How reading can benefit your mental health

Concept girl reading a book.

Meditation, deep breathing and yoga are popular activities to reduce stress. However, one of the most overlooked and effective strategies is reading.

Just 6 minutes of reading per day can reduce stress levels by up to 68%, resulting in a slower heartbeat, reduced muscle tension and improved state of mind.

WellTuned spoke with Laura Bertrand, a licensed professional counselor and mental health expert at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, to find out how reading calms us and benefits our well-being.

How reading helps your brain

Laura Bertrand: Teachers and parents have always emphasized that reading can help you learn valuable information and gain a broader perspective on the world. But now we know that reading is also good for your mental health.

Reading engages different parts of your brain. It stimulates the brain’s neural pathways, which enhances brain activity, memory and cognitive function. This has the effect of enhancing your creativity. By helping the brain shift out of emergency response thinking, reading reduces stress.

You can expect some other mental health gains from reading. First, if you immerse yourself in a compelling book, you can benefit from some good old-fashioned escapism and, depending on the story, some catharsis. It doesn’t have to be a physical book – digital and audiobooks provide similar benefits.

What to read

Laura Bertrand: My mother, a reading expert and former early childhood literacy professor, liked to say, “It doesn’t matter what you are reading. The reading is good for you.” That still holds true. The act of reading is what’s good for you, and the best choice for reading material is subjective. Read what you prefer—or even vary it up. If you finish reading a heavy socio-political book and follow it up with a thriller novel or a cozy mystery, that’s great. It’s similar to taking a rest in a workout, or you could think of it as a palate cleanser.

Challenge yourself to read

Laura Bertrand: About a quarter of U.S. adults haven’t read an entire book (or listened to an audiobook) in the past year. If you’re one of them, consider finding a book that appeals to your interests and give reading another try. If reading 15 pages in one sitting is too much, aim for 10 pages or less. You wouldn’t go to the gym and expect to lift an unreasonable weight right away. Be patient with yourself when starting another kind of exercise.

The point is that reading should be self-care that you enjoy. You don’t want to turn reading into a chore because that destroys the “care” part of it. Remember that reading is supposed to be helpful, but hopefully it will also be fun.

More from Laura Bertrand on WellTuned

Jennifer Larson

Jennifer Larson is Nashville-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years of experience. She specializes in health care and family issues.

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