In September 2017, something happened to me that altered my entire worldview: I was on my way to work in London when a bomb exploded on my tube. Thankfully no one was killed, and I wasn’t even hurt. But the experience resulted in delayed anxiety, panic disorder, and a feeling of near-constant dread.
I've always been a voracious reader, and I turned to books in a big way to help me cope with these mental health difficulties. But what I've learned over the past year or so is that, while it certainly isn't an alternative for professional help, I cope best with my anxiety by reading period novels.
Bibliotherapy is not a new initiative. The tradition of prescribing books to help with mental health struggles can be traced back to Aristotle, who famously believed in the healing powers of literature. Shakespeare fans will be able to spot a subtly veiled reference to bibliotherapy in Titus Andronicus: "Come and take choice of all my library and so beguile thy sorrow."
Today, international organizations like The School of Life assign people to a personal bibliotherapist who works with them to ascertain their personal struggle and their reading habits in order to compile a personalized ‘reading prescription'. In her article on bibliotherapy for The New Yorker, Ceridwen Dovey posits that, in a secular age, "reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks."
Shakespeare fans will be able to spot a subtly veiled reference to bibliotherapy in Titus Andronicus: "Come and take choice of all my library and so beguile thy sorrow."
So it’s not particularly radical to suggest that reading can be therapeutic. But for me, there’s something about period drama novels in particular that gives me a much-needed boost. And there are two specific novels — actually my favorite books of all time — that, since the horrific experience of September 2017, I’ve come to rely on more than ever to help me through bouts of anxiety.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery both focus on young women navigating their way through school or work. In other words, for a white, cis woman like myself they’re all fairly relatable — except that they’re all so delightfully, blissfully calming in a way that my life is not. I’m sure the characters would disagree with me there; for example, I don’t think Jo would describe Amy burning her manuscript in Little Women as "delightfully calming," and let's not even start on the moment when Anne smashes her slate over Gilbert’s head. But still, no one is agonizing over how many Instagram likes they’ve got; no one is being bombarded with urgent emails at 11pm; and if one wants to know what's going on in the world, they must pick up a newspaper or write a letter.
So, when I’m in the clutches of a major anxiety meltdown and I just need to calm my brain down, I read these books about people who don't have cell phones or televisions or Twitter.
For me, overstimulation often pushes my brain into a hyper-anxious overdrive. Back in 2012, The Telegraph interviewed Nicky Lidbetter, CEO of Anxiety UK, who said: “If you are predisposed to anxiety it seems that the pressures from technology act as a tipping point, making people feel more insecure and more overwhelmed." This comment is in reference to a study conducted by Anxiety UK that same year, which found that, of the respondents who regularly use social media sites, over 50% observed this usage resulted in negative behavioral change and 60% said they need to actively distance themselves from their technological outlets in order to take a break.
But still, no one is agonizing over how many Instagram likes they’ve got; no one is being bombarded with urgent emails at 11pm; and if one wants to know what's going on in the world, they must pick up a newspaper or write a letter.
But I think it’s the kindness — so prevalent in each of these books — that speaks to me most of all when I’m struggling with bouts of anxiety. Jo doesn’t just forgive Amy, she saves her from drowning under the ice, despite the peril it poses to her own life. And I don’t think I’ll ever be able to read the chapter in Anne of Green Gables where Matthew overcomes his chronic social anxiety to go out and buy Anne what she wants more than anything — a dress with puffed sleeves — without shedding at least one tear.
I often feel terrified of the world I live in. Since September 2017, I’m more aware than ever of just how dangerous it can be. But when I’m hit by crippling anxiety at the thought of what might happen if I go on a tube, or a feeling of deep dread at the idea of entering a crowded public place where so much could go wrong, it helps me more than I can say to immerse myself in a fictional world where kindness and goodness prevail.