Have you ever been emotionally moved by something you’ve read? If so, you might start to understand why bibliotherapy can be a powerful tool.

Even if you’re not a book enthusiast, there’s probably been a time in life when you’ve read something that resonated with you or related to a situation you’d found yourself in.

The power of words on emotions can be immense. Reading the right words can summon tears, laughter, anger, or a drive for self-change.

Words can educate and provide insight. At times, words can be a valuable source of comfort.

When you’re navigating mental well-being challenges, this power of words could be used in a form of treatment called bibliotherapy.

Also known as book therapy, bibliotherapy was discussed as a psychodynamic model in the 1950s by Caroline Shrodes.

In 1966, it was officially introduced into medical vocabulary as the process of using literature to encourage cognitive change.

In its base conceptual form, bibliotherapy was seen as a way for people to solve personal challenges through directed reading.

Since that time, however, bibliotherapy has evolved.

It’s often used as a supplementary form of treatment in various psychotherapy approaches and could involve everything from reading in private to discussing literature in groups.

While books are one of the most common components of bibliotherapy literature, any format of written work might be used, including:

  • magazines
  • pamphlets
  • research papers
  • poetry
  • quotes
  • blogs

At its core, bibliotherapy is intended to help bring about personal change through reading.

What this means for you might be different than what it means for someone else. You might not prefer reading poetry, for example, but gain more insight from informational work.

The exact classifications of bibliotherapy vary among scholars but generally fall into two categories split by areas of application:

  • Clinical: using literature as a means of creating cognitive change related to psychological needs and therapeutic goals
  • Developmental: informational materials used by both medical professionals and other educators to help assist with natural life transitions, such as puberty

Clinical bibliotherapy might be further broken down into subcategories based on the literature that affects you the most, your preferred style of learning, and the mental well-being challenges you’re facing.

You might benefit from:

  • Creative bibliotherapy: the use of guided fictional work as a way to address similar scenarios in your own life
  • Prescriptive bibliotherapy: nonfiction books and literature intended to offer self-help options at home or with professional treatment

Bibliotherapy could be used as a way to provide insight.

You’ve likely heard the quote, “Can’t see the forest for the trees.” This is often used to imply that sometimes we can get stuck looking at what’s happening in the moment rather than at the larger picture.

When you’re stressed and worried, you might not know what to do or where to go. You may not be able to imagine any other scenario than the worst case one.

You might not yet realize the emotional impact your behaviors have on you and those around you.

Literature could help pull back the veil. It could guide you to that next self-help step, or help you experience emotional ramifications through the adventure of a fictional character.

Bibliotherapy isn’t just a mental health term — it’s a tool that could be used in many professions to help encourage learning and personal growth.

Bibliotherapy could help guide things such as relationships and substance use disorder recovery. It could help provide broader scopes of understanding that might help combat negative social constructs, such as racism.

Research has shown bibliotherapy could have a positive impact on:

It’s natural to feel overwhelmed, alone, or lost when you’re going through a big change in life or are experiencing mental health challenges.

Literature — both fiction and nonfiction — might help you develop a higher level of awareness and understanding of your motivations and behavior.

You could learn the “why” behind what you’re experiencing through science-based reading. At the same time, you could have guides, exercises, and coping recommendations on hand for easy reference.

Through fiction, you could view your scenario through the eyes of a character. In many cases, you might reach an emotional release through that fictional journey before you reach it in your own journey.

This emotional experience in fiction is what Aristotle referred to as “catharsis” during his own observations on the impact of stories on human emotions.

When is directed reading not good for mental health?

Literature could be used for both positive and negative outcomes. In fact, experts note that some bibliotherapy could be harmful.

Propaganda, which is deliberately skewed or misleading information, is often spread through literature. It could be used to encourage unhelpful or harmful beliefs and viewpoints.

A 2020 study suggests that propaganda could be a powerful tool of emotional manipulation.

Was this helpful?

Generally speaking, bibliotherapy is a safe form of supplemental therapy appropriate for people of all ages and abilities.

A healthcare professional might not recommend bibliotherapy if you:

  • don’t enjoy reading
  • have a short attention span
  • experience psychosis
  • don’t respond strongly to learning through reading

Many other factors could contribute to the decision on whether to include bibliotherapy in your treatment plan.

You might not yet be at a point where bibliotherapy makes sense. Distressing memories, current stress factors, and your mental well-being could all influence the way literature impacts you.

Bibliotherapy is usually guided by a mental health care professional.

Based on what challenge you’re facing, you’ll likely be given a reading recommendation. In most noninformational and educational cases, the goal is to introduce you to a character — fictional or nonfictional — with whom you might identify.

These characters might be going through a similar challenge as you, for example.

While you navigate bibliotherapy reading, you could experience an array of emotions as you go through the story with the main character.

You might feel their highs and lows, and some of the emotions could be strong as you subconsciously relate them to your own life.

You might also have eye-opening realizations during bibliotherapy. Sometimes hearing an idea in just the right way could really make it “click.”

As your reading progresses, you might find that you could envision alternative options, new paths of thought, or even the growth of hope that things might not be as dreary as they once seemed.

Bibliotherapy could provide you with new rational insight you could then discuss with a mental health care professional.

Bibliotherapy, aka book therapy, is the use of literature to help overcome challenges in everyday life.

Whether you’re living with a mental health condition or simply going through a natural life change, the right reading material could help increase your intellectual insight — toward yourself and the people around you.

While most bibliotherapy in the clinical setting is guided, self-help books and reading literature at home that empowers you could also be considered bibliotherapy.

To find a mental health professional who specializes in bibliotherapy, you can visit the International Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy.