Say Goodbye to Stress! Why Books Might Be the Ultimate Chill Pill.

Thursday, November 02, 2017 by Meg   •   Filed under Treatment Techniques

I’m an author and a mother. In many ways a stereotypical, do-all-the-things, stressed-out-to-the-max, sacrifice-for-my-kids, mother. But one thing I’ve never been willing to sacrifice is my reading time. Every morning when I wake up, I pull out a book and get in a chapter or two. Ditto before bed. And if I’m overwhelmed with the million little things I have to complete, I read even more. This isn’t because I’m a writer. It’s because I’m a shrink that I am such a strong advocate for curling up with a good book.

Now, I have plenty of friends who say that they don’t have time, and I understand: between work, and commutes, and chores, and children, and homework, and after-school activities, time is sucked away from us like bathwater down a drain. There never seem to be enough hours in a day. Many fear that in taking the time to read they are neglecting something more critical.

But what we really tend to neglect is ourselves. And we end up more stressed because of it.

Life is a shit show sometimes. And despite oddball societal notions that moms are supposed to shoulder everyone’s burdens with a smile like Mary fucking Poppins, we deserve a better break than ten minutes of devouring Kit Kats in the bedroom closet. Because while Kit Kats are totally okay, we could stand to have a little more quality time for self care, with activities that serve to calm us down. And unlike chocolate eating in dark rooms or exploring the anxiety-producing void that is social media, reading can actually help us to reduce stress and manage our lives more effectively by causing measurable changes in the brain itself. And these brain connections born of reading persist over time. Your favorite novel might be positively altering the basic makeup of your brain for weeks or even years.

Let’s get into the science.

Both during and after reading, people have heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex—an area of the brain associated with language1. We also experience changes in the areas of the brain associated with creating representations of sensation. The central sulcus, this sensation center, is a place that activates neurons associated with physical action. Just thinking about pinching that kid who keeps bullying your child causes these neurons to become active. Likewise, just thinking about the characters in a novel can cause those neurons to respond. This means that reading a good book can actually transport you into the body of the characters—hopefully the protagonist, but if you’d rather run around being a psycho killer, more power to you. (Disclaimer: being a psycho killer is for suckers. Don’t do it.)

Clearly these increased brain connections have implications far beyond identifying with a favorite character—your brain might be firing in a way that has you walking in a character’s shoes. Which basically means you get to be a fucking superhero. Or a psycho. But whichever way you go, all this increased brain connectivity has the ability to calm the body down when life gets to be too much, say from an onslaught of political commentary.

And there are other reasons that books shine as the ultimate chill pill. Often times, depression and anxiety can sneak up on you with negative thoughts. These thoughts are inaccurate, and yet that doesn’t stop them from creeping into your brain as you wait for little Johnny to get done with baseball practice. I’m not good enough. I should be working harder. I should be doing more for my family. I have no time to BREATHE let alone do something for me. But in those moments, books can be looked at as a form of thought replacement, a valid cognitive behavioral technique that seeks to reduce the frequency of negative or scary thoughts by purposefully replacing them when they arise. The more able you are able to distract yourself—either with your own more positive thoughts or with words from a book—the more likely the negative thought will cease to garner a reaction, and the less it may be able to bother you in the future. We don’t call it “bibliotherapy" for nothing. Even ancient civilizations carved inscriptions over library entrances indicating that inside the building was “healing for the soul.” And all the positive effects gleaned from reading last long after you set the novel down.

No wonder I’m such a ray of fucking sunshine.

The gist is this: laying on top of a pile of unfolded clothes and cracking a great novel is not an act of rebellion or the shirking of responsibilities. It is not something to feel guilty about, or to even question as a valid use of time. Taking a few moments for ourselves is self-care. It is a necessary part of every day. If anything, reducing stress and turning into a superhero from time to time gives us what we need to tackle the hustle of daily life. Reading has the ability to make us more productive, or at least less stressed. And quality of life matters far more than simply how much we’re able to squeeze into twenty-four hours. 

You’re worth it.

Fuck the laundry. Find a book. 


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