Book Therapy: Can Reading Heal Anxiety?
Reading should never be a chore.
But for those people struggling with anxiety, the idea of reading for pleasure seems especially difficult.
So when a doctor, therapist or well-meaning friend recommends a book to help your anxiety, do you read it? Or does it feel like another thing you’ll fail at?
Can anxiety make it hard to read?
For someone with anxiety, the thought of having to focus attention on something—anything—for an extended period can be overwhelming and intimidating.
In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) one of the symptoms of anxiety is:
‘Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank’.
And a main symptom of depression (which so often goes hand in hand with anxiety) is ‘having no motivation or interest in things’.
Neither of these features is ideal for reading.
When you have severe anxiety you do not have the mental capacity and attention span to read a whole book. It can be difficult to concentrate and find comfort in a book. A courteous counsellor may highlight a paragraph or a sentence. But a whole book?
When in the throes of an anxiety attack and your body is in a state of fight or flight it’s not conducive to reading or concentrating. You’ll probably find yourself re-reading the same passage over and over because you just can’t seem to process it.
But that doesn’t mean you should count reading out as a method of self-help altogether. It can be a powerful tool to improve your mental wellbeing.
Does reading relieve anxiety?
Anxiety disorders are on a continuum, ranging from mild to severe. And where you fall on the scale is not static. So even if it’s difficult to concentrate on reading one week, don’t give up altogether, it may be easier next week.
When your anxiety is less severe, or your anxiety only rears its head from a phobia, then books are a fantastic resource.
In 2013, a scheme called Reading Well Books On Prescription was rolled out to people in England with anxiety or depression. It was based on a scheme that had already been up and running in Wales for a decade. Local libraries made the recommended self-help books available to borrow and the scheme is still going strong today.
It’s based on the idea of bibliotherapy. The use of books in the treatment of mental or psychological disorders.
What is bibliotherapy?
Bibliotherapy is simply books that help you feel better. Reading to help bring about self-awareness and a better understanding of what’s holding you back.
Bibliotherapy is nothing new. Back in the time of the ancient Greek’s, Aristotle’s literature was considered medicine for the soul.
In World War I, before experts knew about shell-shock (now known to be PTSD), the American Library Association provided books, newspapers and magazines to military hospitals. Known as the Books For Soldiers program.
And in World War II, publishers in America gave away 122,951,031 copies of their best books for soldiers in combat. One 20-year-old marine described that reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn made him feel human again after two years of hellish combat.
A habit of reading allows you to be absorbed in another world, learn new perspectives and develop empathy for others. It also helps you to feel better.
How to use bibliotherapy
- Put together your own list of book recommendations by looking at library lists https://liveoakpl.org/books/adults/mentalhealth, asking friends or colleagues for a good book or following book recommendations on social media (BookTok is a popular niche on TikTok).
- Remind yourself you do not have to read the whole book or even a whole chapter. Start small by finding one sentence that resonates with you.
- If you find self-help books too dense, choose a lighthearted novel. You’ll find your concentration levels will return with a little patience.
- Read outside of your normal genre, you may be pleasantly surprised by the insights you’ll gain.
What if I find reading too difficult?
- Don’t worry – it might not be your thing, and that’s okay. You’re not letting anyone down by not reading.
- Try an audiobook – again, try just 5 minutes at a time. No pressure!
- Read a short article from a magazine that interests you, rather than a book.
If you are someone who recommends books to patients:
- If you routinely give handouts to patients, please remember they may not read them, follow-up with them to find other ways of disseminating information.
- Not all people with anxiety and depression are going to have similar reasons for their issues. Keep this in mind if you only have one or two core texts that you recommend.
- People with anxiety and depression often have problems with concentration, memory and motivation. They may not be able to read for very long, so highlight one or two passages.
- Find multicultural books that are most relevant to the individual person. It is much more engaging to read an author who has the same cultural outlook on life as you.
- Books or passages from a book, can be powerful, especially if written by someone who is going through the same issue. For example, if you have a chronic illness, reading a book by an author who has a chronic illness can make you feel less alone.
- Keep a running list of books your peers and patients have found useful and keep adding to it.
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