How can reading books help you in recovery from addictions?
As an author of nine books about behavioral addictions, I am often approached with people who have read my books and found them life changing.
They come to me in a store, in a playground where I babysit my grandchild, in the field where I walk my dog. Their message is: Thank you for writing about the real challenges od addictions and recovery.
Reading your books has saved my life! After learning about the mess addiction can do to one’s life, I managed to change my life’s course and now my life is so much better.
If only it were so easy as to read a book or two, understand what keeps you relapsing to your addictions and learn all the tricks of recovery, and – snap – you would be free of your inner demons!
Unfortunately, it does not work that way. But books are nevertheless a very useful tool to help you with recovery. Addictions, whether substance or behavior based, are much more than just indulging in a drug, alcohol or behavior. They are complex diseases of the brain circuits that mediate the feelings of satiation, reward, pleasure and satisfaction. They take years to develop and have consequences in the many dimensions of one’s existence, namely:
spiritual dimension (see Inside the love addict's brain).
Eventually, after years of acting out, everything goes downhill and the negative consequences force the addicts to start looking for help. Recovery from an addiction does not mean only abstinence from acting out, but is a process of change where people strive to improve their lives to reach a healthier, happier existence. To achieve progress on the four dimensions, the recovery programs have to address a wide variety of helping techniques. One of them is bibliotherapy, using books to help you recover. Reading has helped many people overcome addiction, and recovery-based books can help you do the same.
Bibliotherapy is a time-tested therapeutic approach that can help people progress in their personal growth and healing. In bibliotherapy, clients read specific works chosen by their therapist and share their perspectives in group or private sessions. Several different kinds of books can have beneficial effects on recovery. Depending on your specific challenges or needs, you could use bibliotherapy techniques for:
After graduation, many people no longer read fiction, but only newspapers and professional literature. They are impoverished to experience a special layer of the human psyche in which they are confronted with important existential questions. However, if they do, they rarely have the opportunity to talk to someone about what they are experiencing. When they join a therapeutic group, they find themselves among the people who systematically read such books and regularly exchange their impressions.
These days, people mainly obtain information online, where plenty of excellent resources exist for those who want to learn about addiction. But there is also a downside to finding information online: nobody really checks if what they tell you is accurate. Remember, popularity is not a substitute for quality!
Books can do a better job; most traditionally published books have been checked by editors who guarantee they make some sense. Still, it’s not impossible to find a published book containing total nonsense. When I started learning about addiction thirty years ago, finding good books on the subject was a challenge. Nowadays, it’s a challenge to discriminate between what is valuable and what is just rubbish. In such cases, I advise you to select books based on their author’s reputation and credentials.
How can reading books help you
Reading books is used for various purposes, such as stimulating insight into one’s own life path and remembering repressed painful events – through the mechanism of associations. There are several ways in which reading good quality books can help you in your self-development and recovery. Let’s list a few:
1. Information and knowledge
In the early days of recovery, people search far and wide for methods to help them stay on the right path. Books and novels contain the knowledge and experience of countless great minds – it’s no wonder that so many people who have struggled with addiction and recovery put their experiences onto the page. Through this process, they offered access to insights and experiences that help others conquer addiction and maintain sobriety. Learning about addiction will diminish the power of false prejudices you may have about yourself and others, making you more open and able to make accurate, mature decisions.
2. Insight in other people’s minds
Reading about other people’s experiences can give one perspective on their own life situations. It can be a tremendously beneficial tool for people looking for more information, similar experiences, or a blueprint for life after treatment. Walking in someone else’s shoes helps to shift one’s thinking, and therefore shifts their quality of life. Reading can help one see their own experiences from a different point of view.
Reading certain books can help people find hope, make sense of their symptoms, and increase self-awareness about their mental health struggles. It creates a sense of compassion and empathy towards others and oneself. Shame is an emotion closely related to addiction, and reading can help to alleviate it. One simple and effective solution for helping people overcome these feelings is diving into a book.
4. Stress release vs escape
Reading helps alleviate stress and anxiety, which are common undesirable feelings in addiction recovery. It is relaxing and therefore reduces stress. According to the National Reading Campaign, studies have proven that reading for just six minutes a day reduces stress levels by over 60%. Reading relaxes the body, lowers the heart rate, and eases muscle tension. Since withdrawal from drugs or alcohol can cause high blood pressure and temperatures, reading combats these symptoms.
There is, however, a possible dark side to it. Addictions may arise from a need to escape the unpleasant realities of life, and reading may serve as a distraction and relief from unpleasant aspects of life, escape from one's own experiences and live someone else’s lives. As beneficial as it is to the stress of recovery, it should be balanced with other actions to avoid unnecessary procrastination.
5. Deep psychological healing
Telling stories is an important aspect of individuation and recovery. We live our lives telling ourselves stories and living scripts that make sense to us. To make lasting life changes, our life roles and scripts have to change from a victim's role to a winner's mentality, unless we are bound to find ourselves in another episode of the same drama again. And this requires deep emotional and spiritual healing. When people share how they related to the book, they can uncover deep-seated truths that they wouldn’t have been able to bring to light without an outside perspective. People in books recognize the similarities between stories and their own experiences. At the same time, important processes of insight into their spirituality begin to take place.
6. Finding one’s purpose
Lifelong addiction depletes one's life of its meaning, leaving only craving for the next escape and high. In addiction recovery, people need to find new life's meaning to help them going strong and positive, and forgive themselves for the losses they suffered. They need to develop new activities and hobbies that they enjoy. Replacing unhealthy habits with new healthy outlets can help curb the sensation of craving, serve as a coping mechanism for difficult situations, and encourage people to begin genuinely enjoying their lives in recovery. Reading a novel, historical account, or memoir can help provide a sense of purpose and become an inherently rewarding activity that makes people feel good about themselves and their sobriety.
To learn more about the process of recovery from addictions, read my newest book Prisoners of the past (Ujetniki preteklosti) and my other books.(Sanja's book store).
Sanja Rozman is a medical doctor, psychotherapist and author of 8 books on behavioral addictions.
Read more in her book Serenity: How to Recognize, Understand, and Recover from Behavioral Addictions
that is about to be published by Brandylane Publishers Inc., Belle Isle Books.