How Literature Helps Treat Depression

 “Only through art can we emerge from ourselves and know what another person sees.” - Marcel Proust

“Only through art can we emerge from ourselves and know what another person sees.” – Marcel Proust

 “We have art in order not to die of the truth.” - Friedrich Nietzsche

“We have art in order not to die of the truth.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

I made this blog to explore literature’s role in treating depression. I have had depression at several points in my life and while traditional treatments such as temporary medication, psychotherapy and getting healthier helped a little, my biggest success, during my darkest depression, came from literature. When I discovered that there was an entire field of psychology devoted to this called bibliotherapy, I became fascinated and thought the world should be aware of the therapeutic power of literature, the way meditation and exercise are currently branded as great treatments for depression. I am no expert in psychology or literature, I am merely an ordinary person, and this blog is to document my journey learning and raising awareness of bibliotherapy, and by following this blog, hopefully you will learn as much as me.

In this post I’ll briefly summarize how expert psychologists suggest treating depression overall, and where literature fits into this.

Psychologists recommend identifying the cause of your depression, addressing the cause(s), and performing activities that help the mind, body and spirit beat depression. Here are my summary notes on an article from Psychology Today by Sean Grover LCSW.

Hunting down the cause of your depression:

  • Unresolved conflict: relationship/conflict causing psychological stress.
  • Repetition Compulsion: repetition of early experiences/themes of your life. “I’m always the outsider”, “I can’t trust anyone”, “Nobody understands me”.
  • Self-Neglet (burnout): when you’re so busy that you don’t work on yourself or do anything nice for yourself.
  • Self-Slander (low self esteem): negativity about your self image, how you see yourself and others. You see others as better and more appealing than you. “I’m unattractive”, “I’m dumb”, “I’m powerless.”
  • By recognizing these issues, we can catch them when they appear in our minds, and take action against them instead of letting them pull us down into depression.

Battling Depression: Body, mind, spirit:

  • Body: exercise, diet, sleep well
  • Mind: creativity (art, music, talents, hobbies); Psychotherapy, education
  • Spirit: meditation, altruistic acts, faith/spirituality

Great literature addresses all of these except maybe Body: exercise, diet, sleep. Let’s just go right down the list.

  • Unresolved conflicts: Conflict is a major literary element, present in numerous forms in each piece of great literature. Man (or woman), vs. Self, Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, and Man vs. Society are just a few forms of conflict, and as you see these conflicts and their resolutions recurring throughout literature, you’re better at identifying conflicts in your own life and resolving them, which will help you battle depression.
  • Repetition Compulsion: Many of the characters you’ll read about have themes in their lives similar to yours. Just like in the unresolved conflicts, seeing how these characters deal (or not deal) with situations similar to your own life is a cathartic experience and can both feel less lonely in your battle, and provide insights into how people deal with this.
  • Self-neglect (burnout): reading itself combats self-neglect/burnout because you’re taking time to do something enjoyable, where you feel, think, learn, and escape into another person’s experience through literature.
  • Self-slander (low self esteem): Many main characters (and many great writers) are introverted people, but instead of portraying introverts as purely aloof and boring people, great literature often portrays these types as highly intellectual, overcoming their conflicts. As readers identify with these characters, they realize that they can be powerful, intelligent, attractive, etc., contrary to many self-deprecating feelings they may have. Another thing I find is that reading certain works, especially when I read Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, with many characters and a cerebral first person narrative, you find that everyone is so trapped inside themselves, and your self image almost never aligns with how other people view you – for better or worse. Also, when we read stories of damaged characters with low self-esteem, these stories are great at showing the root causes of their low self-esteem. This helps fight depression because it’s often hard to plumb the depths of our own minds when our minds are clouded by depression, but observing someone else’s issues – especially a character we strongly identify with – helps us see our own issues better.
  • Battling Depression – Mind: Grover mentions creativity (getting into art, music, talents and hobbies), psychotherapy, and education. Literature captures both creativity and education (and arguably psychotherapy, although I do not advocate replacing psychotherapy with bibliotherapy). Literature is arguably the most superior and complex art form. As Tolstoy says in What is Art?, “A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist.” Great literature does this better than any art form in my opinion. Regarding education, great literature and philosophy develops your critical thinking skills better than almost any other behavior. There are academic benefits, cognitive benefits, social benefits and emotional benefits.
  • Battling Depression – Spirit (meditation and faith/spirituality): Meditation, in a way, can be done through literature, and I’ll explain that in a second. First – faith and spirituality are covered by literature based on the subject matter, and it is a common subject matter in a lot of classical fiction. As for meditation, there is a brilliant psychologist named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who discovered a concept called flow. Flow is when your mind is so immersed in an activity that you lose your sense of time (the phrase “time flies when you’re having fun” can describe flow). Flow is similar to meditation in that in both states you are more present and less lost in thinking. Benefits of flow are better focus/concentration, a sense of ecstasy, great inner clarity, gaining confidence in our own abilities, a sense of serenity, timelessness, and intrinsic motivation. It is arguably different than meditation, but the outcomes are very similar (though maybe not as strong), however I think flow is much more consistent to achieve than a daily meditation habit. That being said, flow and meditation both relieve depression very well. Csikzsentmihalyi’s book “flow” specifically states the reading literature and philosophy are very effective activities to achieve a flow state, and any avid reader who also understands flow would attest to this.
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