Thursday, 25 April 2013

Bibliotherapy for Anxiety: Active, Beautiful and Calming Fictional Books

Reading to reduce anxiety. Image source.

I'd like to emphasise now that literature is not a replacement for therapy or medication when anxiety is severe. Nothing replaces getting help, although I believe bibliotherapy can complement recovery and maintain wellbeing.

In February I posted about using bibliotherapy for depression and low mood. Since then, I've been thinking about how fiction can benefit anxiety, and I've come up with some suggestions.

I've been reading a lot of philosophy in the last year or so, and it's helped me to view anxiety as something exciting that motivates me, rather than something negative that threatens me (see my posts on Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism).

However, I know that if I sat still and contemplated my nerves or my situation, I would not be so calm. My worries would escalate, I'd consider worst-case scenarios, and I'd experience physical symptoms. In this post I'll outline how literature helps me with anxiety, and list some useful books.

I'd like to categorise relaxing literature into three categories:

  1. Books that involve the mind
  2. Books that are inherently beautiful to read
  3. On a similar note, books that calm the mind.

Firstly, some people benefit from reading fast-paced and active books when they're feeling nervous. This may be an action novel or thriller, for instance Robert Ludlum's Bourne Series. I've also heard good things about The Walking Dead graphic novel series. The declaration on the blurb of the first book, Days Gone Bye, even appealed to me (I usually dislike anything zombie-related): "In a world ruled by the dead, we are forced to finally begin living."

Bibliotherapy for anxiety
Do you find reading fiction to be relaxing?
Image source.
Comparable books in this first category are those that involve the mind. Marcel Proust and Henry James, for instance, are complex writers that demand your full attention. The writing is rich, layered, and often there is a huge amount of it. Perhaps it's significant that in Haruki Murakami's 1Q84, Aomame reads Proust's In Search of Lost Time during her high-risk time of hiding. If you like Proust, I would also recommend Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life, a book that blends literary fiction and self-help.

Next are the beautifully written books. It's very clichéd to say this, I realise, but I feel it's the most appropriate word to use. I'd include Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald's Flappers and Philosophers, and Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. This category contains the books with the power to enchant and enrich, turning your attention away from your anxiety. In this category I would also include Pierre's lofty reflections on life and nature in War & Peace. It's impossible to encapsulate the beauty of War & Peace in one sentence, but this passage (which I've discussed in this post) almost does it justice:

But this bright comet with its long, shiny tail held no fears for Pierre. Quite the reverse: Pierre's eyes glittered with tears of rapture as he gazed up at this radiant star, which must have traced its parabola through infinite space at speeds unimaginable and now suddenly seemed to have picked its spot in the black sky and impaled itself like an arrow piercing the earth, and stuck there, with its strong upthrusting tail and its brilliant display of whiteness amidst the infinity of scintillating stars. 

For the final category - calming literature - it is perhaps easiest to write about poetry. Above all, I find poetry to be most calming when it discusses particularly tranquil places. I imagine this is because they provide a mental escape, or alternatively bring up fond memories. My favourite examples include Edward Thomas' lines on the English countryside (see Adlestrop)Wordsworth's depictions of the relaxing act of walking, and Yeats' description of calming settings in The Lake Isle of Innisfree:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

After quoting this poem, it is fitting to emphasise not merely what you read, but where you read it. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim is both beautiful and calming, but I find it much more pleasant to read outdoors than inside. Others may feel it to be a welcome antidote to the Underground or bus journeys, however. Find what place works best for your reading, be it a garden, park, mode of public transport, an office or bedroom. Then make sure to visit that place, focusing on the book at hand and your surroundings, rather than your worries.

My Top Five Bibliotherapy Recommendations for Relieving Anxiety:

  1. Selected Poems - Edward Thomas
  2. The Enchanted April - Elizabeth von Arnim
  3. Love in the Time of Cholera - Gabriel García Márquez
  4. The House of the Spirits - Isabel Allende
  5. Speak, Memory - Vladimir Nabokov

Although these books work for me, they may not necessarily suit you. Let me know in the comment box if you come across any other useful books for anxiety and bibliotherapy!

Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems ~ Epictetus

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Brian Joseph said...

Very insight post Lucy. For me too reading is calming experience for all the reasons that you mentioned.

I think that you hit one something important about anxiety and motivation. With me it is a balance, if anxiety gets too high that is a very bad thing, but if it gets too low I find that I become lazy and somewhat apathetic.

tolstoytherapy said...

Brian, thank you for your comment. I also appreciate how eloquently you've described the importance of an anxiety equilibrium. Nowadays I too find myself getting lazy if I don't have challenges to get me out my comfort zone. Perhaps it's because I've been challenging myself regularly that I don't get as anxious as I used to.

Best wishes.

Riv said...

Lovely post. As someone who is struggling with anxiety, I can relate. I never actually thought how different stories can affect differently... But it makes so much sense! Next time I'll be a little more observant when picking a book to read while having one of the, let's say, worse days :)

melissa vizcarra said...

This is a very useful post! I think I'll start reading some of the books you mention right away. I have been struggling with bad anxiety lately and I think it has gotten even worse because I like to pretend everything is ok. You know what book helped me last week? The Secret Garden. It made me feel I could escape there too somehow. And it is a beautifully written book.

Great post!

tolstoytherapy said...

Hi Riv, thank you for your comment.

I hope your anxiety becomes more manageable. I know how difficult it is to do this (unfortunately from experience), but I've found that gradually exposing myself to the situations that cause me anxiety has helped a lot.

Also, I hope books come in useful for you in the future! I always like having a book to help me through more anxious times, and I hope it helps you equally.

Best wishes,

tolstoytherapy said...

Hi Melissa, thank you! I'm sorry to hear you've been anxious lately, and I know what you mean about pretending everything is ok. Sometimes I don't realise how much I need a rest until I finally give myself one (even then I find it hard not to work!)

The Secret Garden definitely seems like a good choice: I'll have to keep it on my list for future reference (especially as I've never read it before). After finishing this post, I started rereading The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim. Writing about it rekindled my interest in it, and it matched yesterday's sunny weather (which has now disappeared, it seems).

I don't know if you've read it, but it's so full of beautiful writing, peaceful settings, and lots of flowers. It's provided a welcome alternative to the Renaissance literature I'm studying, that's certain.

I hope things get easier - I'm sure they will.

Repsych said...

I couldn't agree more with your suggestions, Lucy. That's such an amazing, well-thought out and useful post. Thank you so much. I've read nearly all of the books you mentioned and they are truly calming and beautiful. I haven't read the Flappers and Philosophers but it's now in my Kindle and I'll read it this weekend. I can't wait :)

Also, in a slightly unrelated note, have you ever tried bibliotherapy sessions from school of life? I'm very intrigued to try but the prices are a bit off-putting.

melissa vizcarra said...

Thank you! I'm going to add that book to my list of books to read before going to bed, it helps me to sleep better.

I hope sunny days become more often over there. It is supposed to be opposite here it seems the sun doesn't want to go away!

Thank you for the encouraging words!

Repsych said...

Thank you Lucy for your reply! I'll let you know if I try any bibliotherapist sessions. I used to read 'Dear Bibliotherapist' but it wasn't updated very often and I lost interest. Maybe, I'll get into it again :)

tolstoytherapy said...

No problem! I need to dedicate more time to reading before bed, or at least unwinding properly.

English weather is so unpredictable: we'll probably have a week-long Indian summer soon!

tolstoytherapy said...

Yeah, I wonder if they're updating it more now. Good luck with whatever you choose! I think I'll try and write more bibliotherapy posts too - I quite enjoy putting them together.

tolstoytherapy said...

Angeliki, thank you for your comment. I'm so glad that my post has proved useful, and I'm happy to know that you've already read some of my recommendations - hopefully it means that they're good choices!

Flappers and Philosophers is a great collection of short stories, especially The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (I also loved the film).

I've read quite a bit about the School of Life, but as you've said, it's just so expensive. I've always loved books, and I've come to realise which help me most, which I'd like to reread, and what genres I'd like to read more of. I'd be worried that I'd disagree with the person who recommended me books.... Perhaps that's just me though!

However, I do like the "Dear Bibliotherapist" part of their website. It often has good recommendations. Let me know if you do choose to have some of their sessions - I'd be interested to know what they're like!

a reader said...

I find Michel de Montaigne and The Art of Living by Epictetus very calming. Both focus on reason over emotion, which is a great balm when emotion is soaring. :)

tolstoytherapy said...

Thank you for such a wonderful reminder of these writers!

Montaigne and Epictetus can teach us so much about life and reducing anxiety, and they've certainly helped me out in my own life. Montaigne, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius are my go-to providers of wisdom ;)