Opening the book on bibliotherapy for PTSD and C-PTSD

Opening the book on bibliotherapy for PTSD and C-PTSD

There are many techniques, activities and therapies that can tackle the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD and C-PTSD). Of course, different techniques work for different people. One you may not have tried is bibliotherapy for PTSD self-management or even group support

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“Reading is a gift. It’s something you can do almost anytime and anywhere. It can be a tremendous way to learn, relax, and even escape.” Richard Carlson, author and psychotherapist.

Biblio comes from the Greek word biblíon, which means “book.” So bibliotherapy is literally about immersing yourself in reading. It’s also something you can try anywhere, at any time.

The term is believed to have first been used in 1914, as reading out loud became a common way to treat WW1 soldiers with PTSD; something that became known as ‘Literary caregiving’.

However, the principle of using books as a tool for healing pre-dates that. Both the ancient Greeks and Egyptians believed that reading is good for the soul, and not just the mind!

“Bibliotherapy is most easily defined as facilitating psychological growth and healing through reading. Most people in the field recognise two distinct branches of bibliotherapy, though the exact dividing line between them is not easily drawn.

Developmental bibliotherapy is used mainly in community or educational settings, to help children or adults address common life issues. For example, school nurses can help children address issues of bullying through bibliotherapy.

Clinical or therapeutic bibliotherapy is the use of books in a professional therapy context to treat a diagnosed emotional disorder or ameliorate the negative life impact of a diagnosed emotional, mental or physical disorder. Therapeutic bibliotherapy is most often used as an adjunct to more traditional medical or psychological therapies, as in a recent study that successfully used poetry therapy to reduce anxiety and PTSD in patients recovering from a heart attack.

But it can be used as a stand-alone therapy as well, as it was in a 2004 study that compared the effectiveness of self-administered bibliotherapy with traditional short-term (12-20 sessions) psychotherapy for 60 older adults diagnosed with depression, and found both were equally effective in reducing clinician’s ratings of depression, both immediately post-treatment and at a three-month follow-up.”

Does it have to be ‘meaningful books’?

For bibliotherapy to be effective it doesn’t have to be classical literature or insightful non-fiction. It can be popular fiction titles or even an engrossing magazine. The only guiding principle is that your reading material of choice should be relaxing and uplifting.

It can even be the same book you use regularly, to interrupt the repetition of intrusive memories and flashbacks, and to stimulate feelings of happiness or being ‘grounded’.

A well-written book full of believable characters can make you feel less alone, too.

“What I love most about reading: It gives you the ability to reach higher ground. And keep climbing.”–Oprah.

The national Reading Agency encourages increased use of books for numerous reasons, including promoting ‘Reading Well’ as a concept. “There is a huge evidence base around the value of reading to support health and wellbeing, as well as the value of libraries as a non-stigmatised space that is both welcoming and empowering for people with mental health problems.”

Books as treatment for PTSD and C-PTSD

Though you could choose your own books – and pick them up anytime to help address PTSD symptoms – bibliotherapy is sometimes integrated into more formal treatment programmes for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In this case, a PTSD specialist will suggest titles that can help, including both fiction and non-fiction books that expand your understanding of what you are going through. It could be a personal memoir, for example, that demonstrates that you’re not alone in your experiences and issues, or a work of philosophy to grow your awareness of the human psyche.

In a treatment context, reading is not always a solitary activity to help with PTSD or C-PTSD. Your therapy may include reading and discussing books as a group. From this, participants can sometimes gain more insights and support from a shared exploration of reading material.

“A book is a garden, an orchard, a storehouse, a party, a company by the way, a counselor, a multitude of counselors.” Charles Baudelaire.

Which books can help with PTSD & C-PTSD?

As with anything, the books that will help support you with your PTSD or C-PTSD, may be very different from someone else, but with the help of our PTSD UK Supporters, we’ve created a list of some of the most helpful, inspiring and useful books recommended by them. For some, it’s about information, for others, it’s about ‘getting lost’ in the text. It’s important to find what works best for you – as some books may actually be triggering for some people, so take it at your own pace and find your most powerful tools.


NON-FICTION/EDUCATION

PERSONAL EXPERIENCE/BIOGRAPHY

FICTION

  • The Lost‘ series by Gillian Cross (fiction aimed at teens, but that doesn’t mean adults can’t read them!) While not specific to PTSD or C-PTSD, the books take an unusual twist on describing depression, which makes it feel less ‘heavy’. I found it helpful just to feel that I could relate to a character in a book, without having a lot of “self-help” things thrown at me (sometimes you just want to read something to take you away from your current feelings, without wanting self-help suggestions!). And because they’re aimed at a younger age than me, I didn’t have to use too much energy in following a complex storyline.
  • The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Steadman “Fiction book, sad but helpful to see how ptsd can be experienced and gripping story”
  • The Chronicles of Narnia – C S Lewis “great to take your mind off stuff especially audiobook”
  • When I Loved Myself Enough by Kim McMillen “is the sweetest little book. It’s simplicity and honesty is truly heartfelt and beautiful. She shares one little line of wisdom she’s learnt on each page that always begins with the words … “when I loved myself enough….”. I found just picking one page to read a day was a lovely comfort and inspiring to help me through difficult days”
  • The boy, the mole, the fox and the horse by Charlie Mackesy “I find this book really helpful during darker times. Not too many words but very powerful ones, and the art I love” “It’s beautiful, caring and kind with a hint of humour. It’s a hug in book form”

Other recommendations were

and of course, our PTSD UK book ‘Broken Crayons Still Colour: Understanding PTSD through Art” is available to buy on our website and is full of incredible poetry from people affected by PTSD and C-PTSD.

 


One PTSD survivor, Lucy has actually dedicated her time to spreading the word about how books have helped her overcome PTSD. After undertaking EMDR over 6 years ago, Lucy now runs a website called Tolstoy Therapy, where she talks about the books that have helped her “Now I’m in a much better headspace, my job is self-help and self-care: to be more conscious of my body, learn how to slow down, and keep reading books that help me to heal.”

Here are Lucy’s books that she used to overcome trauma and PTSD, many of which she says, she keeps returning to:

  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy taught me about life By reading so much Tolstoy, I’ve learned that life consists of many moments. Some are bad, but more of them are good. While EMDR therapy was crucial in my journey of dealing with PTSD and making every aspect of my life easier, books like War and Peace have been firm friends on the journey. I’m not sure what my last ten years would have been like without it.
  • Cheryl Strayed gave me the courage to keep climbing the mountain When I’m going through a tough time, I read Cheryl Strayed. My favourite book of hers is Brave Enough: A Mini Instruction Manual for the Soul – her collection of quotes. Her words are a fantastic balm for anxiety and depression. 
  • Mary Oliver reminded me to heal in nature Mary Oliver is one of the best authors for calming me down during anxious moments, and her books helped me when experiencing PTSD symptoms, too. I treasure the words of “The Summer Day”, then, turn to “The Old Poets Of China” when the world offers you its busyness, and finally, I read “I Go Down To The Shore” for an amusingly firm response from nature to our anxieties.
  • Getting Past Your Past helped me get the benefits of EMDR on my own EMDR changed everything for me. Although I know that CBT has been incredibly powerful for millions, the few sessions I tried left me a complete mess afterwards. That’s not to say that EMDR is easy – it forces you to relive the most difficult moments of your life, and I spent many a session crying and having panic attacks. But the thing is, it taught me how to deal with it. EMDR did so much more than I thought it would. Not only did it help me to view the traumatic events of my life through a new lens, it gave me the confidence to speak up, be seen, and make bold choices that others didn’t expect. Francine Shapiro’s self-help book for EMDR, Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy, is such a valuable resource to complement therapy or to give you a gentle introduction.
  • Gertrude Bell’s diaries showed me the type of life I wanted to lead Gertrude Bell is one of my heroes. Born to an affluent family in Victorian England, she chose to live an incredible life: reaching the summits of unclaimed peaks in the Swiss Alps, deciphering code in the war, negotiating between tribes, translating Persian poetry, and changing the landscape of the Middle East. Georgina Howell tells her story in Queen of the Desert. Although much is uplifting and inspiring about her life, some sadder moments come as a warning. It’s one of my most precious books; one I know I’ll keep returning to.
  • Healing Without Freud or Prozac reminded me of the mind-body connection I remember finding Dr. David Servan-Schreiber’s self-help book for trauma and depression, Healing Without Freud or Prozac, so useful when I was going through a difficult patch. It’s also one of the reasons I decided to start EMDR therapy when I was at university. While Freud and Prozac may well help you, in my own life these alternatives – including EMDR therapy, yoga, and meditation – suited me better. Make sure that you get the help you need, though: some of these treatments might be a great help in collaboration with other therapy and medication, but not enough on their own. You know yourself.
  • Rupi Kaur’s poetry showed me strength and boldness This is the easiest to read and most mainstream choice on this list, but I loved The Sun and Her Flowers.  I read it long after I had EMDR therapy and been through the worst of my PTSD symptoms, but it acted as a top-up of sorts. Quite stereotypically, this book also helped me through a difficult breakup.
  • “Ulysses” by Lord Alfred Tennyson guided me forwards Memorising poetry has helped me to get through anxiety, and Tennyson’s “Ulysses” is my go-to favourite.

If you like Lucy’s recommendations, she’s actually created ‘The Sanctuary’ for people who love books, feeling a little lost right now, and looking for some comfort and guidance forwards. Find out more about this Seven-Day Reset to Gently Rebalance Your Life here

“Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination and the journey. They are home.” Anna Quindlen.

Writing as a therapeutic technique

Equally adaptable is the use of journaling to address mental health issues. Some people find writing about their anxiety and stress helps to defuse it, and they can make better sense of their experiences.

However, to manage PTSD symptoms, some individuals find that creative writing is a more helpful form of bibliotherapy.

“Expressive writing can result in a reduction in stress, anxiety, and depression; improve our sleep and performance; and bring us greater focus and clarity.”

What can you do if you struggle with books?

As with all forms of therapy for PTSD and C-PTSD, it’s important to find the reading or writing activities that prove most comfortable and comforting to you.

Of course, some people with PTSD or C-PTSD find reading an impossible task – they simply can’t relax, or concentrate enough “I really struggle to read words on a page now though. I used to read avidly, finishing 400+ page books in one day. Now I can struggle to get through a chapter without having to reread every 10 times. I use audible a lot now.”

Others find that ‘getting lost’ in a book isn’t possible due to their hypervigilance “a self help book would cause more stress to begin with. I used to read children’s short stories to escape with”

– but it may simply be that bibliotherapy isn’t right for you. You can find some other activities and therapies that may help instead here.

How can I do bibliotherapy?

“Bibliotherapy is more of a general concept than a single, rigorously defined therapeutic method. Bibliotherapy can sometimes be as simple as “prescribing books” — that is, telling a student, client, or patient to read a particular book that you believe will help them” but it can also simply be using books to help support your own journey.

There are still plenty of libraries left in the UK, as well as many bookshops you can visit if you want to start. What if you need help in choosing titles that could have a positive impact?

Funding from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport means there will soon be a mental health support reading list in every library service in England. In Wales, libraries are supporting the scheme with titles in both English and Welsh.

You can buy the books listed on this page through a variety of outlets, but by clicking on any of the links to books on this page, you’ll be able to make a FREE donation to PTSD UK as we’re part of the Amazon Affiliates program – meaning for every book you buy through these links, we’ll get a percentage of the value from Amazon.


It’s important to note, that while choosing your PTSD or C-PTSD recovery path you need to address both the symptoms and the underlying condition. NICE guidance updated in 2018 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.

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