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What is self-help?

Everything you need to know about how self-help works and how to tell the good advice from the bad.

Teen boy looking up, surrounded by light

What is self-help, and does it work?

When people want to try solving their own problems instead of getting professional help, that's called 'self-help'.

Self-help involves:

  • Accessing your inner strengths and skills to build resilience
  • Self-education around your brain, body, thoughts, emotions and behaviours
  • Trying new ways of thinking or behaving, to cause positive life changes

"Let's try some really far out there self-help strategies, that really challenged me but helped a lot!"

Does self-help work?

The effectiveness of self-help depends on lots of factors like the self-help resources you use, your knowledge, strengths and skills and any additional support or treatments you receive. The good news is that the right self-help resources can make a difference. Here’s how they help: 

Learning new coping strategies and practising them

Being educated to make more informed decisions

Gaining new perspectives, i.e. seeing the same thing in different ways

Breaking harmful habits and replacing them with new, improved ones

Discovering you aren’t alone and connecting with those with similar experiences

Gaining new insights, e.g. having a realisation about a thinking pattern you were stuck in

There’s no ‘one size fits all’ to self-help, as we are all unique.

The best way to ensure your safety is to only use trustworthy self-help resources.

In some cases, the wrong self-help resources can be harmful. That’s why it’s important to pick and choose your self-help with care and stick with reputable sources.

How do I know which self-help resources to trust?

It can be it hard to know if advice is trustworthy or not. You can be confused by stuff like:

  • pseudoscience (information that seems scientific but isn’t based on real science)
  • people who seem legit but have no professional qualifications or experience
  • people who do have expertise but are exploiting it for money or to assist a business relationship
  • people whose qualifications don’t technically cover the material they’re creating or advice they’re giving
  • advertising targeted at your curiosities and vulnerabilities, based on your metadata from using Google or Facebook
  • …and lots of other confusing stuff!

Here’s a quick guide to judging if self-help advice can be trusted

  • Seek evidence for and against what is being said. It never hurts to have more than one source of information!

  • Check the evidence base of the info. The best sources provide their references and use reputable sources or peer-reviewed journal articles.

  • Check the expertise of the person providing the info. Qualifications and experience need to be relevant to the information they are providing. Other reputable sources of information might include government or international bodies with good reputations, such as the World Health Organisation.

  • Check if there are any ‘conflicts of interest’ for the person providing the info. A ‘conflict of interest’ happens when someone has an agenda that benefits them. For instance, an influencer being paid to promote something as opposed to providing a genuine review.

  • Ask yourself, “Who benefits from me following this advice?” Check if the information ultimately leads to you spending money, e.g. purchasing a product or service.
  • Check if the information is actually an advertisement or sponsored content in disguise. In many countries (but not all), this content must be signposted with words or hashtags like #sponsored, #ad #partnership or #sponcon
  • Be critical by asking questions. For instance, is this an ‘anecdote’ (someone sharing a personal experience rather than a significant body of evidence)? Is this person biased? What’s their agenda for providing this info or service?
  • Make an informed decision, rather than jumping to an opinion or assumption. This is about managing your own biases. You can do this by challenging your own opinions. Take a deep breath and think, “What evidence is there that I might be wrong about this? What would it take to convince me to change my mind on this?”

Don’t forget to listen to your gut! If something doesn’t feel quite right, or seems too good to be true, it’s probably not legit.

“Self-help shouldn’t replace professional health and mental health support, or medical treatments. Self-help works best when it compliments other professional treatments and supports.” 

– Amanda, Kids Helpline Counsellor

Self-help can change your brain!

Self-help is all about positive change. Our brain has ‘established neural pathways’ (emotions, thoughts and behaviours we use all the time). These are mostly automatic and are our ‘default’ setting. 

We have to unlearn these things by no longer using them or replacing them!

When we learn something new, we have to grow the brain cells and then get them to form new ‘neural pathways’. Imagine these neural pathways as being like a road.

Every time you practice a new skill, thought or behaviour, your brain follows the new neural pathway (like driving down that road).

With enough practice, that neural pathway becomes your ‘default’ which means it’s automatic. 

When things are automatic they take less effort and energy. Like brushing your teeth every day – it becomes so automatic you can even check social media while doing it!

When it comes to your brain, if you ‘don’t use it, you lose it’. This is why practice is so important!

“Any change or personal growth journey will include setbacks. It’s not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’.

Be prepared to make mistakes or return to your old bad habits.

When it happens, be kind to yourself and then get back on track. The difference between success and failure is turning a setback into a comeback.”

Amanda, Kids Helpline Counsellor

How do I self-help?

You can apply self-help to any aspect of your life – sports, religion/spirituality, life skills, managing your emotions, changing behaviours or habits, and many more!

You can self-help in lots of different ways. Reading a book, watching a ‘how-to’ video on YouTube, and even reading Kids Helpline website articles is a form of self-help! 

Remember that self-help is about building on your own strengths, interests and skills and should make you feel empowered. Empowerment isn’t just a feeling. It’s about applying practical strategies to your life.

A great way to do this is through setting S.M.A.R.T goals.

Setting S.M.A.R.T self-help goals

Self-help is a process. It takes time and repetition (lots and lots of it) to make positive changes. The best way to make a permanent change is to set realistic goals. Realistic goals are:

  • Specific – Say exactly what the goal is
  • Measurable – Be clear about what success looks like
  • Achievable – Keep it realistic
  • Relevant – Base it on your skills, strengths or interests
  • Time-specific – Be clear how long you think this will take
Notepad with setting goals written on it

"I realised I had to analyse the problem without my emotions getting in the way. I wrote in a journal whenever I felt a rush of emotions, to put my thoughts into context."

“Setbacks and mistakes are a normal, healthy part of change. When they happen, be kind to yourself, then refocus on your goal and keep trying. Don’t forget that practice makes progress.”

– Amanda, Kids Helpline Counsellor

Counselling can support your self-help journey!

Did you know that all Kids Helpline counsellors have university qualifications in psychology, counselling or something similar? 

 Counsellors are also happy to answer any questions you may have about self-help. Give us a call, start a WebChat or send us an email anytime, for any reason.

This content was last reviewed 23/04/2020

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