Rhythms of poetry to beat student stress

June 16, 1995

Stressed students and staff at Bristol University are being urged to try the rhythm method - reading or writing poetry to induce calm feelings, writes David Charter.

The success of this strategy is being monitored as part of a mental health promotion project with the World Health Organisation's European office, run by Robin Philipp, consultant senior lecturer in the department of social medicine.

What started as a light-hearted exercise has developed into the investigation of a real alternative to the misuse of alcohol or drugs which so often tempts those under exan pressure.

"There are better ways of coping with the problem and, surprisingly, they may be found on the poetry shelves of the library rather than the pharmacy section of the average chemists' shop," said Dr Philipp. "For many people the rhythmic content of poetry can have a soothing or exhilarating effect."

The team is gathering evidence of poems that have particularly helped people under pressure. A long-term goal is to try and measure the soothing effect of verse.

Dr Philipp said the most helpful style of poetry is typified by much of Wordsworth, Yeats in Lake Isle of Innisfree, and W. H. Davies in Leisure. He sums this up as: "Poems with a positive theme, something which relates to imagery evoked in peaceful environments or natural surroundings." The project has identified support groups such as the UK General Practitioners' Writers' Group, and found instances of doctors quoting poetry to help patients.

"As medicine and poetry were seen by the ancient Greeks as having a common source of inspiration, it is not surprising that poets are seen as repositories of wisdom," he said. "Some US research even suggests that creative writing therapy leads to enhanced immune responses in the body and increased resistance to infection."

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