‘You must practice mindfulness’, they say. ‘You must meditate’, they say. Must you? No, it’s not for everyone! There are other ways to manage your stress levels, take time out, relax or escape. Have you heard of bibliotherapy?
Chances are you’ve been practising it without even realising it. There is a resurgence of interest in this form of therapy that dates back to ancient Greek times when the library at Thebes proclaimed itself as ‘the healing place of the soul’, and it is increasingly being used to treat a myriad of conditions including stress, anxiety and depression. It can be practised by an individual or in a group and it can be selfguided or supported by a bibliotherapist. But books used in bibliotherapy are not the kind you would find in the somewhat daunting ‘SelfHelp’ section of a bookshop, they’re typically works of fiction or poetry.
Have you ever become so lost in a book that you feel a certain affinity to a character, so much so that you can almost feel their emotions? If they’re upset, you feel upset; when they’re angry, you feel anger too? Psychologists call this ‘experiencetaking’, where the reader empathises or relates to the character in the book. In certain situations it can lead to positive behaviour change, which lends itself to being a useful therapeutic tool for increasing positive mental wellbeing. We may identify with a character that is undergoing a difficult life experience similar to ours, such as a relationship breakdown or losing their job, for example. If the character is able to overcome this then we ourselves may feel better equipped and able to cope with the situation at hand. You know that feeling of relief and recognition when you realise that you’re not alone, that someone else, albeit fictional, has been through the same experience as you? It’s comforting, isn’t it?
Experiencetaking has even been shown to change the reader’s attitudes toward a different race or culture, helping to reduce stereotypes. This effect doesn’t happen at every occurrence, only when the reader is so deeply engrossed in the story that they are able to forget about themselves and it most frequently occurs when the book is written in the first person. If only we could encourage some of the world’s leaders to practise a little more bibliotherapy, perhaps the world would be a better place!
Whether short or longterm, the majority of people will suffer from a depressive episode in their lifetime, and whilst effective treatments exist, there is no ‘one size fits all’ cure. Bibliotherapy can be tailored to suit the individual, so whilst the essence of reading for therapeutic benefit is the same, each story will affect each person differently. Biblio is an online wellbeing service designed to support its members in an accessible, lowcost, and stigmafree way. Their experienced curators come from all walks of life but share a love of literature. Members connect to these curators who in turn, provide them with personalised book recommendations based on their reading tastes, what’s going on in their life and how they are feeling. The hope is that the literature selected will offer members a fresh perspective on their lives.
Our lives today are stressful: we’re increasingly anxious, depressed, highly strung. We’re so busy all the time. Who has time to read? Honestly, we can probably all find time. Instead of reading depressing stories in the newspaper on your commute, why not read a chapter of a book. Instead of spending time mindlessly flicking through social media, why not spend that time reading something more profound, more moving. You might be surprised at the outcome. Biblio’s service is currently invitationonly but they are working hard on a full release scheduled for the end of the year.