Comment Writer Alisha Bourne discusses the benefits of reading for improving mental health
With mental health becoming an epidemic in the Western world, now is the time to consider what actions we can take to combat some of the effects that can arise. Each year, approximately 1 in 4 people in the United Kingdom will report experiencing an issue related to mental well being; this equates to over 16 million people. There are a number of treatments targeted towards making life easier to cope with when experiencing mental health problems, whether that be medication, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or alternative therapies. Yet, could there be another, lesser known and newer, alternative picking up traction?
The emergence of bibliotherapy, the practice of using books as an aid for psychological healing, can be traced as far back as the third century. Yet, it did not become fully integrated into Western psychological and medical practice until the eighteenth century. By the twenty-first century, the adoption of bibliotherapy to treating mental health issues has grown, with the practice being implemented within hospitals, schools and libraries. Its effects have grown so great that ‘one classic study found a decrease in depressive symptoms after a program of bibliotherapy, a finding repeated in more recent meta-analyses and systematic reviews’. So, with this empirical evidence in mind, how does the use of books impact the brain?
Perhaps one of the biggest impacts reading can have on an individual is easing the feeling of loneliness and isolation. Almost one fifth of the UK population report feelings of constant loneliness, which can both be a cause and consequence of declining mental health. Yet, books have the unique ability to provide a momentary break from the chaos of the real world into the sanctuary of a fictional world. Readers are transported into the lives and universes of characters who they can identify with, bringing solace to the troubles they are faced with outside of the text.
Identification with central characters has only intensified in recent years, with a surge of LGBTQ+ narratives being published and mental health becoming a common theme within fiction. Although, it is not only fiction that can provide comfort. Autobiographical accounts and self-help books can promote true stories of those who have experienced a problem and progressed to a better place. Not only does this recovery provide hope for the reader, but gives helpful and systematic steps in allowing them to do the same within their own lives. Such popularity and influence can be evidenced by considering how the self-help and inspirational genre is now worth over $720 million.
Recent scientific findings have uncovered that 30 minutes of reading has the ability to lower blood pressure, lower heart rate, and ease feelings of psychological distress. In particular, its calming effect on both the mind and body can account for a drop in stress levels by up to 68%. Reading can clear the mind through its repetitive pattern of following words and break from tense academic or work activities. Not only this, but with their finely structured narration, novels can also induce order and stability into a chaotic and ill-rested mind; a common symptom that can arise with mental health issues, especially anxiety or obsessions.
This meditative effect can also be broadened to ease financial stresses to a degree. With approximately 14.3 million people in the UK living in poverty, reading is a free activity that extends to people of all ages. Local libraries ensure thousands of books are accessible for all socio-economic classes; the only free physical product being issued to all, clearly emphasising the paramount position of reading within society. No longer is there the worry of how books will be accessed or how much of your pay must be spent towards the activity.
With certain mental disorders creating a flattening effect in specific emotions, the maintenance of empathy is important. Indeed, displaying empathy to others can actually improve the empathetic qualities you demonstrate to yourself; encouraging self-care behaviours and recognising the warning signs of burn-out. Specifically, empathy can be heightened through the exploration of characters’ inner lives. The reader can understand unique situations that they may have no other connection to, and through this understand other’s positions in life and reasons behind certain actions. When we are put in somebody else’s shoes or experience life from their shoulders, neuronic activity increases within the brain’s central sulcus, meaning our body believes we are biologically experiencing the scenario and sensations of the character. Hence, the reader and character become united in a quasi-merging of body and soul. Through this, you can be exposed to a range of scenarios and not only have knowledge of the wider world, but also important empathetic skills that can be applied to your own mental health.
Creativity can help calm the depressed, anxious or stressed mind through its meditative effect on the brain. With reading in particular being a huge source of calming passages and fantastical worlds, the brain is exposed to both calming and creative inputs. Similarly, in contrast to visual media, books force the reader to envision the world, characters and background details. Therefore, novels can be hugely beneficial to sparking creativity in individuals and encourage their own brains to engage in creative endeavours, key to distracting the mind from their thoughts.
Likewise, there have been innumerous literary texts composed from those suffering mental illnesses, supporting the notion of literature being a paramount tool in highlighting and discussing mental health. The spread of contemporary poetry through ‘instapoets’ as well as older classical texts, such as The Yellow Wallpaper, each cover the stigma and experience of living with a mental illness, demonstrating again how those suffering can feel involved with a community of like-minded individuals experiencing the same feelings.
Intelligence and Memory
Perhaps the most obvious benefit reading can provide is the introduction of a highly sophisticated vocabulary. In turn, this elaborate language can be implemented within daily conversations or written work. The importance of communication is paramount, and having precise language can help people to be understood; whether that be whilst communicating issues to a specialised therapist or simply to your friends. Feeling as though you are delivering your message and being understood effectively can greatly help ease the burdens of mental pressures.
As well as this, reading can help develop an individual’s memory capacity, lending itself to be particularly useful in combating age-related disorders such as Dementia and Alzheimer’s. Studies demonstrate that people who read later in life decrease their decline of mental abilities by 32% through the strengthening of their somatosensory cortex. Building on this, because of the structure engrained at the centre of books – consisting of a defined exposition, middle and denouement – it forces the reader to experience the novel in a strict chronology. No longer is the reader allowed to skip chapters or flick between pages, causing their attention span to increase as their reading habits expand. In a similar vein, the intricate and complex details of the novel cause the reader to remember certain extracts of information, once again fortifying their attention span. The effect of this is not to be understated; a strong attention span, becoming rarer in a society that values shorter videos and texts, can reduce the risk of intrusive and destructive thoughts as the mind becomes less susceptible to wandering.
Ultimately, reading can contribute significantly to mental wellbeing, and in a day and age where mental health is declining and book publications are increasing, it is time we begin to utilise such an undervalued resource. Whether providing a simple feeling of accomplishment upon the completion of each book read, or warding off feelings of isolation, it is clear literature does more than simply provide the reader with a narrative. For those interested in exploring therapeutic literature, my personal recommendations are: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, and The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. With this in mind, please do talk to somebody or seek professional help if you are struggling with any issues related to mental wellbeing.
If you would like to speak to someone about an issue relating to your mental health here are some useful websites:
Birmingham City Council Mental Health Services: https://www.birmingham.gov.uk/info/20064/mental_health_services
University of Birmingham Wellbeing: