How reading impacts your Mental Health

Some of my fondest memories of my childhood involve me sitting with my nose in a book, in a whole new world, completely lost to my own imagination and the magic of the written word. My parents would often mock-complain about how once I started reading, I knew nothing about what was happening around me. I would hove no recognition of conversations, weather changes or time. Around the world, parents and teachers encourage children to read as much as possible. It expands our knowledge of the world and improves our language skills.

This Sunday is #ReadABookDay. A day to encourage picking up a book and reading. Developing a reading habit can have many positive effects on your life. For those that have never found reading enjoyable, something I cannot FATHOM, I want to take this time to encourage you to pick up a book and soon. There is a non-fiction book on nearly every imaginable topic, and everyone can find a fictional character that they can relate to. Reading in like exercising a muscle, and over time your speed and comprehension will improve, while also having many mental health benefits.

Reading strengthens your brain

There have been many studies that indicate that reading literally changes your brain. Through MRI scans, researchers confirmed that the act of reading involves a complex network of circuits and signals in the brain. As your reading ability matures, those networks also get stronger and more sophisticated.

In one study conducted in 2013, researchers used functional MRI scans to measure the effect of reading a novel on the brain. Study participants read the novel “Pompeii” over a period of 9 days. As tension built in the story, more and more areas of the brain lit up with activity. Brain scans showed that throughout the reading period and for days afterwards, brain connectivity increased, especially in the somatosensory cortex, the part of the brain that responds to physical sensations like movement and pain.

Prepares you for a good night’s rest

Many doctors recommend reading as part of a regular sleep routine. Since the light emitted by your phone or tablet could keep you awake and lead to other unwanted health outcomes, its best to put away your devices before bed, and wind down to sleep with a book in print. Doctors also recommend that you read somewhere other than your bedroom if you have trouble falling asleep, try taking half an hour in your favourite chair or tucked up on the sofa with a warm, low caffeinated mug of your preferred nighttime beverage and reading as you ready yourself for a deep and healing sleep.

Helps alleviate depression symptoms

People with depression often feel isolated and estranged from everyone else. And that’s a feeling books can sometimes lessen. I know in my isolation during social distancing, my books have been a huge comfort, and have made me feel less alone.

“Consolation from imaginary things is not an imaginary consolation.”

British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton

People who feel isolated, lonely, or cut off from the rest of the world are more likely to suffer from various mental health issues including depression and substance use disorders. While the suggested remedy for this disconnected state is usually to try new things and meet new people in the process, there may be a less anxiety-prone solution to be found in reading.  Reading can be a great stepping stone to the development of healthy relationships by allowing you to awaken your emotions and experience empathy. Research suggests that developing a relationship with fictional characters allows you to better understand the human experience and expand upon the ways in which you relate to people in real life.And nonfiction self-help books can teach you strategies that may help you manage symptoms.

Helps prevent age-related cognitive decline

Reading books and magazines can be a great way of keeping your mind engaged as you grow older. While research hasn’t proven conclusively that reading books prevents diseases like Alzheimer’s, studies show that seniors who read and solve maths problems every day can maintain and improve their cognitive functioning.

If you’re reading this, then you should know, there’s no time like the present to start exercising your brain. A 2013 study conducted by Rush University Medical Centre found that people who’ve engaged in mentally stimulating activities for most of their lives were less likely to develop the issues and complications found in the brains of people with dementia.

Reduces stress

In 2009, a group of researchers measured the effects of yoga, humour, and reading on the stress levels of students in demanding health science programs in the United States. The study found that 30 minutes of reading lowered blood pressure, heart rate, and feelings of psychological distress just as effectively as yoga and humour did.

So if knock-knock jokes and sun salutations aren’t your thing, reading may be the best way to relieve your stress and lower your blood pressure.

Practicing Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a technique that has long been used by spiritual practitioners and more recently has been popularised in the medical field for the treatment of mental illness and general life improvement.  Practising mindfulness means letting go of any worries or regrets involving the future or the past, and living entirely in the moment. Many people practice mindfulness through meditation or yoga, but reading has been found to provide a form of effortless mindfulness to the reader.  Reading allows you to lose yourself among the pages of a great story, or get wrapped up in learning new information about something that deeply interests you. When you are reading something you enjoy, you are anchored in the present moment and free of anxious thoughts. In this way, reading can be a great tool to combat anxiety and depression.