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The Therapeutic Power of Stories

National Storytelling Week begins on Saturday (February 1). What does that have to do with therapy? Everything, writes bibliotherapist and counsellor Bijal Shah, whose practice draws on psychodynamic principles and involves using prescribed reading – from novels to poetry – to help clients connect with themselves and with others, and find cathartic relief. Reading literature, as she explains, is one of the oldest healing strategies in the book.

 

Reading has the ability to induce a meditation-like state, distract and produce the effects of systemic relaxation, three of the five criteria of Folkman and Lazurus’s emotional coping strategies, the pioneers on the subject. It certainly meets the criteria of a coping strategy. The immediate comfort it offers in times of distress, mimics the effect of an instant meditation with no warm-up time.

Literature’s unique power lies in its ability to connect us vicariously with others, dead or alive, real or fictional, and through this, provides for a sense of validation – a feeling of being understood and accepted whilst understanding and wholeheartedly embracing others.

As a bibliotherapist and counsellor, I consider literature’s power to heal to be my raison d’être. The therapeutic potential of storytelling has been known for centuries and can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks. Aristotle’s literature was considered medicine for the soul. Ancient Egyptian King Ramses II labelled his dedicated chamber of books, ‘House of Healing for the Soul’. In the early 19th century, WW1 soldiers were prescribed literature and poetry, for respite from suffering from post-war trauma.

The practice expanded further in the Fifties when Carolyn Shrodes, author of The Conscious Reader, theorised that characters in stories can be hugely influential to those readers that identify with them. In the late Sixties, poetry therapy emerged as a form of bibliotherapy. One of the most compelling books for the case is Rhea Rubin’s book, Using Bibliotherapy: A Guide to Theory and Practice.

Recently, Finnish Bibliotherapist, Pirjo Suvilehto, a lecturer at the University of Oulu completed extensive research in bibliotherapy, children’s literature and creative writing. Her doctoral thesis is the first academic study in Finland to consider children’s and adolescents’ bibliotherapy, and her studies have reached fascinating conclusions about the efficacy of bibliotherapy.

Types of Bibliotherapy

Bibliotherapy can be educational, therapeutic or creative.

  • Educational bibliotherapy is often used amongst school-age children and adolescents to prepare them for developmental milestones such as puberty and resilience building.
  • Therapeutic bibliotherapy focuses on specific issues, phobias or conditions. It uses fiction, non-fiction or a combination to alleviate symptoms and offer cathartic relief. It includes short stories, novels, biographies, poetry and self-help books.
  • Imaginative or creative bibliotherapy promotes identification with characters, connection and the feeling of being understood and/or validated.  
  • Another form of bibliotherapy that deserves a mention is group bibliotherapy, which can include book clubs. As ideas are shared, social connections formed and a sense of belonging established, group members often come away feeling energised and refreshed.

My practice

In my bibliotherapy practice, I apply a three-stage methodology coupled with psychodynamic counselling and psychotherapy:

1.The individual needs to identify and connect with the text or relevant character.

2. The text needs to resonate with the individual, allowing them to access their feelings and release these (i.e. provide for a ‘cathartic response’).

3. Providing insight to the individual’s own situation based on the issues faced by the character/discussed in the text and allowing the individual to consolidate these in a therapeutic fashion.

At Book Therapy, I offer bibliotherapy sessions for both individuals and couples either in-person or virtual (via Skype). I also curate book prescriptions for clients who prefer a reading prescription to bibliotherapy sessions.

As with any form of therapy, bibliotherapy aims to inspire self-awareness, reflection and healing. It can expand our knowledge and experience of the world, connect us with people we would not otherwise meet (fictional or real), validate our feelings and extend our empathetic capabilities.

PESI UK readers who would like to try bibilotherapy for themselves, or receive a book prescription, can use the discount code “welcome30” for 30 per cent off.

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Bijal Shah

Bijal Shah is a bibliotherapist, counsellor, author and poet. She is the founder of Book Therapy, which offers individual and couples’ bibliotherapy. Bijal’s book recommendations have featured in The Guardian, Asian Voice and various other publications. She is a member of the International Federation of Library Associations and the American Library Association.

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