How reading can reduce anxiety

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Bibliotherapy helps pupils to overcome mental health issues – and it’s a cheap and easy intervention, says Gordon Cairns in the TES.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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