Book therapy – from Aristophanes to the present day

A woman sitting on the floor holds a book in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. Her face is not visible, she is wearing gray stockings, and there are books and plants around her

How literature deals with anxiety

Book therapywhat is this?

Reading is not just a pleasure and a way to acquire knowledge. Aristophanes read his comedies to criminals to correct their behavior and attitudes, and the belief that fiction strengthens the psyche goes back centuries. Modern psychotherapy perceives not as a metaphor, but literally the statement thatbooks are medicine for the soul.” Literature is actively used to alleviate the symptoms of mental illness. This alternative form of treatment is especially valuable at a time when we are at risk of mass psychosis alongside the pandemic, which has unleashed enormous tension in society. 

An open book, a cup of coffee and reading glasses next to it

Reading distracts from sad thoughts

The fact that reading fiction helps with depression, anxiety and even pain has long been established. Already in the Middle Ages, mainly religious readings were distributed for this purpose in medical and correctional institutions and orphanages. There were also absurd ideas, such as that of the famous philosopher Erasmus of Rotterdam, who advised for the treatment of abscesses to read more humorous writings. 

A woman wearing a white shirt sits on a chair on the beach and reads a book
PHOTO: Unsplash

For about 100 years, this type of alternative medicine has acquired a scientific character. The term “bibliotherapy” itself was coined in 1916 by the American researcher John Cotters, and in 1941 the definition was added to the world-respected Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary. Various specialized studies today prove the effect of this practice in post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and other conditions. 

Today, bibliotherapy is used in combination with other treatment methods. The patient’s psyche can be improved by empathizing with a character from a book, by identification with him or by opposition, experts explain. They have lists of works suitable for therapy in various conditions. 

A man wearing white trousers and an orange blouse is sitting in a rattan swing reading a book
PHOTO: Unsplash

Science fiction or fairy tales?

Different genres have different effects on people and it all depends on the goal of the treatment. For example, Andersen’s taleThe Ugly Ducklingis used by specialists to diagnose anxiety. The psychotherapist, who is aware of the patient’s condition and problems, their age and other individual characteristics, makes them read different books, after which they discuss what they have read together. Sometimes the doctor advises to keep a diary and analyze in written form parts of the read work. 

A little boy is holding a book in his hands and has opened his mouth in surprise
PHOTO: Unsplash

Book therapy - poetry and emotions

Poetry deserves a separatecolumnin bibliotherapy, because the poems, songs and pictures they paint encourage indirect expression of emotions. Reading poetry also helps the doctor understand exactly how the patient feels, so poetry therapies are also used to diagnose the condition, to help people who find it difficult to talk about what concerns them. Specialists believe that thisbranchof bibliotherapy is valuable in the treatment of suicidal symptoms, various addictions and when experiencing loss. 

Silhouette of a man reading a book against the background of the sunset
PHOTO: Unsplash


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