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Reading for wellbeing

The Kübler-Ross Model: Five Stages of Bereavement

Before we begin exploring the topic and texts for Week 1, we want take a moment to outline some of the key ideas underpinning this course and the work of our charity ReLit.


Bibliotherapy – or ‘book therapy’ – is an ancient practice. The notion that reading can help to alleviate distress and anxiety was articulated as early as the 5th century BCE, by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, who wrote that ‘words are the physician of the mind diseased’.

Modern clinical definitions of bibliotherapy sometimes emphasise the importance of selecting the right text for the right person, and may outline a three-stage therapeutic process:

  1. Identification with a text or characters in a text
  2. Catharsis or release of emotion in response to a text
  3. Insight into the problems presented in the text, and how these might be relevant to the reader’s own situation.

ReLit, the Bibliotherapy Foundation, are committed more generally to the concept of ‘reading for wellbeing’. We, Jonathan and Paula, believe that all sorts of literature can help people, in all sorts of ways. Fantasy novels may offer escapism, comic novels can restore a smile, and short poems, memorised and recited, might even serve as a kind of literary ‘beta-blocker’ at times of intense stress, reducing the heart rate, calming the breathing and lowering the blood pressure. A text that helps one person will not necessarily help another – or, at least, it may not help them in the same way. We are wary, therefore, of ‘prescribing’ individual texts, and we believe that personal choice is of enormous value.

You can find out more about the history of bibliotherapy, and about the principles underlying our work, in an article that we wrote for The Lancet, which can be viewed by following the link at the bottom of the page.


Although the concept has existed for thousands of years, relatively little research has been conducted into the efficacy of bibliotherapy. We are currently in the process of planning our own trials to investigate the relationship between reading and wellbeing and, in particular, to explore whether reading poetry is an effective stress-management technique.

Several other clinical trials examining the efficacy of bibliotherapy have been conducted in recent years. You can read more about them here.

As well as designing some trials to investigate the relationship between reading and wellbeing, we are also using our course surveys and activities to conduct research into this area. The first of these surveys was the Start of Course survey, which you may have chosen to respond to in step 1.3. You can read about some of our survey results from the first run of Literature and Mental Health by following the link in the ‘downloads’ section below. Here, you can view a report on our learners’ reading habits.

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This article is from the free online course:

Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing

The University of Warwick

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