Over the course of my life, I’ve faced a few different challenges with my mental health. By far the most persistent, however, has been my battle with anxiety and panic attacks. I’ve suffered from crippling anxiety for as long as I can remember and have lived with panic attacks since childhood. All of us have experienced anxiety on some level and can therefore attest to the fact that, even at its least severe, the physical strain created by worry and stress is incredibly uncomfortable. It took me many years to develop workable coping strategies but half the battle has certainly been accepting that life will likely never be entirely free of these challenges. Fortunately, having lived with the psychological and physiological effects of anxiety from a young age, I’ve also developed a profound appreciation for the various techniques and tricks that allow me to continue to function through the most difficult moments. Reading remains one of the most effective means of managing anxiety that I have used to date.
As the first post in this actionable series on bibliotherapy, I’ll be talking through the relationship between bibliotherapy and anxiety to demonstrate how effectively fiction can help us to manage the difficulties associated with anxious moments. I’ll also be drawing on the three components of bibliotherapy – (1) identification; (2) catharsis; and, (3) insight – to make some recommendations for books that might help you work through the challenges. Although the experience of anxiety and panic, or any mental health issue, is highly personal, an understanding of the potentially therapeutic benefits of literature can open the door to new ways of comprehending and navigating psychological turmoil. Whether you experience anxiety and panic as a mental illness that disrupts your ability to live life as you wish to (a position to which I can fully relate) or simply as an uncomfortable inconvenience that you hope to better understand, bibliotherapy has an incredible amount to offer. As always, be sure to get in touch via a comment or email if you have any thoughts, experiences, or recommendations that you would like to share!
*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.*
Bibliotherapy and Anxiety
As with any emotional state, there are many different manifestations of anxiety. At its most common (albeit still uncomfortable), anxiety peaks and troughs as we experience life. It can be accompanied by an increased heartbeat and a psychological restlessness that often comes with a fixation on the ‘what ifs’ of a particular situation or event. Many of us will relate to the breathless worry that can accompany a feared situation, public speaking being an example that gets regularly trotted out (and for good reason!). At its more extreme end, however, pervasive anxiety and panic can be indicative of a disorder. Examples include: generalised anxiety disorder (wherein an individual is subject to persistent worry, typically disproportionate to the actual event with which they are preoccupied); panic disorder (characterised by repetitive, and often unpredictable, panic attacks. These attacks can involve a variety of symptoms, including increased heart rate, sweating, chest pain, and a feeling of immediate terror); and, social anxiety disorder (while physical symptoms may correspond with generalised anxiety and/or panic disorder, social anxiety disorder is centred around social situations. This disorder can lead to avoidance of social situations for fear of embarrassment or judgement). These are just three of the most common disorders associated with anxiety and panic – you can read more about these or other forms of anxiety disorder via the Mayo Clinic.
Whether you experience anxiety and panic at their most extreme or as uncomfortable inconveniences that lead to the odd sleepless night, they are emotional states that can represent a significant challenge. I have lived with anxiety in its more extreme manifestations – with a combination of generalised anxiety and panic disorder. Fortunately, there are a number of ways in which reading fiction – alongside other forms of intervention – can help to alleviate some of the distress created by anxiety and panic. As I highlighted in Can Fiction Help You? An Introduction To Bibliotherapy, bibliotherapy can be grouped into three distinct (but sometimes overlapping) categories:
(1) Identification with the character or text;
(2) Catharsis in response to the text;
(3) Insight into problems through the text.
As they pertain to anxiety, each of these components has something vital to offer those of us looking to better understand and manage our mental health through fiction. Identification and insight are tied to the representation of anxiety and panic via the text of a novel. Research has demonstrated that our brains process fictional scenarios as if they were happening to us directly. Reading thus equips us with better tools for management of challenging scenarios and a degree of emotional resilience when confronting situations first-hand. Our brains quite literally learn to change and adapt our responses to anxiety-inducing situations as we read about fictional encounters with the same emotions. The catharsis aspect of bibliotherapy is similarly important as it pertains to anxiety and panic. My use of fiction in coping with anxiety is typically focussed on a desire to alleviate some of the emotional and physical distress that accompanies high anxiety or a panic attack. Confirming the efficacy of this approach, reading has been found to have a direct impact on our physiological state. It calms us, reducing stress by up to 60% in just six minutes (for more on this, and to avoid too much repetition here, you can refer back to my introductory post for more on this research).
Making sure to choose the right novel to meet each of these requirements is important. If you have ever encountered a novel so gripping or distressing that it creates a very real stress response, you’ll understand that some books are going to be far more effective than others at helping in situations of anxiety and panic. While these preferences will, to some extent, depend upon your reading habits, I will talk through some key examples of fiction for anxiety/panic that falls into each of the three categories of bibliotherapy. These are all novels that have helped me and, I believe, offer a safe and effective place to start for anyone looking to relieve anxiety symptoms via literature. However, they are a starting point – a signpost toward the lists that you can continue to create for yourself.
These fictional works all centralise characters and situations that overlap with the experience and/or symptoms of anxiety and panic. The process of identification with a text is believed to increase a reader’s capacity for empathy and compassion toward individuals and scenarios as represented in fiction and, by extension, the ability to better understand personal suffering.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath’s only novel and certainly one of the most powerful portrayals of mental illness that exists in fiction. It follows Esther Greenwood, a young woman who has moved to New York City to pursue an internship at a prodigious magazine. The story depicts Esther’s difficulties adjusting to life in New York and her subsequent mental decline. Although elements of this story can certainly be triggering to those working through serious mental health issues (the novel features both a suicide attempt and brutal treatments), it is a raw and honest look at anxiety and depression that will – despite its relative age – feel incredibly relatable to anyone overwhelmed by the prospect of navigating a troubling and overwhelming world.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
If you are looking for a character truly troubled by anxiety, Holden Caulfield – the teenage protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye – is an excellent place to start. Following Holden in his final days as a student at Pencey Preparatory Academy (from which he has been expelled), the novel is a coming-of-age story that turns directly to the turmoil and panic created at the prospect of isolation and the journey into adulthood. Holden’s feeling of disconnect from those around him is, for many of us, a relatable component of the anxiety that we experience. In Holden’s isolation and the anxiety created by his perception of the world around him, there is so much with which to identify.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Although Hamlet may stand out as an odd choice to many, it is probably the work that has most helped me in my struggles with anxiety and panic. In addition to the cathartic sense of calm that accompanies the rhythm of Shakespeare’s prose (I highly recommend reading some of his work out loud when you are feeling acutely anxious), this play is a study on the consequences of indecision. One of the most problematic manifestations of anxiety for me has been the inability to make decisions for fear of making the ‘wrong’ choice. Not only is Hamlet a play with a relentless undercurrent of panicked anxiety, the attention that it gives to restless indecision reflects a key component of how many of us experience anxiety. While we may not identify with Hamlet’s situation (at least, I would really hope not!), his struggles and fear certainly resound with a sense of panic that finds its parallels in contemporary experience.
As I mentioned above, the cathartic capacity of fiction is one of the most meaningful and direct ways in which literature can assist those in the throes of anxiety. Catharsis indicates an alleviation of physiological and/or psychological distress and can be achieved in a variety of ways. In my experience, there are four principle ways to achieve catharsis via fiction: (1) levity; (2) calming; (3) escapism; and, (4) nostalgia. Although the manner in which each of these works for you – as well as the books that evoke each response – will depend largely on your individual preferences, the novels listed below can serve as a point of reflection and exploration for you to figure out what offers the best cathartic response.
Levity: The Penguin Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford by Nancy Mitford
That more people haven’t heard of or read Nancy Mitford’s work is a real travesty. Her stories absolutely rival P.G. Wodehouse for their incredible comedy and make their own unique mark as satirical takes on the rise of fascism in Europe. Whenever I know that I simply need some laughter as a relief from the physical and mental tension created by anxiety, I turn to Mitford’s works as a worthy reprieve. Although the levity inspired by any given novel will mostly depend upon your own sense of humour, Mitford’s stories – as well as those by Wodehouse and his contemporaries – are doubly effective due to the escapism that their cosy, early-20th century settings provide. If you are interested in Mitford’s work, I’d highly recommend Christmas Pudding and Wigs on the Green as excellent starting points.
Calming: The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
In addition to the physiological benefits of the rhythms inspired by poetry and plays, the right kind of prose can have a remarkable impact on tension and stress in the body. I read Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April last year, during an acutely difficult time. Its gentle prose – combined with the story of four women taking off to the Italian Riviera in order to escape their lives in England – is a beautiful antidote to the strain imposed by anxiety and panic. The gorgeous descriptions of serenity inspired by the novel’s setting are everything one could need when seeking to destress through literature.
Escapism: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
To me, classic literature provides the perfect measure of escapism from the challenges of both daily life and those particularly challenging moments. Where many readers turn to fantasy or sci-fi as the most direct means to remove themselves from the present day, I find my escapism in Jane Austen. Her works are both absent any serious tension, stress, or violence, and steeped in all of the components necessary for total removal from the toll imposed by anxiety. Turning to Pride and Prejudice and its witty, flawed characters will always be my go-to when I’m looking to forget where I am and escape the persistent fixation on whatever is currently worrying me.
Nostalgia: Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
The nostalgic element of catharsis is probably the most personal in terms of recommendations. Nostalgia as catharsis refers to the calming impact of returning to those books that hold a particular memory or meaning for us. For me, the Harry Potter series is one that I consistently revisit when I’m looking to confront my anxiety through a return to a world wholly familiar to me. Any books that evoke that sense of comfort will provide the cathartic release that we are looking for when we use fiction to address the physical urgency of panic. Looking back over your favourite childhood books is the perfect place to start if you aren’t sure where to turn.
When reading fiction for insight, it is not necessarily the case that novels need directly refer to or deal with the problem at hand. Where identification allows us to explore characters and situations to which we can directly relate, insight permits us to consider ways of operating that might allow us to better navigate our challenges. While the books listed below do not necessarily portray anxiety and panic directly, they offer a variety of reflections on coping and moving forward that provide particular insight into the problems that anxiety and panic can create.
The Overstory by Richard Powers
The Overstory was one of my favourite books from last year, not least for its central message of a need for reconciliation with the natural world. The novel’s premise rests on the separation that humanity has imposed between itself and the environment and, through the lens of the many characters that Richard Powers invokes, the ways in which recognition of our own ignorance can help us to overcome contemporary difficulties. The Overstory reminds us that our story is transient but that the imprint we leave can have ramifications far beyond that which we can comprehend. It is an insight into the temporary nature of our experiences and the release that can be found in an acknowledgement of the beauty and complexity of the world around us. The messages have a powerful resonance for those of us preoccupied by fear and anxiety.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
Jenny Offill’s second novel, Dept. of Speculation, follows the story of marriage between characters referred to as simply “the wife” and “the husband.” Traced from the relationship’s earliest stages through to marriage and the birth of their child, the wife is forced to confront a number of incredibly uncomfortable truths about the nature of familial relationships and the identity of the ‘self’ within these paradigms. The portrayal of anxiety and stress through the wife’s interactions with her world and its changes is acutely relatable. The emotional dissection performed by Offill as she helps us to understand the wife’s predicament and efforts toward resolution are powerfully executed. You will find yourself underlining almost the entire novel for its sonorous attention to life’s emotional realities.
Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux
Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies is a complex novel, albeit one written with impressive attention to the accessibility of its ideas. Part sci-fi novel, part philosophical thought experiment, the book follows the story of Nicholas Slopen, a patient at the Dangerous Humans Unit (DHU). His residence at the DHU is due to the fact that, despite his own insistence at his identity, Nicholas Slopen is dead. The novel is an intricate examination of what it means to be human and offers a deep dive into the nature of individuality. There is so much to recommend this novel, not least Theroux’s skilful execution of a story that would, in other hands, surely become obscure and difficult. While the novel’s conclusions and reflections may not be viewed as altogether positive, the work will certainly inspire a desire to consider what the experience of humanness truly means and, through this, an ability to reconstitute our attachments to expectation, judgement, and fear.