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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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  I became even more withdrawn than I already was, being a pretty shy kid to begin with.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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Related posts for reading and mental health:

Anxiety and Loneliness: Why Your Anxiety Makes You Feel Really Alone

7 Interesting Facts About Anxiety + What You Can Do To Feel Better ASAP

How to Explain Depression, according to Twitter

50 Must Have Mental Health Resources That You Need to Know About

102 thoughts on “Reading and mental health: 5 ways that diving into a book can dig you out of depression ”

  1. Such an interesting read. As a person who struggles with anxiety, I never gave this much off a thought, but it makes sense. Thank you for sharing this article and all the resources.

  2. I am so agree that reading can help getting out from a depression. Years ago I was feeling depressed. Someone gave me a book to return it to its owner next day. I was so curios that I read it that night. It changed my life. My depression vanished that night!


    This was a really interesting read. I never stopped to think about how reading could affect mental health although I suppose it does make sense. I’m glad I saw this post x

  4. I remember curling up on the living room chair and diving into a book, ignoring all of the sounds around me as my parents fought. I would read an entire book just sitting there, blocking out the chaos that was my childhood. I am trying to get back into reading, it really can help and I’m always interested in reading new self-help type books.

    1. Hey Brandy, I hear ya there. Not so much the fighting, but just the general chaos of childhood emotions and adolescence. I was a big bookworm as a kid, and always brought a book to family events. Hopefully you can get back into it. Thanks for reading!

  5. I loved reading this. It was really valuable and relatable because I use books as a form of escape. Growing up, reading was all I did to help distract me from the terrible reality I FELT like I was living. And no, honestly I can’t choose a favorite book or even a favorite genre. Throughout my life those things constantly change but, the Harry Potter Series does hold a special place in my heart

    1. Hey Shay, same! Harry Potter and the Anne of Green Gables series have very special places in my childhood. HP I guess was more my adolescence. Wish I had it as a kid! Thanks for reading!

    1. Hey Melissa, TV is definitely “easier” for whatever reason. I alternate a bit. Maybe watch my shows one night, and the next night read… Depends on what I’m watching and reading I guess. Give it a shot! Thanks for reading 🙂

  6. Yes!!! Reading is such great therapy. Just being able to get lost in a different world! Thanks for sharing this. I need to get back to devouring books the way I used to.

    1. Hey Abby, it sure is! I’ve been working on reading more, when my focus allows. My anxiety makes my focus rubbish. But it’s good to at least try. Thanks for reading!

  7. Nice top 5. Diary is awesome, as of course is anything from Chuck (have you heard him on the joe rogan podcast? incredible). We had the (mis?) fortune to read jane Eyre at school and so I grew up hating it naturally. Perhaps I should read it again as an adult and see.

    1. Hey there, no I haven’t heard it! His books are so weird but I love them. LOL about Jane Eyre. That’s how I look back on a lot of classic books. Jane Eyre was one I read in junior high but I chose to read it for Accelerated Reading, so it helped that it wasn’t forced on me. Thanks for reading!

  8. This is a really nice article. I didn’t know there are benefits to reading but I love reading. I love reading whether it makes sense or not but it must be interesting. Thank you for sharing this beautiful post

  9. The Harry Potter series has been a HUGE part of my self-care plan as of late. I recently started rereading them (again). There is no other series of books that can bring me happiness and joy the way that I get while slipping into the world of wizardry and the antics at Hogwarts. (Proud Slythern)

  10. Those are all my favourite books and most of them are from my university days and because of my love for books I did English literature degree. Also I love Harry Potter series! I spend.most of my days reading books but I am still a paperback girl, sometimes I preferred audio books but do not like kindle and e-books so much. Love this article. Thank you for the book list and sharing your insights.

  11. Its really a nice article. Its a fact that books are neither medicine nor therapy and it won’t cure you of your depression, but they will occupy your mind while you work things through. Whatever situation may be books will be there always to keep you company.

  12. This is a wonderful post. There are so many benefits from reading. It’s great to get lost in a good book during a tough time. It gives you something else to think about. Not to mention all the great stuff you can learn from books. Not only about other people and topics, but about yourself as well. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Very insighful – never thought of it but it makes perfect sense. It’s so easy to lose yourself into a good book…. living with the characters through their journeys…. sometimes that time is what is to turn the tide.

  14. This is a well written post and I’m glad I found it (BloggersTribe Twitter). I haven’t followed all your links to the various studies (yet).
    I read for entertainment and the stories that I get the most enjoyment from are those that I get emotionally immersed in.

  15. Amazing! Reading really is food for the soul, spirit and mind! I can really recommend anything by the Bronte’s (especially Jayne Eyre) as a distraction. I also find Jane Austen’s novels give me a great feeling! xxx

  16. What an absolutely wonderful post! Reading and the arts are so important to mental health and wellbeing, I really wish more people knew. I wrote a similar post about the benefits of exposure to the arts in general and all the sneaky advantages they provide: increased nueroplasticity, empathy, community…all things you can get by doing something as simple as reading a book. I appreciate that you mention how hard it can be to get back into reading if you’re struggling particularly hard with your mental health. It’s very true. But if push through and make yourself pick up a beloved book again, you can be that much closer to feeling more like yourself. The books I can read over and over and over again: Jurassic Park, The Harry Potter Series, The Bone Season series (if the writer would finish it!), Shades of Gray (the Jasper Fforde novel, not the “50 Shades,” version), And “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened,” by Jenny Lawson. Wonderful post!

  17. I had no idea that mental illness makes it more difficult to read but it makes so much sense when you think about it! I’ve rediscovered my love of reading over the last 2 years but I’ve noticed when my anxiety/OCD is peaking I really struggle to focus. Like you said, it’s so important to stick with it though. I always find reading gives me something to focus on rather than the negative thoughts or the anxiety spiral I’ve got myself in. Thanks for sharing!

  18. I’d forgotten how much a great story allows me to escape and lifts my feelings. It’s also how much you learn from a character – how to face challenges, how to respond to others.
    I read somewhere that by reading novels and stories, we actually learn more than reading a self-help book because we translate it into action in our lives!

  19. I had no idea about the actual benefits of reading like increasing empathy. It’s super interesting. I know I’ve used reading myself as a form of escaping. Like you said, my favourite books are the ones which were truly immersive. It made me forget everything and everyone. It let’s my mind go quiet.

    1. Yes, anything that gets the wheels turning (either because it’s like a mystery or educational sort of book, or being it’s easy to escape in it.) Thanks for reading!

  20. This is such an amazing post. Taking up reading as a hobby, joining readathons, and actually starting my own book blog recently has helped me start to work through some of my social anxiety and fears. I do have the issues with my brain wandering off to worries, so it’s hard to focus sometimes, but reading has definitely become something I want to make my self care.

    One issue I have is the motivation to read. Sometimes I end up just laying in front of the TV instead. Any tips for motivation, when you want to read, but just… don’t?

    1. I have both those issues sometimes! (Brain wandering, and wanting to watch TV instead.) It helps me to make a dedicated TV watching time, and make my reading time when I know my brain will be most engaged. So, for me, I am NOT a night owl. It is better for comprehension and focus for me to read during the day in spurts while my kids are playing nicely. The day time is my “brain time” and anything after 630 or 7pm is exclusively in shut off mode (aka, TV or phone games, etc)

  21. Fantastic post!! I’d heard the one about empathy somewhere before although I can’t remember where (possibly where you’ve linked to!) and it wasn’t something I’d ever considered before but it’s such a great point. Everyone has their reasons for reading and I know for me, personally, it’s always an escape when I just need a break from reality. This is a really heartfelt post – thank you!

    1. Thank you. It was terrible. It’s weird because I can remember it so vividly, but them I’m not sure if they’re real memories, if that makes sense?

      And thank you for the kind words! Now, off to finish my blogging for the day and read my book 🙂

  22. I can relate to losing a grandmother to Alzheimer’s. It’s affected me greatly, though it’s been several months. Anything to help stave off that terrible disease.

    I also appreciate the info about mirror neurons, empathy, and reading! That’s a fun tidbit.

    I struggle to read because I’m obsessively perfectionist about it. I guess that’s what you’d call it besides “obnoxious” or “crazy”. I have to read, then re-read a book or a section. I say have to otherwise, I will get anxious or just annoyed and frustrated and just quit. It’s a deep-seated desire to understand everything. I have to take notes and look up the words I don’t know, otherwise I feel like I’m not really digesting it and therefore, can’t properly enjoy it. It’s so stupid. But not following these rules makes me overwhelmed and frustrated. I have tried to overcome it. I really want to. I used to read as a kid and teenager. I miss that.

    If anyone out there is reading this and relates to this or knows something that can help, please holler at your girl! I’d love to be able to read like a normal person again.

    Jessica | The Unplug Initiative

    1. I’m sorry you lost your grandma! It has been a couple years for me (10 years since her issues began), and I still miss her every day.

      I totally get it the insecurities. I would just start slow. Don’t say, I’m gonna read War and Peace. Start with something fluffy to build your confidence! I believe in you!

      1. Thanks so much! I like that idea. I can’t believe I never thought of that. I bought a bunch of classics at the bookstore awhile ago and I feel like I HAVE to read them first, but honestly, it might take the pressure off to start with some lighter material.

        1. It might help sort of restore your faith in reading! The Night Circus is my FAVORITE for that. I already want to read it again and I think I just read it a few months ago.

  23. As a huge reader, I totally agree with this! I think reading definitely improves brain function. I too used to read chapter books in first grade, hiding the book under my desk so the teacher couldn’t see it!

  24. I love reading. My two favorites are Jane Eyre, Schindler’s List,. I also have a kindle full of books that I’ve read, or need to read. I totally agree reading is important, its definitely taken a backseat for me these past couple of years.

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