Reading to heal – that’s what bibliotherapy is all about. But how does it work, why does it work, and what to read?
Ever since humans have written and read books, we’ve had an intuitive understanding of their healing powers. And today, science is there to back that hunch up with facts.
It’s a fascinating fact, isn’t it? That letters on paper, forming stories, can cure us of pain.
Let’s make a deep dive into the enchanting world of therapeutic reading, and explore how books can not only teach us new things but also help us soothe our minds and help us through tough days.
What is bibliotherapy?
Bibliotherapy (also called book therapy, poetry therapy or therapeutic storytelling) refers to the practice of using books to help people solve issues they face at a particular time in their life. The books are to be selected based on what is relevant to that person’s specific situation.
It’s about finding the books that resonate with you on a deep level, at this very moment in time.
Bibliotherapy is a sort of creative arts therapy, based on the belief that reading can bring healing. It is an ancient practice, that more recently been backed up by science. For example, research shows that bibliotherapy can be an effective treatment of depression and that the results often are long-lasting.
While therapists often use bibliotherapy as part of a treatment process, bibliotherapy is a concept that is available to all of us.
Libraries are open to everyone, carrying goods with far less, if any, side effects than those you’ll find in a pharmacy.
That is of course not to suggest that medication can nor should be replaced by books. But books can provide us with useful tools in life, and help us navigate some of our problems and sorrows a little bit easier.
The exploding flora of self-help literature that fills our bookshelves is testament both to the need and the want for books as a form of cure and therapy.
A quick history of bibliotherapy
Bibliotherapy is a concept that goes way back. As is often the case, it started with the ancient Greeks. The Greek historian Diodorus writes in his monumental work Bibliotheca Historica about the royal library of King Ramses II of Egypt. There was an inscription above the library entrance, translating to “the house of healing for the soul”. And even to this day, that’s what bibliotherapy is about. Healing for the soul.
Books have been considered therapeutic for thousands of years and in many different parts of the world. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius’ doctor kept a medical library for his patients. And as far back as in 1272, the Quran was prescribed as therapeutic reading at the Al-Mansur Hospital in Cairo.
The actual term bibliotherapy was coined in 1916 by Samuel McChord Crothers, and eventually, it came to be included in medical lexicons. During World War 1, the Library War Service made sure every military hospital had a librarian, and when they returned after the war, they brought their books and practice with them. In the 1920s, there were official training programs in bibliotherapy.
Over the years, there has been vivid debate about what books make the best medicine. Should specific books be prescribed, or perhaps avoided? Can escapism be therapeutic, or is it the identification that is beneficial to our wellbeing? Soldiers’ diaries and library records from WWll tell us that while the books of Jane Austen was among the most popular, everything from poetry to crime and romance was in high demand.
The benefits of bibliotherapy
The benefits of reading, in general, are well known. And in many ways, they overlap with the benefits of bibliotherapy.
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”Poetry Pharmacy by William Sieghart
This is one of the essential ways we heal through reading; in realizing that we’re not alone.
Isolation and loneliness are common culprits when we’re not feeling well, and literature can help us shake those feelings. We realise others have been through the same battles we’re fighting, and they lived to tell the tale. They came out on the other side.
Here are some of the top benefits of bibliotherapy:
- Research suggests that reading reduces stress levels by 67%.
- Bibliotherapy is effective in the treatment of depression.
- Reading about someone having experiences or feelings similar to our own makes us feel less lonely.
- While real-life does not always provide us with good role models and mentors, literature does.
- Reading can reduce anxiety and have a calming effect.
- Books can help us get our of our heads and see our problems from a different perspective.
- Bibliotherapy and books have positive effects in all ages.
- Books can provide us with the words and the language to describe and communicate our feelings.
- Reading develops our empathy and ability to understand other people’s experiences, giving us new perspectives on our own lives.
- Realizing our experiences are not unique can help us feel more normal and healthy.
- Reading other people’s life stories can help us make sense of our own.
When to use bibliotherapy
So when can a little reading therapy be a good idea? Probably always. But if we stick to the healing side of things, there are several conditions where positive effects of reading have been observed and scientifically proven.
Below are five conditions where bibliotherapy and the right self-care books can be a big help on the way towards recovery.
Bibliotherapy can be effective in the treatment of depression, and research indicates that the results are not only positive but that they tend to last over time.
What kind of literature is the most helpful when you feel down is a matter of individual preferences. Sometimes it can feel good to read about someone else sharing your experience and feelings. Other times, uplifting self-help literature is what will give you a boost and help you escape negative thought spirals.
Anxiety is a painful condition that bibliotherapy can sometimes help alleviate. Reading can help reduce anxiety and have a generally calming effect on both body and mind.
Poetry can be soothing in the same way as music can be, and written meditations and mantras can help in reshaping thought patterns and breaking the spiral of anxiety.
Related reading: 20 of the best books for anxiety to relax with
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a challenge to treat and overcome, and many times it can be a combination of therapies and strategies that finally brings healing. Although there is need for more research in this area, qualitative studies are indicating that bibliotherapy can help reduce PTSD symptoms.
Related reading: 10 books that helped me through trauma and PTSD
Guided reading can significantly impact people when reaching a crossroads and facing critical decisions. When struggling with compulsive disorders and addiction, the right literature can provide both solace, guidance and inspiration.
Grief is one of the most universal, and also one of the hardest challenges we face as human beings. The right books can help us as we move through the different stages of grief, and help us find ways to let go and move forward.
Recommended books for bibliotherapy
Over on my Bibliotherapy Recommendations page, you’ll find a list of all of my favourite fiction prescriptions.
Here are some favourites to get you started:
Suffering from anxiety? Then these books might be something for you:
- Collected Poems – William Wordsworth
- A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail – Bill Bryson
- Healing Without Freud or Prozac: Natural Approaches to Curing Stress, Anxiety and Depression – Dr. Servan-Schreiber
Struggling with depression? Give these books a try:
- All Creatures Great and Small: The classic memoirs of a Yorkshire country vet – James Herriot
- Happy – Fearne Cotton
- A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy – William B. Irvine
Living with PTSD? Then these books can be helpful:
- The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma – Bessel van der Kolk M.D.
- Tennyson’s Collected Poems
- Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy – Francine Shapiro
Find it difficult to relax? These books might help.
Need some self-care inspiration? Got you covered!
- Do Pause: You are not a To Do list – Robert Poynton
- Love for Imperfect Things: How to Accept Yourself in a World Striving for Perfection – Haemin Sunim
- Brave Enough: A Mini Instruction Manual for the Soul – Cheryl Strayed
So, how can you start being your own bibliotherapist today? Now’s the best time to pick up a good book, take some time for yourself, and let the wisdom, comfort, and peace of mind guide you forwards.
Enjoy more from me
- Retreat into my new book, Your Life in Bloom: Finding Your Path and Your Courage, Grounded in the Wisdom of Nature.
- I'm also the author of Mountain Song: A Journey to Finding Quiet in the Swiss Alps, a book about my time living alone by the mountains.
- If you love books, are feeling a little lost right now, and would love some gentle comfort and guidance, join The Sanctuary, my seven-day course to rebalance your life.