A Kolkata-based banker who chooses to stay anonymous was undergoing therapy after her divorce from her abusive husband. Her family had refused to acknowledge the narcissistic abuse she had faced and she felt unheard. Then her therapist, Mansi Poddar from Kolkata, suggested that she read a particular book. It changed her perspective. She says she finally felt understood and was able to open up to her therapist, which in turn helped her make progress in her therapy sessions.
Looking back, she says that reading that book is what helped her heal. Using books to heal is not uncommon. There is now even a word for the use of books for therapeutic purposes: bibliotherapy. While the connection between reading and mental health has been documented for years, bibliotherapy takes it a step further.
While dealing with anxiety and depression or coping with grief, it can be difficult to make sense of what is happening in your mind and body, as an article published on the mental health website, verywellmind.com, on 29 August 2021 points out. “Bibliotherapy aims to bridge this gap by using literature to help you improve your life by providing information, support, and guidance in the form of reading—books and stories,” it says. It is often used as part of the adjunct treatment process in therapy.
Poddar says that with the proper guidance, books can lead to a deeper understanding of what one is going through, and help people deal with mild depression or anxiety fairly effectively.
Benefits of Reading
Conversations around mental health have been steadily increasing over the last few years, not surprising when one considers the impact of the pandemic on people’s minds. Bibliotherapy, which truly can benefit people across different age groups and needs, fits in perfectly in this larger narrative around mental health.
Research conducted by the University of Sussex in 2016 showed that reading as little as six minutes daily can reduce stress levels by 60% by reducing your heart rate and easing muscle tension. It also found that reading was better at reducing stress than music, drinking a cup of tea, going for a walk, and playing video games. Research conducted by the University of Texas and Seton Hall in 2009 found that reading lowered blood pressure, heart rate and feelings of distress just as efficiently as yoga.
So, what sort of books help under these circumstances? Books may include self-help books, poetry, fiction, or even personal stories of people going through the same thing, basically anything that can act as a a starting point for conversations during sessions as Poddar suggests.
“I recommend books that fit my client’s challenges and growth goals. Based on the reading material, I designed exercises for our conversations that give me a deep insight into their lives. It provides them with support and validation,” she says. According to her, books are “soul savers”, and having the right book acts as a balm for the spirit.
It is easy to get overwhelmed in this busy world, and finding time for oneself becomes the biggest problem. While the paucity of time, often cited as one of the biggest causes of stress, may be an excuse to avoid delving into a book, the truth is that it really is worth making time for it.
Kolkata-based psychiatrist Dr Amlan Jana points out that leisure reading is definitely a stress-buster, whatever one chooses to read. “The subject can be anything from world history, classic novels, or a thriller. Every read is a balm for our overworked brain.”
A break from everything
Neuropsychiatrist Dr Sabaysachi Mitra from Kolkata explains that “when you are reading, all your focus is on the book, and hence all external and intrinsic thoughts are stopped. To simplify, all other parts of the brain get a chance to rejuvenate while you have a single agenda, and all the erroneous thoughts are filtered out. Hence, reading is a good alternative to meditation which also reduces stress,” he says.
And yes, there is another way reading can be good for mental health—it can help you sleep better. Not surprisingly, doctors from the Mayo Clinic in the US suggest reading as part of a regular sleep routine.
As we all know, health practitioners firmly believe that an excellent eight hours of sleep rejuvenate the mind and body. One thing that helps one sleep better is putting away all gadgets and winding down before bedtime.
Deepti A. Srinivasan, director of counselling firm ResilienceWorks in Bengaluru, explains. “The blue light emitted by screens negatively affects sleep-inducing hormones. This is detrimental to the quality of sleep as well as emotional well-being. Reading can help one switch off from the stressors of the day by positively engaging the mind. This applies to children as well. Reading to children before bedtime fosters the imagination and improves sleep,” she says.