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The healing potential of reading and how to use it to improve mental health

The healing potential of reading and how to use it to improve mental health

The power of the first of the three proverbial Rs cannot be overstressed: In this story, we explore the many benefits of reading, for our mental health and overall well-being
Girl practicing reading as therapy
Representational image | Shutterstock

Reading is much more than just an spare-time activity. While we know it expands the mind with new information, perspectives and life’s lessons, it is also being seen as an experience that can change our lives.

The act of reading has been shown to have numerous mental health benefits, such as reducing stress, improving focus or attention, and increasing one’s understanding of others.

A 2018 study demonstrated the therapeutic benefits of reading, particularly for individuals facing emotional disorders, learning difficulties, bereavement, and reintegration into society, besides psychiatric disorders.

Whether we are reading a novel, a non-fiction book, or even a newspaper article, the simple act of reading can transport us to another world and provide an escape from the stress and pressure of everyday life.

Creative bibliotherapy for the mind

Creative bibliotherapy is a growing sub-field of psychotherapy where an individual’s relationship to the content of books and poetry is used to treat mental health disorders. The science behind this approach has been studied extensively, and many studies have shown that reading can have a number of positive effects on mental health.

A systematic review of studies on the impact of bibliotherapy in the management of depression found that out of the 10 controlled trials that were reviewed, six studies reported a decrease in symptoms associated with depression among adults and the elderly.

Tackling some symptoms

In structured bibliotherapy, often referred to as supportive psychotherapy, the therapist selects the reading material and activities that can help with skill acquisition and reduction of symptoms.

“While reading might not be able to help with advanced conditions such as panic disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and others, it can still be a useful tool to alleviate some of the basic symptoms associated with these conditions,” says Rijul Ballal, clinical psychologist at Heart It Out, a multi-specialty mental health centre in Bengaluru.

Let us look at five ways in which reading can help with lowering the symptomatic effects of mental health disorders.

  • Improves connections: Poor human connections and a feeling of loneliness have been associated with depression and substance abuse. A 2018 paper which studied over 40,000 individuals showed how loneliness had a moderately significant effect on depression. Reading could prove to be a great tool in developing healthy relationships as it has been found to have an effect on increasing empathy.
  • Reduces stress: For many people, reading is an escape from daily hustle and drudgery. “I usually cannot wait to pick up a book after completing work and finishing a few tasks. I feel lighter and more energised after reading a few pages,” says Vidhyashri S Rao, a marketing professional from Bengaluru.

Reading could also be a healthy form of escapism. Escapism is termed as the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, through entertainment or fantasies.

A study in 2021 by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy found that 43 per cent of people in the UK found reading eased their stress levels.

A 2009 study reveals that 30 minutes of reading can have similar effects on blood pressure, heart rate, and psychological distress as practising yoga or using humour.

  • Improves cognitive functions: Reading is regarded as an ideal way to retain and absorb new information. Studies show children who read a lot score higher in general tests on intelligence than their peers who do not read as much; and reading also points towards high intelligence as they become adults. But how does high intelligence affect mental health? Literature reviews suggest that cognitive deficits are core features of many mental disorders. High intelligence has been shown to blend other positive traits of attention, perception, planning, memory and language.
  • Builds empathy: Reading about others’ experiences allows us to empathise and understand them. It broadens our perspective of individuals we may not have personal connections with.

A study from 2013 assessed how reading literary fiction changes a person’s ability to feel one with the characters and to extending it, perceive other’s emotions, even if briefly.

  • Reduces risks of Alzheimer’s disease: Individuals who engage in reading, chess or puzzles are 5 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those who do not.

An important positive aspect of brain function that is associated with learning and Alzheimer’s disease is cognitive reserve; it is defined as the mind’s flexibility or resistance to damage and storage of information.

According to the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, a lifetime’s exposure to reading, along with educational and occupational achievements, can increase cognitive reserves and reduce risks of dementia.

A dying habit?

Today, reading seems to have lost out to short and easy visual engagements of social media as it requires time, concentration, patience and perseverance.

“Through instant gratification, social media have dwindled our attention spans [and affected] the ability of our brain to focus on anything that does not provide strong visual and audio cues, such as reading a book,” says Madhuri Navin, clinical psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bengaluru.

However, once a person develops the habit of reading books daily or regularly, it can be a powerful tool. It can be not only a brief escape from the stress and mundane life, but as a habit that can, over time, improve concentration, cognitive function, perceptions of the world and, most importantly, gain intellectually enriching thoughts and viewpoints of different authors.

Share Your Experience/Comments

4 Responses

  1. Wow, I see results after reading this, now I read daily to improve my brain power. Thanks a lot

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