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What Is Bibliotherapy?

How reading books can lead to better mental health.

Key points

  • Storytelling has been integral to the human experience for over 40,000 years.
  • Reading fiction can build empathy, enhance theory of mind, and improve social skills.
  • Research shows that bibliotherapy can help children overcome anxiety, depression, and aggression.
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Reading benefits your mental health.
cottonbro studio/Pexels

Have you ever read a book and experienced an emotional response that surprised you? Maybe your heart raced during an intense scene, or you found yourself sobbing in sympathy with the protagonist’s grief. You’re not alone — a 2021 study showed that reading fiction actually enhances your ability to recognize and process emotions, building your capacity for empathy (Schwering, et al., 2021).

Humans have connected with stories in a deeply personal way for centuries, dating as far back as 40,000 years ago to the first known evidence of stories told in prehistoric cave drawings, with oral storytelling pre-dating these artifacts. Historically, stories have served as a primary vehicle for passing down family histories, moral values, and faith traditions. They teach us about ourselves in the context of our cultural heritage, our religious background, and even our place in history.

At its core, therapy can’t happen without stories. The therapeutic process relies on storytelling as a vehicle for healing, as the client shares their narrative of trauma, pain, loss, or fear, bringing it out into the open where empathy can take root, and new chapters can finally be written. When we pick up a book, whether it's a memoir, a novel, or even a poem, and bring it into the therapeutic space, the process of bibliotherapy unfolds in two ways: first, through the individual’s interaction with the text itself, and second, through the meaningful discussion that follows in session, exploring themes, character development, and emotions conjured.

In bibliotherapy, we are able to discover ourselves, and others in our lives, through identification with characters in a story. As the protagonist works through the story’s conflict toward a resolution, we too find ourselves taking an emotional journey, reflecting upon our own life’s path. In fact, one study showed that reading fiction opens our minds to view our personality traits in a more flexible way, giving ourselves room to grow and evolve (Djikic, et al., 2009). Reading stories, on our own or in the context of a therapeutic relationship, reminds us that we’re not alone, no matter what challenges we might be facing.

Researchers have found that books can lead to better mental health in a variety of ways. Bibliotherapy has the potential to decrease depression in adults, mitigate the effects of eating disorders with self-help book selections, help children overcome the impacts of anxiety, depression, and aggression, and encourage prosocial behavior, and reduce stress in college students (Gualano, M.R., 2017; Troscianko ET, 2018; Montgomery, P., 2015; Hazlett-Stevens H., 2017). Reading has the power to heal and facilitate growth, with books acting as mirrors to our deepest parts of self, opening our minds to who we can become, and connecting us with others, both real and imagined.

Ultimately, long after the therapeutic relationship has terminated, if a client continues the habit of reading, their journey of growth and healing will continue on. Readers who regularly enjoy fiction often develop a strong theory of mind, the ability to mentalize others’ unique thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, as well as an increased awareness of their own (Kidd, David, and Castano, Emanuele, 2013).

Avid readers also experience improved brain connectivity, according to researchers, registered in the left temporal cortex, a region of the brain associated with receptivity for language, along with the primary sensorimotor center (Berns, Gregory S., et al., 2013). This phenomenon leads to what’s known as embodied cognition, causing the mind to believe it is doing something it’s not, offering the brain new “experiences” from which to learn.

Bibliotherapy can provide a safe, connected atmosphere for transformation to occur, feeling like a cozy book club where your story takes center stage. Whether you read with a licensed therapist, a group of friends, or on your own, consider reading with your mental health in mind.


Berns, Gregory S., Blaine, Kristina, Prietula, Michael J., and Pye, Brandon E. Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain. Brain Connectivity. 2013; 3:6, 590-600

Gualano MR, Bert F, Martorana M, et al. The long-term effects of bibliotherapy in depression treatment: Systematic review of randomized clinical trials. Clinical Psychology Review. 2017;58:49-58. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2017.09.006

Hazlett-Stevens H, Oren Y. Effectiveness of mindfulness-based stress reduction bibliotherapy: A preliminary randomized controlled trial: MBSR bibliotherapy. J Clin Psychol. 2017;73(6):626-637. doi:10.1002/jclp.22370

Kidd, David Corner, Castano, Emanuele. Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind. Science. 2013; 342, 377-380. .DOI:10.1126/science.1239918

Maja Djikic , Keith Oatley , Sara Zoeterman & Jordan B. Peterson (2009) On Being Moved by Art: How Reading Fiction Transforms the Self, Creativity Research Journal, 21:1, 24-29, DOI: 10.1080/10400410802633392

Montgomery P, Maunders K. The effectiveness of creative bibliotherapy for internalizing, externalizing, and prosocial behaviors in children: A systematic review. Children and Youth Services Review. 2015;55:37-47. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2015.05.010

Schwering, S. C., Ghaffari-Nikou, N. M., Zhao, F., Niedenthal, P. M., & MacDonald, M. C. (2021). Exploring the Relationship Between Fiction Reading and Emotion Recognition. Affective science, 2(2), 178–186.

Troscianko ET. Literary reading and eating disorders: Survey evidence of therapeutic help and harm. J Eat Disord. 2018;6(1):8. doi:10.1186/s40337-018-0191-5

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