As someone who has been reading for almost as long as I’ve been talking, it can be difficult for me to appreciate the direct but subtle ways in which fiction helps me to navigate the peaks and troughs of life. Only over recent years – and as a result of suffering from various kinds of mental illness – have I begun to think more about the tangible benefits of literature on wellbeing. I’ve always read in large part for the escapism that fiction provides. While this is one of the most reliable advantages that reading can have in times of need, it isn’t necessarily particular to books. TV, films, and just about any other absorbing hobby can offer the same distraction that serves as a much needed break from the eternal meanderings of our minds. Yet, there is something specific to reading that enables us to process and tackle the most challenging elements of life. As the body of research on this topic has grown, it has become increasingly clear that literature can serve as an effective component of efforts to maintain our mental wellbeing and assist as part of a regime to tackle mental illness. The concept of bibliotherapy has fed, and grown out of, this hypothesis.
As someone who has spent many years researching and learning about bibliotherapy, I wanted to write a series of posts detailing the benefits of literature for mental health. Today’s post will serve as an introduction to bibliotherapy at large, including the science behind it and my personal approach to using and recommending novels for the purpose. Over the next few months, I will be writing additional articles specific to a plethora of the problems with which bibliotherapy can assist – ranging from anxiety and depression, to guilt, homesickness, and stress. These are all issues that I have faced personally and, through which, have utilised literature as part of my efforts to both process my experience and figure out how to move forward.
*These posts are not intended to suggest that bibliotherapy and literature are a replacement for professional help. Although I believe that fiction can serve as an effective tool in the maintenance of mental health and the treatment of mental illness, it must be viewed as a complement to professional intervention, where appropriate. If you are struggling with mental illness or otherwise, please do not hesitate to reach out to someone who is in a capacity to help.*
What is bibliotherapy?
Dr. Samuel Johnson once wrote that “the only end of writing is to enable the reader better to enjoy life or better to endure it.” From this premise emerged the concept of bibliotherapy – the idea that literature can assist us as we work our way through the murky unknowns of daily life. This is a big claim and one that definitely requires a bit of elaboration. It is not, however, a new notion. Although the ‘trendiness’ of bibliotherapy has certainly increased over the past couple of decades (largely as a result of the internet), the idea that books can help us to overcome real challenges is one that has been around for centuries. The Greek tragedian Aeschylus said that “words are the physician of the mind diseased.” This is a point that has certainly proven itself true.
Although bibliotherapy doesn’t claim to have all the answers (and, as above, any serious mental distress should be professionally counselled), it posits that the very act of reading offers us a number of vital tools for addressing the problems that we encounter.
How does bibliotherapy work?
Bibliotherapy is an expansive term that covers a variety of the ways in which reading can have both a physiological and psychological effect on our wellbeing. The University of Warwick’s Literature and Mental Health course (which I highly recommend to anyone looking to dig deeper into this topic) identifies three primary elements to bibliotherapy:
(1) Identification with the text or characters;
(2) Catharsis in response to the text;
(3) Insight into problems through the text.
These three components to bibliotherapy coexist but do not necessarily need to operate in parallel to one another. You might find, for instance, that you identify with a character but this does not entail personal catharsis or an insight into your own problems. There is plenty of evidence, however, to suggest that each of these three elements of bibliotherapy are both very real and easily accessible. Much of this relates to the science behind literature as a means to increase empathy. This is something that I researched extensively as part of my human rights work, with a particular focus on the use of the arts and education as tools to dispel prejudice and, as result, decrease the frequency of human rights atrocities. Although this is at the extreme end of the spectrum, research has shown that we all benefit from reading fiction as it pertains to the development of empathy and compassion. Researchers at The New School in New York found “that literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling,” (Scientific American). It makes sense that, in the process of learning to empathise with others, we would also develop a greater understanding for what we, ourselves, are experiencing.
The connection between empathising with characters and creating emotional resilience in ourselves has been borne out by research. A study published in the Annual Review of Psychology in 2011 showed that, when assigned to read a fictional passage about an emotional event, participants would experience the emotion themselves. fMRI scans confirmed that the parts of the brain active in response to reading the passage were the same as would be triggered when experiencing the emotion first-hand (The New Yorker). This suggests that we are quite literally training ourselves to feel and process emotions and situations by reading about fictional scenarios. Bibliotherapy rests on the idea that having read about emotional scenarios as an outside observer better equips us to deal with the challenges in our own lives.
Beyond this kind of self-education, reading also has a direct physiological effect with regards to levels of stress. Research published in 2009 showed that reading is the most effective way to deal with immediate stress, with just six minutes of reading found to reduce stress by around 60%. Reading was found to be far more effective than listening to music or going for a walk, as well as beating out other traditional means for stress reduction (Bustle). This direct physiological effect is perhaps one of the most helpful ways in which bibliotherapy can help us to maintain our mental health (if, like me, you’re often a big ball of tension). Reading as an effective means for relaxation is further backed up by the fact that reading has been found to dramatically improve sleep when performed right before bed. Reading fiction is, therefore, an incredibly powerful tool that stands to benefit us in myriad important and lasting ways.
How to approach bibliotherapy?
As I mentioned above, bibliotherapy is a big concept. It makes sense, therefore, that there would be a huge number of alternative approaches. The most oft-cited source for bibliotherapy is through Alain de Botton’s The School of Life. The bibliotherapy service offered by the School is tailored to meet an individual’s specific requirements through a literary ‘prescription’ for their personal challenges. Two of the bibliotherapists working for the School, Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, have since published books on the topic, including The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies. I’m a big fan of both of these options. They are, for a couple of reasons however, not my preferred approaches. The first reason being that they both cost money to access and the second being that The Novel Cure is relatively one-size-fits-all. Although any book or article will necessarily fall into the hole of generalisation, The Novel Cure is not really equipped to acknowledge the complexity of life’s biggest challenges.
Given the three components of bibliotherapy outlined earlier in the post, it makes sense that any workable approach to bibliotherapy needs to offer access to some combination of these factors. With a challenge as complex as anxiety, for example, a limited list of novels will not work for everyone. As someone who has lived with anxiety for a long time, the way that I turn to books varies dramatically with what I am looking for in a given moment. At some times, I’m yearning for a book that will offer me a physiological de-stress in the face of overwhelming panic (catharsis). At others, I desperately want to read a novel that shows someone experiencing the types of challenges that I’m going through (identification/insight). As with the three elements of bibliotherapy, it’s important that any approach acknowledge the variations in what we require from day-to-day.
For this reason, I’ve decided to launch a series of posts dealing in detail with specific ailments/challenges. These will all be things that I myself have experienced or have sufficient experience with to understand the ways in which bibliotherapy can best assist. These posts will offer more insight into the potential impacts of bibliotherapy on the ailment/challenge and a list of recommendations for novels to read, depending on how you are looking to address what you are going through. Although it’s obviously not possible to tailor these recommendations in a way that is truly personal, my hope is that they will provide a starting point from which you can consider the ways in which literature might best be able to fit your needs.
Although literature is no panacea for the world’s problems, I have personally witnessed and experienced the tremendous power of fiction. I have medicated with books for about as long as I can remember, through depression, anxiety, homesickness, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. None of these are things that should be taken lightly and nor are they issues that books alone can fix (I’ve been lucky to have great support systems, doctors, and therapists along the way). That said, reading purposefully and consciously has the ability to lift us out of truly dark moments and is, at the very least, a constant reminder that we are never truly experiencing life alone. In that spirit, I hope that you’ll join me as we delve even further into the world of bibliotherapy over the coming months! If you have any thoughts, requests, or otherwise, please leave a comment below or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org