Put Down the Xanax and Pick Up One of These Books

Could books replace benzos? Bibliotherapists say yes! But their prescriptions are for pages, not pills. And they suggest, if we start gobbling up novels, we won’t need to swallow so many meds.

The literary experts behind “bibliotherapy services” recommend the perfect stories to help people overcome personal problems, decrease stress and get through life’s rough patches. How does that work, pray tell? Glad you asked…

Bibliotherapy actually has some scientific basis. Studies have previously shown that our brains react in the same ways – whether we’re experiencing something in the real world or reading about it in a book. The same areas of the mind are activated.

We also know that reading fiction, even just a few snippets, improves empathy. And on top of the increased empathy benefits, reading about depression can actually make a clinically depressed person feel better. So the idea of using literature to treat mental health issues isn’t nearly as far-fetched as it might have initially sounded.

Recommended Reading

What would a bibliotherapist prescribe instead of Xanax?

  • For anxiety, they recommend a dose of The Thirty-Nine Steps, a man-on-the-run thriller by John Buchan.
  • If you’re stressed and anxious about being a single parent, they suggest To Kill A Mockingbird.
  • Struggling with depression? Dive into A Wrinkle In Time.
  • Battling insomnia? Stay up late reading the The House of Sleep.
  • If your anxiety and depression are making it hard to read, try an audio version!

A recent publication, The Novel Cure, by bibliotherapists Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, proposes a fairly comprehensive guide to the best books for each ailment…and their approach seems to be catching on. In fact, other bibliotherapists are now setting up shop to share the mental benefits of books. Believe it or not, just a few years ago, an official collection of prescription titles was recommended for use by general practitioners.

A “Novel” Cure?

While bibliotherapy lacks an FDA stamp of approval, mental health professionals recommend their patients to supplement therapy with reading. They suggest titles on self-help, learning about mental health issues or to taking a dip in the imaginative therapy of fiction.

Perhaps bibliotherapists are onto something here. Maybe Joseph Addison was right when he said “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” We’ve known for a long time that the pen is mightier than the sword; maybe the pen is also mightier than the pill.

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