How reading could reduce anxiety

Bibliotherapy helps pupils to overcome mental health issues – and it's a cheap and easy intervention, says Gordon Cairns

Gordon Cairns

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When I’m feeling stressed or anxious, I find that one of the best remedies is to lose myself in a good book.

And I am not alone in this. In recent years, I have observed a rise in "bibliotherapy": a type of therapy that uses storytelling or the reading of certain texts to treat psychological disorders and to solve problems.

It might sound like a pseudo-scientific fad, but if you are primary teacher or a secondary English teacher, I would argue that you have probably been practising bibliotherapy for years, without even realising it. Every time you carefully choose a relevant book for your class or for an individual, because you think they will find the messages contained in it supportive, you are, on some level, engaging in bibliotherapy.

The question is: does it work?

Research has shown that bibliotherapy can reduce anxiety amongst school students, as well as helping with a host of other issues, including low self-esteem, bereavement and depression.

In 2013, Debbie McCulliss and David Chamberlain published a review of the literature around bibliotherapy, and found that reading has the potential to promote positive attitudes and positive self-image, while also increasing empathy, respect, tolerance and acceptance of others.

How can bibliotherapy work in schools?

I first became aware of how the practice could be used in classrooms as a newly qualified teacher, when I observed a senior colleague unwittingly using the technique. He would calm even the most unruly group of pupils either by reading to them in his serene and sonorous voice or by encouraging them to read independently.

Since then, I have regularly used chunks of my own teaching time to "prescribe" reading and I have found that it has a powerful therapeutic effect in the classroom: generating positive feelings which tend to stay with pupils far longer than the duration of the reading period.

So how does it work?

Bibliotherapy is based on classic psychotherapy principles that follow a step-by-step process. Initially, the student identifies with the character or situation in a story and follows the story until they reach catharsis, gaining inspiration and insight, leading to the motivation for positive change.

Through this process, the pupil should realise that other people are facing the same problems that they are. This realisation adds insight to their own circumstances and helps them to consider what that might mean for the future.

Here is how I have gone about putting these principles into practice in my lessons.

For younger secondary pupils, I have "prescribed" novels to improve resilience such as Abomination by Robert Swindells or Holes by Louis Sachar, in which young adults overcome adversity. I have used Lord of The Flies by William Golding to help older students recognise how to remain true to your beliefs in a divided society.

These are just a couple of examples, but you can be sure that if a young person is experiencing a mental health problem, somebody has already written a book that at the very least alludes to it.

With pupils in the UK reportedly facing countless issues with their mental health, coupled with a lack of resource to support extensive interventions, the classroom application of bibliotherapy, which comes with a negligible cost, may never be more timely.

Gordon Cairns is a teacher of English in Scotland

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Gordon Cairns

Gordon Cairns is a forest school and English teacher who works in Scotland

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