how reading can help mental health

Reading and mental health: 5 ways that diving into a book can dig you out of depression 

The benefits of reading are massive.

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”― George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

What is your favorite book?  Could you even pick one? What makes it your favorite?

My current top 5 are:

  • Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  • Diary by Chuck Palahniuk
  • The Awakening by Kate Chopin

BONUS: The Harry Potter series.  Because, Hufflepuff til I die.

Why do I love them so much?  They make me feel immersed.. Either in a setting (gorgeous early 20th century Colombia, a mysterious circus, or a magical world of spells and fantastic beasts), or in a feeling (growing identity and sense of purpose, horrid betrayal, and the most desolate sadness.)

Books have so much to offer us, and they are often our most forgotten friends.

I’ve loved reading since I was 2, according to my mother.  One of my earliest memories is feeling really out of place in my first grade class because I was reading chapter books, while my classmates were still on the fundamentals.  Accelerated Reader became a place for me to shine, and I always got my free personal pan pizza for the Book It program. (90s kids can relate to the elation that goes along with that.)

Reading has always been something I can do to simultaneously escape and belong.

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Also, I am not a doctor or mental health professional. Just someone who has lived with anxiety for many years who is passionate about sharing her experiences and tips for success. If you are in crisis call your doctor, then click here for some good mental health resources.

Love in the time of cholera, reading and mental health

My mental health journey

Around the time I was 9, my cousin died.  It was unexpected and very public. (Like, on the nightly news.)  It’s something I’ve never truly gotten over. I felt a sense of mortality that no 9 year old deserves to feel, and it forever changed the way I viewed the world.

After that, I started exhibiting signs of depression, although we didn’t know what it was at the time.  I became even more withdrawn than I already was, being a pretty shy kid to begin with.

And what’s the perfect leisure activity for a developing introvert?  Yep, reading.

I dove into the world of books as a way to cope with what was going on.  I was a member of the Baby-sitters Club. Sat on the porch at Tara drinking iced tea.  Roamed the sewers of Derry trying to defeat the thing I fear the most– IT. Grieved that I didn’t get my letter to Hogwarts. I read anything I could get my hands on.

As an adult, my mental health has evolved from trauma-based depression to bipolar disorder, fatigue, and anxiety.  I still read, and often. I try to make it a priority to read a little something most days of the week. (I’m a parent of two small kids, so it can be difficult at times.)

A lot of times, my stories now take the form of podcasts in the car on the way to preschool pick-up.

Reading still provides an escape like no other.  It makes me feel safe, and gives me a distraction from whatever is going on in my head.

Jane Eyre, reading and mental health

Reading and mental health

There is a ton of research that suggests that reading is good for your mental health.  But how does it benefit us scientifically, apart from just feeling fun?

According to the South African College of Applied Psychology, reading as little as 20 minutes a day can have a lot of benefits.  You can even make it your self care for the day! 

Reading aids with the following.

Better empathy

The linked article above states, “Mirror neurons, neurons that fire in our brains when we perform an action ourselves or see an action performed by someone else, were discovered in the mid-90s. Their discovery led to a better understanding of the neuroscience of empathy.” 

When we read, we are putting ourselves in the place of the protagonist.  I will use the Harry Potter series as a running example here.  Beginning with The Sorcerer’s Stone all the way through The Deathly Hallows, we are in Harry’s shoes.  You can feel his excitement as he realizes he finally gets to leave his cruel aunt and uncle.  You cry with him as he mourns losses throughout the series. I bet you even wish some of his friends were your real life besties.

Reading causes us to step outside of our own lives for a brief time.  It causes us to think and feel the way that others do, and this is an incredibly valuable skill.  It is valuable for the neurotypical- those without mental health issues- but especially for those living with a mental illness.

We tend to isolate ourselves when we’re not stable.  We forget that there is whole enormous world out there outside of our depression and anger and anxiety and trauma.

“The universe is big, it’s vast and complicated, and ridiculous and sometimes, very rarely, impossible things just happen and we call them miracles.” 

The Eleventh Doctor said that, and it really resonated with me. The universe isn’t just me living with my bipolar disorder. It is full of living breathing people with feelings just as vast and complicated as my own.

Increased mental flexibility

Reading stories helps your brain to improve connections that people with mental illness might be lacking.  The article links to a study that proves that reading helps your brain learn and be more flexible.

When we read, we are adapting to new beliefs and ideals.  In The Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter learned he is a wizard. (I don’t really consider that a spoiler any more at this point.)  He discovers that there is an amazing world of magic that awaits him at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  We watch as his situation continues to evolve, when he goes from a mistreated preteen living under his aunt and uncle’s staircase to a young man who essentially… Well, I guess that would really be a spoiler.  But you get the ideas.

As we insert ourselves into fictional worlds, we learn and grow with the characters.  Doing so helps us to learn and grow more easily in our own lives.

This is really important when you are living with mental health issues.  We often struggle to adapt to changes.

The Night Circus, reading and mental health

Giving you more rationality and creativity

Basically, the thought here is that reading books from so many different perspectives opens you up to all the possibilities the world has to offer.  The article sites another study that proves the power of reading fiction.

When you read the Harry Potter novels, you feel a profound sense of wonder and awe at the world Rowling created.  (And did so while living with depression!) There are magical creatures, powerful spells, and surprising character transformations.

What can you learn from this? You learn that while, no, magic does not exist in real life, all sorts of amazing things are possible.  I distinctly remember thinking, “Well, if Harry can do X thing that’s a spoiler, what can I do?” It helps our brain understand that more than one outcome is possible, which can also stimulate creativity.

Improving your brain function

While reading can benefit us emotionally, it can also benefit us neurologically.  Another study shows a marked improvement in brain scans after reading a novel.  

“Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity. We call that a ‘shadow activity’, almost like muscle memory. 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 know 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,” said American neuroscientist Professor Gregory Berns.

So, enjoying Harry Potter’s journey from angsty preteen to empowered, confident man not only inspires us and helps our mind to grow, but it benefits the physical machinery in our brain.  It makes our brain work better, even when we aren’t reading.

Reducing the risk for dementia 

This is something near and dear to my heart, since I lost a grandmother to Alzheimer’s.  Nobody wants to experience memory loss.  It is traumatic to watch a loved one go through that, and it is a hard thing to recover from.

Since there is a “normal” amount of memory loss that can accompany depression, we need to be protecting our brains.  We need to ensure that it is working in tip top shape to help us cope better when we aren’t stable.

Another study showed that people who read, especially later in life, have a 32% less chance for mental decline.  That really goes to show that it’s not too late to pick up a book. 

The downside

There is something to keep in mind for those with mental illness who want to pick up reading.  Did you know that mental illness can make it harder to read? That’s something that I have experienced at times in my own battle with depression.  People with depression can find it hard to concentrate and harder still to enjoy the things that once brought them happiness and excitement.

I have gone through many periods, especially over the past decade, where I “lose touch” with reading.  I can’t read more than a page without getting bored or shifting my attention to something else.

This can be a really frustrating experience, especially for someone who has always previously enjoyed reading.  It derives you of pleasure and comfort, and makes you feel like you somehow aren’t living up to expectations you made for yourself.  It’s disappointing, and can sometimes exacerbate your depression.  

Keep this in mind: Your brain is at war with itself.  There will be days of relative peace, and other days of more significant strife.  The difficult days will pass, and you will find it easier to pick up a book and enjoy it again.  In the meantime, shoot for 10 minutes a day to start with. You can still see even small benefits from that!

Why reading is still important

Despite feeling frustrated by reading sometimes when we are in bouts of depression or other emotional conditions, it is still important to keep trying.  Find topics you enjoy reading about. For me, it’s largely fantasy, romance, and true crime. For you, it might be different. My husband loves audiobooks about history, specifically the Roman Empire.

There is something for everyone, and we could all stand to benefit from it.  Now, as a wise man once said:

“Let us step into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure.” (Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Halfblood Prince )

Tell me your favorite book in the comments, and if you have ever noticed that reading helps your moods. Also, please share the article if you found it helpful!

Start reading for mental health today, and you will be amazed at how much better you feel.


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