Did you know that the oldest known library in Thebes, Egypt, dating back to the second millennium BC, bore a sign “Psyches Iatreion” (healing place of the soul) above its door? Books have the power to heal. They help us cope with difficult situations and sometimes even have the answers we are looking for. Reading helps reduce stress and alleviates depression.
Bibliotherapy (primarily clinical or therapeutic bibliotherapy) has long been applied to patients suffering from anxiety, depression, trauma, or addiction. It is often suggested to those struggling with loss. Books and stories not only entertain but also provide comfort.
Self-administered bibliotherapy is equally effective. Don’t we all return to our favorite book when we are feeling low? I seek out mysteries and romances. Even reread books from my childhood.
Join me as I take you on a personal journey. How books have supported me during the darkest phases of my life. How they have helped improve my emotional well-being over the decades. And how they provide solace when my body is in rebel mode.
My 20s weren’t exactly the best years of my life. At the age of 21, I suffered a back injury that turned my life upside down. A straight-A student raring to go. Valedictorian at my design school. And here I was barely able to sit up for a few minutes, let alone move around. I had made a switch to IT from design but keeping a job also turned difficult since each episode would leave me bedridden for weeks. I was angry. I was upset. Seeing life pass you by when you know you have the potential for so much more is a horrible feeling.
Back in the 1990s, I wasn’t big on meditation. Television has always given me a headache, literally and figuratively. Laid up in bed, I sought out my books. Reading and re-reading them. Including the ones I had sworn I would never read (My brother’s Jason Bourne series after being sorely disappointed by the ending of the first book). I gradually added my collection to our library. As I recovered, I launched my design agency and gave it my all. But at the end of the day, books were always my go-to.
Coping with loss and grief
We lost our father in January 2017. On Thursday, we were planning the Lohri celebrations. By Tuesday, he was gone. Little had we come to terms with the loss that my brother suffered a cardiac episode in July and was hospitalized for almost a month. In early December, I woke up to a loud thud at 3 in the morning to see my mother lying on the bathroom floor, her clothes soaked with blood. Within a span of less than a year, I lost my father and almost lost my only sibling and mother too.
The injury left my mother bedridden for months and confined to a wheelchair for another couple of years. As a sole caretaker, I again turned to books to help me cope. A way to escape from the realities of life. Those few hours where the pain of loss and fear of losing would take a back seat. I read books about doctors (my father being one). About families coping with illness and loss. But I also read a heavy dose of mysteries, thrillers, romantic comedies, fantasy fiction, and what have you. The escapist reads to block out the pain.
An emotional catharsis
A few months back, I received a copy of Silver Lining by Kamal Shah for a book review. As I began reading, it seemed as if life coming full circle. The Universe has its ways. Our journeys may not have been exactly similar but I could relate to the author’s thought process. The “Why me?”. The clinging to the thin thread of hope and finally accepting reality. The strong will to not let the injury define me. It felt cathartic. The book will always have a special place in my heart.
Reading for emotional well-being
Bibliotherapy is not a magic pill or a one-size-fits-all. That said, it is highly beneficial and helps boost mental health. I share a few tips on how to read for emotional well-being. Tips that I swear by. Tips that apply to both avid and new readers.
Find books that work for you
We are often more critical of ourselves than we are of others. Pick books that work for you, irrespective of the fear of judgment. Feel-good books. Cozy mysteries. Cheesy romances. Fantasy fiction. They are called comfort reads for a reason.
During the Holiday season and particularly in January, I stick to light reads. Not just as a way to de-stress after long working hours but also as a way to cope with grief. We never get over a loss. We just find a way to live with it.
Mind the triggers
Trigger warnings are often termed spoilers but are God-sent for those struggling.
A few months after my father passed away, I recall reading an indie romance. Out of nowhere, the story veered to the protagonist struggling with the guilt of not having done enough to save her father. That sent me on a downward spiral since it was the guilt I was struggling with too. It took me weeks to recover
Take a break and explore other avenues
If you are unable to read, don’t fret. The idea is to improve mental health and not add to the anxiety. By all means, binge-watch that show that has been on the watchlist for a while.
I am not an author but I write a lot. Every day. Sometimes even up to a thousand words. I am a big believer in journaling to channel my thoughts. As an introvert, writing is like meditation for me. The self-talk at the end of the day to voice it all out.
Explore different mediums
Audiobooks get a bad rap but they are my books of choice. Earlier this year, my arthritis flared up like nobody’s business. Holding a book to read was quite painful. I couldn’t cut down on work but I did need to cut down on my print books. Audiobooks, on the other hand, worked like a charm in more ways than one.
Hardcovers. Paperbacks. Ebooks. Audiobooks. Pick the medium that works for you.
Seek professional help
Bibliotherapy is a powerful tool but it can never replace professionals. Please seek help if you are overwhelmed or need assistance starting out.
In my five years as a book blogger, I have rarely shared anything so personal. Why now? I hope sharing my life experiences will help someone in need. Quoting the Pulitzer-prize-winning author, Jane Smiley, “Reading a novel is like giving yourself a hug.” Don’t we all need that sometimes?The Healing Power of Books: A Personal Journey #TrulyYoursHolisticEmotions @rakhijayasankar @romaguptasinha Click To Tweet
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