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, Quick Reads has found that people who read for just 30 minutes a week are 20% more likely to report greater life satisfaction.
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 a 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’s 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.
1. Books make us feel less alone
“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. According to Quick Reads, 19% of readers says that reading stops them from feeling lonely.
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.
2. Reading can improve our mental health
Books can provide us with the words and the language to describe and communicate our feelings. They also have more tangible benefits for mental health though, especially in tandem with therapy.
Research suggests that reading reduces stress levels by 67%, and retreating into a book can also be a good companion to therapy for people struggling with depression. In 2013, a study of patients with mild depression found that those who read saw improvements in their symptoms.
3. Fiction can help us to relate to others
Reading develops our empathy and ability to understand other people’s experiences, giving us new perspectives on our own lives. A UK-wide study in 2015 indicated that reading for pleasure is positively associated with a greater sense of community, a stronger feeling of social inclusion, a stronger ability to enjoy social occasions, and enhanced openness and talkativeness.
4. Books can guide us through the difficult parts of life
When we’re struggling with the most difficult parts of life, it might seem like we’re alone in our feelings and situation. But often we can find the same situation in a book somewhere.
A 2016 article in Social and Personality Psychology Compass shared that “connecting to story worlds involves a process of ‘dual empathy,’ simultaneously engaging in intense personal processing of challenging issues, while ‘feeling through’ characters, both of which produce benefits.”
Also, Quick Reads has found that 23% of readers says that a book has helped them realise that other people have gone through the same thing as them, helping them to feel better about their situation.
5. Reading is even associated with general health
It turns out that reading isn’t just correlated with mental wellbeing: it can also impact our general health and longevity. Yale University School of Public Health found that older adults who regularly read books had a 20 percent reduction in mortality over 12 years compared to those who did not read.
A 2003 study also found that reading can reduce the risk of dementia by up to 35%.
6. Fiction can motivate us to make changes in our own lives
While real-life does not always provide us with good role models and mentors, literature can. Reading other people’s life stories can help us make sense of our own, see our problems from a different perspective, and actually start to make changes.
According to Dr Josie Billington, “Reading can offer richer, broader, and more complex models of experience which help a person to view their own lives from a refreshed perspective. Reading expands people’s repertoires and sense of possible avenues of action or attitude.”
You can find more research-backed reasons to read in my post about the 30+ best statistics about how books help us feel better.
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, especially when combined with therapy.
Although therapy (and sometimes medication) is often essential for depression, reading books can also be a comforting source of self-care. Research indicates that the results are not only positive but that they tend to last over time.
In 2013, a study of 96 patients that suffered with mild depression found that those who read saw improvements in their symptoms. In comparison, those in a control group who didn’t receive bibliotherapy treatment didn’t see any change.
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 fiction and self-help literature can give you a boost and help you escape negative thought spirals. I’ve shared some of the best books to read when you’re feeling depressed.
Anxiety is a painful condition that bibliotherapy can sometimes help alleviate, and calming books can offer a generally relaxing 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.
In their 2021 Public Perceptions Survey, BACP found that 43% of people in the UK found reading helped ease their stress levels during the third national lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic.
A small 2022 study with Turkish high school students suggested that reading fiction might reduce symptoms of anxiety by promoting awareness of our feelings and improving problem-solving skills.
- 20 of the best books for anxiety to relax with
- How reading fiction helps anxiety, according to science
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 a 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
Although addiction often requires more specialized treatments, 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 solace, guidance, and inspiration to accompany other treatments.
Grief is one of the most universal yet 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 when we’re ready.
Recommended bibliotherapy books
Over on my Bibliotherapy Recommendations page, you’ll find my bibliotherapy lists to inspire your reading and top up your to-read list.
Here are some favourites to get you started:
Suffering from anxiety? Then these books might be something for you:
- Hope and Help for Your Nerves: End Anxiety Now by Claire Weekes
- The Anxiety Journal by Corinne Sweet
- Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig
Struggling with depression? Give these books a try:
- Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig
- The Upward Spiral by Alex Korb, PhD
- Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May
Living with PTSD? Then these books can be helpful:
- Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy by Francine Shapiro
- My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
- Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed
- The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk M.D
Find it difficult to relax? These books might help.
- The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down by Haemin Sunim
- Devotions by Mary Oliver
- The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim
Need some self-care inspiration? Got you covered!
- Love for Imperfect Things: How to Accept Yourself in a World Striving for Perfection by Haemin Sunim
- Wabi Sabi by Beth Kempton
- Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
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.
If you adore books, need a bit of a boost, and would love some gentle comfort and guidance, check out The Sanctuary, a seven-day course from Tolstoy Therapy.