Be it thriller or romance, auto-biographical or fantasy, the complete lose-yourself sensation that literature connects us to is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Beyond simply being an exceptional life-enhancing experience, books can aid the healing process in several fascinating ways.
In this article, we discuss what bibliotherapy is, and how it is increasingly being used within conventional forms of therapy.
This wonderful form of escapism is our chance to transport our mind away from the worries, stresses and anxieties that have been occupying it. Absorbing ourselves in the experience of a world outside of our own is highly beneficial for both our general wellbeing and mental health.
Not only does reading offer an especially tranquil mindfulness practice, but the practice of aligning ourselves with a protagonist can also help us to work through some personal difficulties that we experience in the real world, too.
On the surface, it is such a simple practice. As a result, we were rather taken aback by just how significantly reading can help to engage, strengthen and heal the mind.
This concept is commonly referred to as bibliotherapy. The increasingly renowned technique can be defined as the practice of using reading to assist with therapy.
The history of bibliotherapy
The term bibliotherapy has only come into existence within the last 100-150 years, and, within even more recent years, the field of psychology has witnessed extensive research into its healing potential.
However, the concept of reading for healing in itself can be traced back thousands of years. One intriguing study sought to pinpoint ‘The Oldest Library Motto’. The researchers identified one inscription above the Ancient Egyptian portal to the library of Pharaoh Ramses II. It designated the contents within as “the house of healing for the soul”.
It’s a beautiful description and one which, for readers across the millennia, has proven to be rather apt.
A glimpse into a typical bibliotherapy session
The mode of treatment blends the practice of reading literature with other, more widely used forms of therapy (such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy).
In a one-to-one session of bibliotherapy, the therapist will recommend a book to their client. This book, chosen through expert-led knowledge of the client’s state of mind, will utilise a personalised approach to reading. The book will be applicable to the challenges that they are facing – whether that topic is immediate or metaphorical.
While the client is reading the book (outside of the sessions, during their spare time), the therapist will typically ask them about how they found the book, and about any particular thoughts that arose from their reading.
In addition to stimulating the conversation between the therapist and the client, these discussions can also be used to helpfully kick-start deeper discussions about topics that the therapist wishes to discuss, in a more natural and less-pressured way.
These could include the client’s past experiences, why they are undertaking therapy, and how they cope with situations that they find stressful or distressing, amongst other topics.
Alternatively, the client may be asked to read the recommended book, and then discuss it with a group of people who are going through the same course of treatment. These group bibliotherapy sessions are designed to open up discussions related to the issues that they are dealing with, but in a more organic, less distressing way.
This commitment to personal work and reflection time, outside of the house of the sessions, also helps the clients to engage in the healing process.
Bibliotherapy’s potential for healing
Today, bibliotherapy has been widely acclaimed as an affordable, highly recommendable and simple treatment to many mental health conditions.
In a recent piece by Negar Jacobs and Elizabeth Mosco, the psychologists expressed their belief in the wide variety of benefits that bibliotherapy could bring to those who were requiring mental health treatments.
It was their opinion that many members of the general public (such as the elderly, anyone who could not afford conventional treatments, or anyone who would struggle to access these services in general), would especially benefit from bibliotherapy.
They stressed that, ‘given this tremendous potential of bibliotherapy to help the masses, it should be more widely marketed’ to the public.
Bibliotherapy has shown significant strengths in treatments for depression and anxiety, trauma, stress and social phobia, and even in helping to alleviate addictions or eating disorders. Furthermore, it is often recommended as a way of helping clients to heal their grief (particularly following a divorce, a relationship breakdown, or difficulties that the individual faces concerning their family).
Although it is very rarely used as a form of treatment on its own, bibliotherapy has been demonstrated to be a highly effective addition to enhance the positive effects of other forms of treatment. Since it is such a simple and easily understood concept, it can be seamlessly incorporated into a number of common forms of psychological treatments.
Therapists believe that bibliotherapy can aid the healing process of these conditions by helping the client:
- Develop a more nuanced understanding of the thoughts, feelings and perspectives of other people
- Improve their ability to communicate
- Feel uplifted, with a higher level of self-esteem
- For a child or young adult, face the concerns and troubles that will present themselves during their development with confidence
- Develop an enhanced level of self-awareness
- Gradually come to terms with, and understand a traumatic experience in their past
- Build a stronger sense of empathy
- Encourage them to feel hopeful and contented
- Enhance their mental health across the board
- Learn more about how to tackle their challenges on their own
- Develop problem-solving skills, which can be used to help them through a number of different issues, including those that are outside of the focus of the therapy.
As you can see, the outreach of bibliotherapy – although less pronounced than other forms of treatment – is wide and varied. It has a remarkable ability to calm, to restore and to relax the mind.
Although simple in its concept, bibliotherapy has the opportunity to tap into a number of different key areas of our brain, and unfold a far happier state of mind.
The power of books
Interestingly, the potential of bibliotherapy to help with the development of children and young adults has also been increasingly noted.
In fact, in a fascinating piece of research from The Journal of Applied Social Psychology (entitled ‘The greatest magic of Harry Potter: reducing prejudice’), the benefits that this book series had on children was measured, and recorded.
The study was based on the principle that ‘extended contact via story reading is a powerful strategy to improve out‐group attitudes’. So, they conducted three studies, during which they measured the ability that the Harry Potter books had to positively shape the attitudes of child readers. The results were clear – these books improved the attitudes of these children towards commonly stigmatized groups, including immigrants, homosexuals and refugees.
By facilitating a connection with individuals of different backgrounds and with otherwise unfamiliar beliefs – even if these individuals are only fictional characters – literature has the power to shape our perspective, in a way that develops our interpersonal skills, communication, tolerance for others, and our empathy.
When we read, we occupy the mind of a protagonist. For someone who is going through a process of emotional healing, reading a shared experience can help them to see that they are not alone in what they are facing.
Often, during conscientious reading of this manner, therapists have found that their clients engage with the protagonists of the book, and so feel emotionally invested in the text. This can help to create the feeling of a shared experience and emotional journey, alongside the character.
It is quite remarkable to think about the power that books have to help us heal. The cathartic nature of reading brings with it significant mindfulness benefits, both inside and outside of therapeutic treatments.
As the practice of bibliotherapy demonstrates, humans can build empathy for a character, and take on their thoughts and feelings. The fact that we can then use them to gain a greater understanding of our own is rather fascinating.
We would love to hear any experiences that you may have of bibliotherapy. Or, you may have some recommendations of literature that you found helpful. Either way, we would be delighted if you would share your responses with us. We invite you to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.