The Effect of Reading on Mental Health

When you’ve had a bad day, what do you do?

Many of us turn to a myriad of vices: television, alcohol, drugs, food, or sleep. Personally, I turn to books.

Books may sound like a strange vice. I’ll grant you that. But as an only child for six years with two parents who worked full time, I learned how to keep myself entertained. When I was younger, this meant holing up in my room and constructing elaborate sagas that played out among my dolls. When I learned to read, I found these same elaborate narratives already laid out for me, waiting for me to unearth them. I discovered magic in Harry Potter, found my love for myths in Percy Jackson, and developed a longing to be a teen superspy in Alex Rider and Kiki Strike.

Books became my main form of entertainment, and they still are. But books have shifted from solely becoming entertainment to being how I cope with life. In periods of sadness or anxiety, I read more. When I am fully immersed in a book, I am completely absorbed. I vaguely hear sounds and register environmental changes, but, for the most part, I lose myself completely. A good book can consume me. I crave them; I savor them. I never understood how people could dislike reading. Books were portals into all the lives I’ve yet to live, and all the lives I’ll never get the chance to live. Who wouldn’t want that power?

But the power of books far surpasses entertainment. Reading has a profound positive effect on mental health.

We are living in an age of a mental health emergency. 19.1% of adults have had an anxiety disorder in the last year and 31.1% will experience one during some point in their life. Only 36.9% will receive treatment. The University of Sussex found that reading for just six minutes can reduce stress. Dr. David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist who ran the study, found that it reduced stress up to 68%, because the mind focuses all its attention on reading. The distraction allows the tension to dissolve from the muscles and the heart. It relaxed participants more than any other tried stress reliever such as walking or listening to music. Dr. Lewis noted that “losing yourself in a book is the ultimate relaxation. It really doesn’t matter what book you read, by losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world and spend a while exploring the domain of the author’s imagination.”

3.2 million American adolescents will experience at least one major depressive episode. The Reading Agency, a British charity that promotes reading in the UK, studied the effects of reading and found that it can reduce symptoms of depression. Books combat symptoms such as isolation by allowing the depressed to recognize that they are not alone and that there are other people suffering in addition to them. At research at American University, Cristel Russell found that reading about characters that go through similar tough experiences that you have had, can help you constructively resolve conflicts.

As a child, when I was sent up to my room for a ‘time-out’, it was never effective as a punishment, because that’s where all my books were. My tears would dry up on my cheeks, my small body flayed out dramatically on the floor, as I got lost in a book. In my books, I strove through arguments with swords, and horses with shining manes. I always emerged calmer.

Reading is far from a passive activity. The key advantage of reading is that unlike a film or TV show, it involves the reader to invent all the details. Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, says, “We are forced to construct, to produce narrative, to imagine. Typically, when you read, you have more time to think. Reading gives you a unique pause button for comprehension and insight. By and large, with oral language—when you watch a film or listen to a tape—you don't press pause." I like to think of reading is proactive activity. When you read, numerous areas of your brain light up: the temporal lobe, Broca’s area in the frontal lobe, angular and supramarginal gyrus. It is an active, complex process. “The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist. . . . We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically,” notes Gregory Berns, a distinguished professor of neuroeconomics, and Director of the Center for Neuropolicy.

This explains a lot. I have been known to sob quite hysterically while reading. I remember once, while finishing the sixth Harry Potter novel (if you know, you know), my sister and her friend (they were five at the time) came home as I was a blubbering mess. My sister’s friend was understandably concerned. A flood of questions followed: Are you okay? Are you hurt? What happened? When I pointed towards the book, the girls looked at me askance. Books make me feel and emote more than anything. I laugh with the characters; I mourn with the characters, and yes, I heal with the characters.

A new form of therapy is gaining popularity. It’s called bibliotherapy: a method of using books to help people combat the issues that they’re facing. Ella Berthoud is a bibliotherapist. She has noticed while books are often used as escapism, they can also help teenagers address issues, especially with the surge of young adults books dealing with tough topics. Susan McLaine, a PhD candidate in the study of bibliotherapy says, “These characters often seem to speak directly to us; keeping us company, reminding us we are not the only one feeling this way and at times offering us hope.”

But while bibliotherapy, as a technique, is new, the healing properties of books, are not. In Ancient Greece, libraries were “healing places for the soul”. Following the World Wars, books were used to treat trauma in soldiers. And it works. In 2015, the Arts Council in England found that using a library regularly saves the National Health Service a little under 30 million pounds per year, supporting the concept that reading has incredible repercussions on health. But as Vijaya Manicavasagar, director of psychological services at the Black Dog Institute, acknowledged, reading is not a magic cure. If someone is suffering from a mental illness, reading may change their emotional state, but it should be used in conjunction with therapy or other treatments. But even if the effect of reading is only complementary to other therapies, it should be utilized to the maximum effectiveness. All that is required is a book, and those are readily accessible through local libraries or via apps like the Kindle. Everyone (who is able to) should get into a habit of reading as often as they can.

In addition to assisting stress and anxiety, reading improves brain connectivity, and decreases the risk of mental conditions. Adults who read later in life have a rate of mental decline 32% lower than those who do not. A study found that reading daily reduces the risk of dementia (Freund).

For centuries, we have known of physical ailments, and we take the necessary precautions against them. We exercise; we attempt to eat healthy; we go to the doctor for checkups. But what about our mental health? What steps are we taking daily to preserve our mental well-being? I believe reading should be one of them, both as a solution and as a preventative measure. Not only is reading enjoyable, but it reduces stress, anxiety, and other mental conditions. Our brains are our most important asset and we should treat them as such.

Although, reading is my vice. I would say it’s a pretty productive one.



Works Cited

Integris. “Why Reading Books Is Good for Mental Health.” INTEGRIS, integrisok.com/resources/on-your-health/2017/october/why-reading-books-is-good-for-mental-health.

Kakutani, Michiko. “Obama's Secret to Surviving the White House Years: Books.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 Jan. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/01/16/books/obamas-secret-to-surviving-the-white-house-years-books.html?module=inline.

Montgomery, Hugh. “Culture - Can Reading Really Improve Your Mental Health?” BBC, BBC, 27 May 2019, www.bbc.com/culture/story/20190527-can-fiction-really-improve-your-mental-health.

Oppong, Thomas. “The Reading Brain (Why Your Brain Needs You to Read Every Day).” Medium, Medium, 20 Feb. 2018, medium.com/@alltopstartups/the-reading-brain-why-your-brain-needs-you-to-read-every-day-f5307c50d979.

Organization. “Can Reading Cure Depression?” HuffPost, HuffPost, 22 Aug. 2012, www.huffpost.com/entry/bibliotherapy_n_1817968.

Rafiq, Raifa. “Just How Helpful Is Reading for Depression?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 26 Oct. 2018, www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2018/oct/26/just-how-helpful-is-reading-for-depression.

Smith, Sandy. “Don't Pop a Pill, Read a Book.” The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Feb. 2013, www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/dont-pop-a-pill-read-a-book-20130226-2f2ph.html.


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