They sell in their millions, but do they really help anything except the authors' bank balances? By Emma Haughton
We've all done it. Beguiled by the blurb on the dust jacket, we've bought the book and, fired up by the prospect of a new psychological lease of life, resolved to be different and do everything better.

"Commit yourself to pushing through the fear and becoming more than you are at the present moment," urges Susan Jeffers in her best-selling Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway. Absolutely. "The path of spiritual growth is a path of lifelong learning," says M Scott Peck in The Road Less Travelled. Who would disagree?

But while it all makes sense at the time, the trouble with self-help books is that a week later we've forgotten every word.

Nevertheless, the market is booming. The Road Less Travelled, which aims to get us all on to a higher mental and spiritual plane; Feel the Fear, with its system for wrestling anxieties into submission; Women Who Love Too Much, the bible for every woman who has struggled to make an abusive relationship work ... the ideas behind these and other best-selling titles have become common currency, shaping the way millions define themselves and feel about their lives. But while some do illuminate real issues in our psyches and societies, others inevitably promise more than they can deliver, whether it be health, happiness or a more loving heart.

According to the clinical psychologist Oliver James, it is not surprising we have developed such an appetite for advice. Compared with 40 or 50 years ago, we are undergoing an epidemic of emotional problems, with rates of depression, violent behaviour and eating disorders soaring. Many of us are desperate for a panacea; when modern life leaves us feeling like losers, we turn to books for that elusive feel-good factor, for some quick- fix solutions to our unhappiness and unease.

But do self-help books actually do us any good? Feel the Fear, which sold millions of copies across 22 countries, has generated dozens of letters from grateful readers attesting to the huge influence the book has had on their lives. One woman wrote to the author saying she had been about to commit suicide before she read it.

Other writers, however, are more sceptical about the influence of their books. Malcolm Stern, the psychologist and author of The Courage to Love, which tackles the thorny subject of building a stronger relationship with your partner, admits that he has never met anyone who says a book has changed their lives. Beware of those which promise too much, he warns: all you can reasonably expect is some helpful insights that you can begin to act on, but even that requires a great deal of discipline and hard work. Just reading a book from cover to cover does not mean you will wake up the next morning a different person.

More helpful, on the whole, are the books aimed at specific problems or psychological disorders. There is a wealth of titles on dealing with everything from blushing and agoraphobia to panic attacks and obsessive- compulsive disorders. Psychologists agree that the most useful offer specific programmes to help you overcome your problem, often using a step-by-step behavioural approach that encourages you to change the way you react and deal with particular situations.

Usually the biggest risk with a self-help book is that you waste your money on it, but many psychologists are unhappy about those that suggest you can cause or cure illness through your emotional state of mind. While positive thinking is all to the good, it should never replace medical treatment; nor should people feel they are somehow at fault if they become ill or are unable to alter the course of their disease.

Opinion is more divided on whether books are a viable alternative to counselling or psychotherapy. On the one hand, finding a good therapist is something of a lottery, and costs a great deal more than half-a-dozen paperbacks; on the other, it offers a much more personalised service. However much insight a book may provide, ingrained patterns of behaviour which stem from childhood experiences are difficult to change without the message being constantly reinforced by ongoing therapy. A decent therapist will alert you to any blind spots and help you to work out more customised solutions to your problemsn