Reading is an influential habit that can have a positive impact on your mental health. Zaynah Akhtar discusses the specific ways that reading can provide emotional support and offer new life perspectives in one's life. She acknowledges how difficult it can be to pick up this habit nowadays, giving useful tips and advice to help you finish reading that novel you always wanted to go back to.
Like most people, as a child I loved to read. But as I grew older the amount of reading I took part in slowly subsided, as I steadily became more engrossed with scrolling through social media and wasting a considerable amount of my time binge-watching Netflix. While neither of these things are completely damaging (within moderation), I began to realise that they lack the stimuli that reading once provided me with. And so, during this past year I decided to make a conscious effort to rediscover my love for reading. Fortunately, because of this decision, positive changes began to take place in my mental health.
During times of distress or heartbreak, there’s nothing quite as understanding as a piece of literature. Authors provide a unique form of consolation by depicting the universal struggles that their characters, and all of us, face in life. These stories let you feel more connected to the world you previously felt isolated from and there is a sense of beauty in this belonging.
At the same time, when you open a novel it becomes your own personal haven - as you immerse yourself in a different world you have less mental space to worry about your past regrets or potential future mistakes. Therefore, reading can effectively relax you and has been proven to de-stress your mind, by helping you escape the daunting stresses of the everyday world. A study revealed that your stress levels can actually be lowered by 68% after only 6 minutes of reading. This is because reading is more successful at easing muscle tension and reducing heart rate when compared to other activities like listening to music or taking a walk. For this reason, reading a few chapters before bed will relax your mind and will ultimately lead you to have a better night’s sleep.
And this is not a new concept: reading has been used as a form of therapy for centuries. King Ramses II of Egypt famously had the words “the house of healing for the soul” written above the entrance to his royal chamber of personal books. Additionally, during World War I, soldiers were given novels in military hospitals to aid their recovery.
The idea that reading can be good for your mental health is rooted in the belief that a shift in perspective can also change the quality of one’s life. For instance, placing yourself in a character’s shoes can encourage you to become more empathetic and self-aware. This will not only improve how you perceive the people around you and understand their personal struggles in a better light, but it will also change how you view yourself and your own life. The different situations you’ll encounter throughout novels and the number of characters you can relate to, and learn from, are so numerous that they can teach you a multitude of perspectives and ways to deal with life’s problems.
Similarly, through the structure of a story arc we are reminded that positive change is possible: just as a diabolical villain can be defeated by the hero, we are reminded not to give up the hope that we can overcome our own obstacles in life. This is something I particularly enjoy most about reading fiction; it introduces you to unlikely heroes and inspiring principles to live by. We can learn both from the traits we admire in these characters and the ones we detest, and their actions can have the power to instil a belief in you: from radical ideas of political justice to how we should simply treat other people. This way, we can work through our problems by travelling alongside a character that is on the journey of resolving their own.
Also, as well as being able to ease your mind from emotional distress, reading can also be valuable when it comes to learning or seeking life advice. Most of the combined knowledge of mankind is contained in literature from all over the world. Reading literary fiction can enlighten you about the lives of people from different cultures and time periods, from the standpoint of a personal perspective that you wouldn’t have otherwise known. A study proved this: those who read part of a novel written from a minority’s point of view, were less likely to make broad generalisations based on race, compared to those who were only shown the synopsis of the novel. This suggested that the way the language was utilised in the novel to stimulate the mind was just as important as the story that was told.
Just as literary fiction is able to enlighten the mind, other various genres of novels also have the ability to stimulate the mind and imagination in several distinct ways. By reading thrillers and crime fiction you are able to test your intelligence; deciphering the clues and solving the mysteries quicker than the fictional detectives themselves, can send a feeling of elation rushing through your mind. The opportunity to outsmart the author and challenge your mind is too tempting for many of us to pass up on. Meanwhile, romance novels allow you to indulge in fantasies and experiment with your emotions; they can satisfy you with the ‘happily-ever-after’ endings which don’t always happen in real life. On the other hand, the chills and gore within horror novels can test our boundaries for fear and allow us to feel a heightened sense of distress under safe conditions.
Reading these different genres stimulates parts of your mind that are linked to vision, language and associative learning. A brain-imaging study showed that when you read about the landscapes, sounds, smells and tastes in a novel, the areas of your brain that process these experiences in real life are activated and they create new neural pathways. These new pathways help your brain become more complex, which is vital to maintaining a sharp memory and also helps prevent degenerative memory disorders such as dementia.
It is important to know that reading more can sometimes mean rereading our favourite novels. While reading a variety of novels in different genres is advantageous, there will always be certain stories and characters that we go back to; the ones we especially bonded with and travelled alongside during the ‘highs and lows’ of their journeys. Because when we go back to our personal collection, we can always discover something new. Cristel Russell’s study revealed that when you engage in rereading you aren’t just enjoying the same story again, but instead are now searching for new meaning within them, and are looking for deeper layers of significance in the material. It also offers a chance for self-reflection on your personal growth through the form of a familiar novel. This allows you to look at the contrast between your past and present self, further allowing you to dig up your old unresolved issues and address them with retrospect.
With all of these points in mind, it is clear how reading can have a huge impact on our mental wellbeing. And that is why we should consider picking up this habit once again. Now I won’t lie, it was difficult to start reading more often after several years of reading barely anything. But along the way, I learnt some useful tips - hopefully these will encourage you to pick up those novels that you never managed to finish.
- Make sure you always have a novel on hand wherever you’re going. Whether you’re on your daily train commute or waiting in a long queue, reading in these spare moments will allow you to get through a few more pages and help time pass by quicker.
- Make it a part of your daily routine. You can decide whether you want to start off your day reading during the peaceful moments of waking up, or you can make time for it just before you go to bed. Either way, setting an allocated time slot will make a new habit easier to stick to.
- Keep a ‘novels-to-read’ list. Keeping track of all the novels you want to get through can be motivating and it will help you quickly decide what to read next. Otherwise, having nothing lined up to follow your last read, could potentially break your new-found habit.
Although it hasn’t been proven for certain that reading alone can single-handedly improve your mental health, it is clearly able to provoke substantial and positive changes in your mind-set. Reading, in my opinion, has surpassed the boundaries of a typical pastime – it is more than that, it is therapy, entertainment and education all wrapped in one. And because of all these reasons and more, I think that reading is truly a gift that keeps on giving.
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