the meditation guides become more extended and detailed but even then the anecdotal format continues. This combination of clear, easy instructions and engaging story-like narratives make the process of incorporating mindfulness into your life an achievable as well as a desirable goal. That the book is so practical in its aim is what makes it a useful tool for those looking to cope with depression and anxiety, despite the generalist approach. It is also more than just a stand-alone guide book, it contains a diary space for your own uses and also directs you to the wealth of resources available from the Headspace website.

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This book marks a second entry for author Mark Williams, who as Professor of Clinical Psychology at Oxford University and one of the developers of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, is at the forefront of research on mindfulness. That Williams is an almost unavoidable figure in the field of mindfulness makes his work here with Danny Penman is reassuringly authoritative, a crucial element when dealing with your mental health and wellbeing. This book outlines an eight-week program that delivers a common-sense approach to utilising mindfulness methods. Each week has a different theme, for example week one is ‘Waking Up to the Autopilot’ while week five is ‘Turning towards Difficulties.’ Along with a different theme, each week is put in the context of a different personal situation, so that the tools and exercises described are related to real-life experiences of dealing with anxiety, depression, stress and grief. It should be noted that the exercises described do require a certain level of commitment, the meditations require two sessions a day. This is a programme for people making a serious effort to create and maintain mindfulness meditation practices as an important part of their health regime. Among the highlights of the book are the small but key activities that can have a dramatic impact, such as the ‘habit releasers’ used to break certain patterns of thoughts or behaviours that can lead to negative moods. This is a clear and instructive guide for those with a priority on reducing stress, negative thoughts, and worry, while boosting happiness and confidence, and their ability to enjoy life.

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Coming Through Depression

Coming Through Depression is fascinating book that tracks the process of coming to mindfulness as means for dealing with depression. The book was originally written and published under the title Depression: A CommonSense Guide, but ten years after it was released, the author Tony Bates decided to revisit it, to give greater depth and clarity to his work, but also to include a section on the use of mindfulness as a coping skill. The gap of ten years allowed him explore mindfulness as a tool, and in seeing its benefits he was keen to offer his readers a fuller account of possible paths to recovery. His original book, which now forms the first of three parts in the revised edition, takes a brave look at what happens when you are experiencing depression, and what this might be telling you about your life. The second part walks readers through the initial steps of recuperating and regaining control of their lives, while the third part is an introduction for using mindfulness to address the areas of your life that leave you vulnerable to depression.

Having worked with people for over 25 years to help them recover from depression, as well as a long battle with depression himself, Bates has a profound wealth of knowledge, experience, and compassion. Although his own experience with depression has not been insignificant, Bates focuses on the experiences of his patients, drawing on their quotes and diary entries to highlight the various ways depression can express itself in someone’s life. Keenly aware that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with depression, since the experience of it is unique to each person, Bates instead allows his book to stand in as a comforting and calming friend, he calls himself “a solid ally” in struggles with depression.

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A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled

Ruby Wax’s book is a funny, irreverent and straight-talking guide to using mindfulness in order to have a happier, healthier life. Wax’s book, as might be guessed by the title, focuses on coping with the state of intense and overbearing stress that can ultimately lead to severe anxiety and a sudden crash of exhaustion and depression. Drawing from her own experience, Wax has written a thoroughly engaging book, that immediately draws you in through her razor-sharp, self-deprecating humor. It’s instantly relatable and often laugh-out-loud funny, Wax makes full use of her large personality, background in show business, and natural comedic talent but this is complemented by her academic background, she has a degree in psychology from Berkeley and a master's degree in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy from Oxford University. This combination makes her advice is very approachable. Rather than seeking to become a zen master, Wax simply wants to find a way to enjoy life more. Her book posits the idea that not only can you enjoy life, but you can enjoy the process of learning how to enjoy life.

Wax takes the reader through a six week course of mindfulness exercises followed by chapters with particular insights on mindfulness in relationships, in families, and for teenagers. Her exercises can be carried out anytime, anywhere. There’s a real focus on making it a workable system for people, not just an aspirational goal. She’s refreshingly candid, emphasizing that she isn’t offering a cure-all magic trick, she talks about the fact that she takes anti-depressants and even still battles with bouts of depression, but what she does offer is a chance to achieve a better balance. This is a no nonsense book and it’s all the better for it. This is the perfect book for those who otherwise struggle to find books on mindfulness engaging.

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I love to read, cook, and travel. My favourite books are anything Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer, but I also love non-fiction history and self-help.


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