For me, reading has always doubled as Zen. Whenever I’m experiencing negative emotions, I find solace in curling up with a good book. Fictional realms help me temporarily escape reality, and compelling characters remind me that others’ lives are eerily similar to my own. I recently read Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, and found myself highly identifying with the two misfit protagonists the book is titled after. Upon completing the book, I felt compelled to take control of my life despite the presence of obstacles.

Judging by the universal allure of literature, I’m not alone in feeling that books possess a certain level of healing power. This is also evident due to the popularity of self-help books and the consequential mindfulness they breed. Readers are able to receive benefits similar to those they might in therapy simply by opening a novel.

In fact, the practice of bibliotherapy is on the rise. A bibliotherapist’s clients are prescribed literature that pertains to whatever may be occurring in their lives at the moment. The books can provide tips for how to deal with what is bothering them, serve as a great distraction or simply remind them that they are not alone. On one end of the spectrum, the books can offer a temporary calming effect to escape the constant anxieties and stresses of the day. On the other, they may aid in turning a reader’s life around.

Susan Elderkin, pioneering bibliotherapist and coauthor of The Novel Cure: An A–Z of Literary Remedies, firmly believes in the therapeutic qualities of books. She says there are books that have a “wonderfully calming effect on our pulse rate,” such as Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

Elderkin, who has been administering bibliotherapy since 2007 through the School of Life in London, has clients fill out a questionnaire detailing their reading habits and any obstacles they may be encountering in life. She then selects a few books for the clients that seem to fit their needs. Her time spent with clients has shown that inner peace and/or steps in the right direction can result from the mere act of opening a book and letting yourself become intertwined with it.

Keep this in mind for the next time you’re feeling stressed out—the first step to easing your troubles could be a trip to the bookstore.

Did You Know?

Newport Academy in Bethlehem, Connecticut, is a treatment center for teens struggling with addiction and mental illness. Their main therapy method is cooking, which psychologists say can alleviate depression by boosting positive activity and increasing goal-oriented behavior.