Rae Ritchie explores the power of reading and how it can help us to manage our emotions ... 

By this point in the calendar, most of us have given up on any resolutions that we were attempting, especially if it’s one of the perennial statements such as ‘Get fit’ or ‘Lose weight’. 

I’m not an advocate of New Year resolutions, but in 2017, I decided I wanted to read more.  In particular, I wanted to read more books (like most people, I already spend more than enough time reading my phone!). 

A passion for reading

For once, I was successful.  Over the twelve months, I read forty-four books, each recorded on a dedicated Pinterest board. 

A dormant passion for the written word, long quashed by a misplaced belief that reading for work purposes somehow sufficed, was reignited.

Many of the books I read fall under the broad umbrella of mental health, self-help and popular psychology. 

From memory, the three that stand out are Bryony Gordon’s Mad Girl, the beautifully illustrated Happy by Fearne Cotton and Brené Brown’s latest masterpiece, Braving the Wilderness.

The insights gained from these and other titles were hugely helpful as I continued through my latest mental health episode, getting to grips with depression, anxiety and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). 

Self-help through reading

Sometimes the support was philosophical, sometimes practical. 

To give just one example, Cotton’s encouragement to chart your mood on the watercolour rainbow painted in her book felt more revealing, and more intuitive, than the usual picking a number between one and ten.

Sometimes it was simply good to be reminded that I wasn’t the only one struggling with the contents of my head.

Of course, I am not alone in finding books useful in supporting my mental health journey.  Over two millennia ago, the Ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus argued that ‘words are the physicians of a mind diseased’.

Bibliotherapy, the reading of specific texts for the purpose of healing, is a recognised therapeutic approach.  Proponents argue for its efficacy in alleviating mild to moderate symptoms of mood related conditions (for more on evidence, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, or NICE, has collated studies on its effects).

There are various schemes available to support this low cost treatment. 

Reading well programme

The Reading Well programme is supported by a number of influential bodies including NHS England, Public Health England and MIND, and has reached over 635,000 users.  The most well-known strand of its work is the Books on Prescription reading lists that cover common mental health conditions and often feature prominently in public libraries. 

ReLit: The Bibliotherapy Foundation, established by authors Paula Byrne and Jonathan Bate, provide a number of choices including an anthology, day workshops, a free online course and a toolkit that includes Sir Ian McKellen reading ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ by William Wordsworth

Personalised options are also available. 

School of Life

The London based School of Life, dedicated to developing emotional intelligence, offers one-to-one bibliotherapy sessions either face-to-face or via Skype.  Alternatively, online women’s magazine The Pool has a regular ‘My life in poetry’ feature in which author Ella Risbridger selects verses for different circumstances and emotions, the most recent being about learning to live with fear.

Whether supported or undertaken alone, there is so much to be gained from bibliotherapy beyond the wisdom of the material itself. 

The very act of reading can bring harmless escapism and even a renewed sense of self for those of us who’ve always proudly identified as a bookworm before mental health issues erased all our usual pleasures.

Mental Health Today 

Mental Health Today is owned by Pavilion Publishing who have their own range of self-help books, for example Self-soothing, Coping with everyday and extraordinary stress

As my astute case manager pointed out, reading has helped me to self-soothe too.  Over my year of reading more, I slowly learnt that rather than immediately turning to others when a moment of crisis hit, I could find the headspace I needed in a book instead. 

Regardless of genre, the act of focusing on the words, then pages, then chapters took me away from the situation before paradoxically allowing me to return to it with the resources I needed to face it.  This was especially the case during those long hours of the night when anxiety kept sleep at bay.

Unsurprisingly, then, my goal for 2018 is to continue with the same commitment.  I’m already onto my third book.

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