A Country Doctor Practices Bibliotherapy: Books by Prescription

Books, or even just book titles, can help us see things differently and feel differently about ourselves. I often recommend Jungian psychologist Robert A Johnson’s little book He to men who in any way struggle to understand themselves. And long before I read Shadow Syndromes, the mere title of the book cemented some clinical insights I had been intuiting but only skirting around for years.

Reading my Stockholm morning paper this snowy January weekend, I came across an article on bibliotherapy. The word hit me with a jolt. According to Wikipedia, it was coined by Samuel McChord Crothers in an August 1916 Atlantic Monthly article, but the medicinal use of books goes back centuries if you consider the use of religious texts and at least to the 1850’s for other literature in the United States.

Apparently, both therapists and librarians, perhaps more in Great Britain than here, offer bibliotherapy. Libraries sometimes offer group sessions focusing on books about topics like overcoming anxiety.

Without having such a technical word for it, I actually was able to help a young man make huge progress with his anxiety by recommending Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, a book that I myself had only skimmed a couple of years ago. I actually didn’t read it; I listened to the audiobook, sitting in my camping lounge chair in the horse paddock against the south wall of the barn. There were horse related interruptions that made me miss parts of the book. But I got the essence of it and it rang very true to me. As I have alluded many times, being with horses has taught me many things. Perhaps most of all, it has taught me not to think about other things when I am with my large, fast, strong and high strung Arabians. Only now matters with them. Being aware and in tune with them is how to be safe and how to influence their actions without the use of any kind of force.

Jeremy is an articulate young man who seems comfortable in any situation, but he gradually revealed to me that he is plagued by severe anxiety and constant ruminations, catastrophic thinking and self doubt. The more he talks, he explained, the more that means he is feeling anxious. He has a lot of regrets and guilt about the past and even more worries about the future.

The short answer to what he needed to do is well summarized by Karen Salmansohn: “No amount of regret can change the past. No amount of anxiety can change the future.”

Eckhart Tolle’s book, especially the audiobook, is a bit like an outdrawn meditation guide. Only the now matters, because only the now exists. I found a YouTube video that explains very succinctly what he means, and may be a good and quick (16 minute) introduction for anyone who is unsure if Tolle’s thinking is for them.

Jeremy read the book and emerged almost as a new man. He still needs to remind himself now and then to get out of his thinking mind and be fully present in the moment, but his outlook on his situation has changed profoundly.

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Osler said “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis”. Duvefelt says “Listen to your patient, he is telling you what kind of doctor he needs you to be”.

BOOKS BY HANS DUVEFELT, MD

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