Reading books, regardless of their genre, has been proven to positively impact your mental health. In fact, the arts have been used for centuries as a way to alleviate anxiety and depression, promoting a sense of connection and community. For example, in Ancient Greece, the arts were used as management tools in the treatment of illness and in the improvement of human behavior, and libraries were viewed as sacred, healing spaces.
The philosophy that art, specifical literature, can be used to help people connect and heal is still valid today. From bibliotherapy to reading for enjoyment, there are many ways that people can approach reading to enhance their mental well-being.
In psychology, the theory of mind refers to the “human capacity to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from one’s own beliefs and desires.” Literary fiction, which is a broad label for many types of novels, is linked to the theory of mind. Since literary fiction focuses on the inner lives and feelings of complex characters, the reader is able to empathize and see themselves in the characters’ situations. It broadens our understanding of the world and allows us to see alternative perspectives that we may not have been exposed to otherwise. This is important because understanding others’ mental states is an essential skill that allows us to cultivate complex social relationships. In other words, the more we’re able to practice empathy for other people, the better our relationships will be.
When we’re able to empathize with fictional characters, it challenges our brain to apply the same empathy to ourselves and others in the real world. Beginning in the 20th century, psychologists began to conduct research on the potential benefits of reading more generally. Overall, the literature suggests that reading books, particularly those offering a new perspective or taking a reader outside their comfort zone, can increase empathy, tolerance for others, and interpersonal skills, such as the ability to read the emotions of others.
Let’s shift now to how the actual act of reading can impact you physically, which can, in turn, benefit your mental health. You might be someone who understands that reading is important, and it can be highly beneficial to our mental health. But what if you’re a slow reader?
Many people feel the need to race through a book as fast as they can, and if they’re not reading fast enough, they’re just not a good reader. This can cause people to abandon their books before they even give them a chance. The expectation for us to read quickly is causing more harm than good, and we end up focusing our time and energy on the wrong thing.
Instead of worrying that you’re reading too slow and letting that impact your enjoyment, give yourself permission to take your time. When you give yourself permission to pace yourself while reading a novel, you’re actively showing your brain some love. Dr. Hibberd, a clinical psychologist, says that reading slowly reduces stress. “The great thing about reading is that you can’t do anything else at the same time, which is rare in our fast-paced lives when we split our attention between multiple activities – podcasts, social media, emails, TV. This makes it a very mindful activity. You’re engaged and focused on what you’re reading, which takes you away from everything going on in your life, providing you with another world to step into.”
So if one of the reasons you’ve put off reading for pleasure is because you think you’re “too slow of a reader,” this can actually work in your favor. The next time you pick up a book, focus on the words and the images that appear in your mind and don’t stress about speed.
As previously mentioned, in Ancient Greece, the arts were specifically used to enhance people’s well-being. Today, this is commonly known as “art therapy.” Art therapy is an enriching form of therapy that is used by professional psychologists, counselors, and social workers. It’s different from other forms of therapy, such as talk therapy, in that it allows the patient to express themselves through alternative modes. Common practices within art therapy include music and painting, but reading and writing can also be incorporated under this umbrella term.
Bibliotherapy is a method of therapy that involves storytelling and reading in order to help people heal from depression, anxiety, or trauma. It’s a common therapeutic approach that can work alongside more traditional therapy models, supporting mental health. Books are recommended by a therapist, from literary fiction to memoirs to self-help books, and then the pieces are discussed with the therapist. This technique can also be applied to a group therapy session where multiple people read the same book and discuss afterward. Bibliotherapy can also be practiced without the help of a therapist at all. Many people participate in it without even realizing it through book clubs, literature courses, or solo reading time.
However, when it’s conducted with a therapist, there are usually formal methods of therapy that are applied alongside it, such as cognitive behavior therapy. In a therapeutic setting, bibliotherapy is thought to be effective because it provides an additional outlet for patients to work through problems and can help individuals recognize that they are not alone in their struggles. Bibliotherapy may also help increase engagement in the therapeutic process, which is critical for overall success.
Reading works of fiction in order to improve your mental health is not a new idea and has been a tried and true method. By reading works of art and participating in other forms of therapy with a trained professional, you can ease depression, anxiety, and other stresses in your life.