The best books that teach you to deal with stress through strong characters and stories

Esther M. Sternberg Author Of The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions
By Esther M. Sternberg

Who am I?

Internationally recognized mind-body science and design and health pioneer, Esther Sternberg M.D. is Research Director, Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine, Inaugural Andrew Weil Chair for Research in Integrative Medicine, Professor of Medicine, Psychology, Architecture, Planning & Landscape Architecture, Founding Director, University of Arizona Institute on Place, Wellbeing & Performance, and Associate Director (Research), Innovations in Healthy Aging. Formerly a National Institutes of Health Senior Scientist and Section Chief, she received the U.S. Federal Government’s highest awards, authored over 235 scholarly articles, and two engaging and popular science-for-the-lay-public books: The Balance Within chronicling mind-body science underpinning stress and illness and belief and wellness, and Healing Spaces, which helped ignite the 21st-century design and health movement.

I wrote...

The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions

By Esther M. Sternberg,

Book cover of The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions

What is my book about?

I tend to read biographies, historical fiction, and non-fiction. In my book, The Balance Within, I include historical context for some of the common notions about stress that have been around for thousands of years – things your grandmother may have told you about stress and illness, belief and healing, and place and wellbeing. What science is discovering is that these notions do reflect scientific truths. They can help us understand the universality of our biological responses to threats – the stress response, and the basis for how believing can help make you well.

Our brains and physiological responses have not changed in millennia – although our modern understanding of how these responses work to keep you well or make you sick have made exponential leaps, through advances in science and technology. 

The books I picked & why

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Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

By J.K. Rowling, Mary Grandpré (illustrator),

Book cover of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Why this book?

Read the introduction to Chapter 4 in Happy Potter and the Goblet of Fire and you will have a perfect description of the brain’s stress response. Spoiler alert – Harry finds himself in a scary maze, with monsters lurking in dark corners at every curve, and he needs to think quickly to get himself out. He starts sweating, his heart beats fast, he feels anxious. A maze is a classic trigger of the brain’s stress response. Mazes have been used for over one hundred years to study the anxiolytic effect of drugs in rats and mice, because mazes trigger the brain’s stress response so effectively. A drug that reduces anxiety will cause the rat or mouse to navigate the maze without signs of stress and will reduce anxiety in people.

Mazes are stressful because there are many places where decisions need to be made quickly, without the benefit of environmental cues. Being lost in unfamiliar places is stressful, and your stress response needs to turn on to get you out. It gives you the ability to fight or flee from danger – focused attention, vigilance, are all needed for survival. That is your stress response working for you.

I once found myself in a real maze, close to closing time: an eight-foot-high boxwood hedge maze in the gardens of King Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace outside London, England. I couldn’t find my way out and feared that I would be stuck there all night. I couldn’t see where I was going, sounds were muffled, and dusk was falling. I panicked and froze – that was my stress response working against me. But when I heard a familiar voice on the other side of the hedge – my cousin’s voice, who happened to be in the maze too, my nerves calmed, and he led me out. Although I don’t know for sure, I would bet that J.K. Rowlings was describing Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace maze.

1666: Plague, War, and Hellfire

By Rebecca Rideal,

Book cover of 1666: Plague, War, and Hellfire

Why this book?

This book is a gripping story of the year 1666 in which three calamities befell London: the Black Plague, the Anglo-Dutch War, and the Great Fire of London. When I read the book in 2021, I found that we were re-living practically the same events in modern times. I live in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains in Tucson, Arizona, and in the spring of 2020, shortly after the COVID shutdowns, fires ignited by lighting swept through the canyons just north of my home. I found myself in a “get ready” zone of the region’s “Get Ready, Get Set, Go” emergency evacuation plan.

1666 shows the range of people’s responses to extreme and immediate danger: from Samuel Pepys’ quick thinking to get the critical government documents out of harm’s way, all the way to the panic and inability to act of others. All animals show a range of reactions to threat, and some are more effective at marshalling their stress responses to help them get out of danger than others. This was also apparent in the range of ways that people reacted to the Black Plague, now known as bubonic plague. We know now that peoples’ responses to stress vary tremendously, depending on early life experience, genetic make-up, and learned responses throughout life. So, it is not your fault if you react strongly to a stressful event. But if your reaction impairs your ability to function at peak, there are ways to modulate your stress response and turn it from one that impairs you to one that gives you the strength to go on in the face of adversity.

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things

By Paula Byrne,

Book cover of The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things

Why this book?

I love Jane Austen’s novels – the fine detail with which she paints characters based on everyday life, as she described it in a letter to her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh: “… the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour...” Sadly, Austen died at age 41, in the prime of her life, and the peak of her writing skills. Her last novel was unfinished. Most biographers surmise that she died of Addison’s disease – an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the patient’s adrenal glands, slowly sapping their energy for lack of the stress hormone cortisol. Ironically, the illness can be brought on or exacerbated by chronic stress, which certainly towards the end of her life Jane Austen experienced in spades.

When her father died, Jane Austen, being a woman, did not inherit either land or money and was forced to depend on her numerous brothers, and her writing, to sustain her sister, her mother, and herself. The women were often forced to move and there was always uncertainty about the future. The stresses that Jane Austen experienced: death of loved ones (her father and a beloved cousin), moving, financial uncertainty, and uncertainty in general are among the top stressors in life. Experiencing all at the same time, and over an extended period, will almost certainly make one sick.

Sadly, it would be close to one hundred and fifty years after Jane’s death before the stress hormone cortisol would be discovered, purified, and used to treat deficiencies of that hormone. Now we are all familiar with cortisone cream as one of the most potent drugs to treat inflammatory skin conditions like poison ivy rashes, or cortisone nose spray and inhalers for allergic rhinitis and asthma. Had this knowledge been available one hundred and fifty years earlier, Jane Austen might have lived for decades more and produced many more beloved books, with just the aid of a daily dose of hydrocortisone tablets.

A Gentleman in Moscow

By Amor Towles,

Book cover of A Gentleman in Moscow

Why this book?

This historical fiction about a Russian aristocrat held on house arrest in the Hotel Metropole in Moscow at the time of the Russian Revolution, is written in elegant prose that keeps you engaged from the first sentence. You learn about historical events through the guests who come to the hotel with whom the title character interacts. How this character responds as time and events unfold is an example of adaptation, no matter how difficult the circumstances.

This is another characteristic of the stress response – with familiarity comes habituation, and habituation lowers the stress response. It is not a giving up, but it is a quieting of the stress response, enough for you to find a way to survive or get out of a difficult situation. It made me think about how my father was able to survive being held in a concentration camp in Russia during World War II, and even thrive after he found his way to France. In my book, I write about his favorite Psalm, the 23rd, and how perhaps that Psalm was one thing that helped give him hope in the face of the greatest adversity. It shows another way that words can give hope and reduce stress, through belief. Current events have made my father’s experience during WWII more poignant and vivid to me, as I see history repeating itself. All the more reason to find ways to provide hope to those who are suffering now.

The Alexandria Quartet

By Lawrence Durrell,

Book cover of The Alexandria Quartet

Why this book?

This quartet of four books can be read in any order, but if you read them in the order Durrell wrote them, they form an intricate spy thriller. Each is written from the point of view of a different title character, all experiencing the same events. I first read these books when I was a medical student and intern, going through the rigors of medical training, frequently up all night, taking care of patients. The languorous poetic prose so captures the light and scents and feel of the Mediterranean that the book transports you to that place – to Alexandria where cultures collide and meld, in the period around World War II. It becomes a true escape from whatever pressures of the modern world you are experiencing.

If you have seen the Public Television series The Durrells of Corfu, you know that as a young man Lawrence Durrell lived with his family on Corfu, and later spent years working in the Greek Islands for the British Foreign Service, so his descriptions are drawn from personal experience. I finally travelled to Greece decades after I read these books and experienced my own healing from inflammatory arthritis, triggered in part by chronic stress, when I went with neighbors to a tiny village called Lentas on the south coast of Crete. I soaked in the sun and rhythms of life of the village people and often climbed to the top of the hill above the village to the ruins of a Temple to Aesclepius, the Greek God of healing. There I would sit for hours listening to the sounds of the wind and the goats and sheep; inhaling the scent of orange blossoms; looking out over the deep blue Mediterranean against the white stucco homes draped with bright fuchsia Bougainvillea.

I didn’t know it then but found out years later that I had been meditating. And after my morning walks, I would swim in the ocean every day and, coddled by the grandmothers of the village, would feast on sumptuous lunches of fresh vegetables and the village fisherman’s daily catch. I was practicing the seven core areas of integrative health, which all combined reduce stress and help prevent illness and heal. Wondering how that experience helped me heal from my arthritis, led me to frame my next two books, both of which tell parts of this story and provide the scientific basis for the healing effects of that place.

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