It should come as no surprise that as an English teacher, I am an advocate for reading. All through your school career parents, teacher and other adults harp on about how important reading is. Half of my job as a teacher is to convince students how reading is going to impact their GCSE results. But why does it matter so much? Apart from having the ability to take you anywhere in the world and offering great entertainment, it helps promote deeper and more critical thinking, widens vocabulary and a development of empathy for others. But you may also be surprised to know that is also works wonders on your health and mental wellbeing. I know; it seems unlikely that something that provides entertainment, inspiration and education can make your life better and healthier, but bear with me…
I’ve devoured books for as long as I can remember. My mom always has; I’ve grown up amongst adults who read books, complete crossword puzzles, Sudoku. Even my sisters and friends who don’t read have started on the adult colouring book trend. And I always feel sharper, more acute, when I read and make reading a priority. I never actually considered how important reading was to my mental health until I found myself ‘too busy to read’ (A new baby to take care of, work issues etc.), and started noticing negative changes in myself. Once I started making time to read, I felt happier; my outlook and attitude improved, and I found a willingness to just try.
As it happens, Science backs me up too. Professionals are cottoning on to the positive effects that a good book can have; GP surgeries are now issuing ‘reading prescriptions’ for people struggling with anxiety, panic attacks and depressions among others. The book list consists of 30 self-help books, and comes from a scheme originally piloted in Wales. Schools and public libraries offer the ‘Reading Well Scheme’, which provided students aged 13-18 with information and support on mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, eating disorder and self-harm. Beanstalk, a national children’s charity, employs and trains volunteers to provide one-to-one literacy support to children who are struggling with their reading comprehension, have fallen behind national levels or lack confidence in their ability. The School of Life, based in London, provides support and guidance to people by developing their emotional intelligence. They tackle issues such as relationships, feeling fulfilled at work and how to achieve calm. All through the power of reading.
In recent studies conducted by the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE), it was deemed that with self-help reading people with common mental health conditions are able to improve their own mental wellbeing. People see libraries as a safe and non-stigmatised place to go to for help and support. Through reading, people were able to work through their issues, both personally and with external support, to help solve past and unresolved conflicts, allowing them to see a healthy way of dealing with their issues. Never mind an apple a day, eh?
In honour of National Mental Health Awareness Week, I wanted to show you how reading can impact positively on your wellbeing.
Reading is excellent for your memory
I’m no scientist, but from what I gather reading helps stimulate parts of the brain that cannot be reached by TV or music. As it allows you to stretch your imagination and creative side, sections of the brain that deal with language, vision and associative learning are stimulated into reacting faster, which in turn helps keep memory sharp. For patients of Dementia, reading is one of many ‘brain training’ exercises that are given in order to slow down the deterioration of the memory, exercising their brains in mentally challenging ways. My Husbands Grandfather had Dementia, and helped ‘focus’ his memory by completing crosswords.
Stress Levels will be lower
Graduates at the University of Sussex deemed that those who read for 20 minutes a day could reduce their stress levels by up to 68%. As the brain and body relax, muscles in the heart loosen which provides the feeling of ‘stress relief’; as your brain is concentrating more on the words and story it ‘lets go’ of problems that were bothering you before. Reading actually beat things such as listening to music (61%), a cup of coffee (54%) and taking a walk (42%).
You are more empathetic to others
The more you read and learn to love the characters, the more understanding you will be of difficult emotions in others. Arguably, empathy is one of the hardest things for children to learn, and studies have proven that a parent reading to their child teaches them to understand the world and the people around them in a health, positive way. It also helps solidify the secure attachment between parent and child, which in turn promotes a healthy perspective on life and a consideration of others.
Sleep will be easier and more satisfying
Similarly to stress, reading helps relax the body by stimulating parts of the brain that aren’t always used to the best of their ability. By relaxing the rest of the body, it helps slow heart rate and reduces stress levels, which in turn promotes sleep. Just stay away from the Stephen King novels so close to bedtime…
In the age where we can spend hours surfing the internet and social media, or binge watching a box set on Netflix, it is important that we take care of our own health – both mentally and physically. To someone who doesn’t read, it may seem solitary and passive. But reading is a far from passive pastime. Just 30 minutes a week increases your health and wellbeing. Reading for pleasure can improve your relationships, confidence and self-esteem, and your own self-worth. It provides a perspective on how to resolve conflicts effectively and efficiently, it gives you the inspiration to pursue your goals and can help you with difficult life decisions. You will be well rested and empathic, and will have the confidence to seek out and develop lasting and healthy relationships.
In the words of Alan Bennett, ‘A book is a device to ignite the imagination’. Reading helps enrich our lives beyond simple fiction stories. We have the wonderful excuse to escape our limitations into a world entirely in our own imagination, which can be the best therapy the mind can offer.