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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Lucy
It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at livewildly.co.