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How reading can improve our mental health

Warmer weather and longer evenings are finally here. A welcome respite from endless winter days, summer is often seen as a chance to get outside and focus on our mental health. And while it may not involve much physical activity, reading a book in the sun may be just the brain food you need.

With the change in the seasons comes a change in priorities.

Today this is largely driven by the wellness trend, a movement earmarked by sunlit jogs and beachside Pilates. But besides being equal parts alienating and arrogant – often adopting a slim white woman as its poster girl – the wellness trend is, at its core, a paradox.

Encouraging us to get outside and ‘work on ourselves’, wellness advice comes straight from social media. The only way to take head of these instructions is to turn first to our phones, the very thing that wellness culture encourages us to relinquish.

If, like me, you find athleisure-clad influencers more of a hindrance to your mental health than anything else, it may be worth finding alternative ways to step back from social media. After all, jogging and Pilates aren’t the only wholesome things we can do to make the most of the sunshine.

Picture this: it’s a balmy summer day, at least 20 degrees (the de-facto temperature for an ideal British summer day) and you’re spread eagle on a blanket reading a good book.

For avid readers, this scenario is all-too familiar. But if you’re new to books, envious of those who can focus on reading, or perhaps even turned-off by the concept, then the mental and emotional benefits of becoming a book-worm might surprise you.

As we all know, sunshine may be a suitable distraction from bouts of seasonal depression and anxiety, but it isn’t a long-term cure. In the UK, around 1 in 4 of us will experience some form of mental health problem each year.

The everyday struggle of coping with anxiety can at times feel endless. But it’s even more overwhelming to fight this battle alone; only around one third of people living with anxiety will seek professional help.

Reading is a simple way to cope, one that works all year round, rain or shine – unlike beachside Pilates.

Of course, the most obvious reason to read (and perhaps the reason most people choose to pick up a book) is that it allows us to escape reality for a while. Time inside your own head, living the lives of others, is the ideal way to settle unpleasant thoughts.

Unlike social media, which cultivates feelings of insecurity by forcing us to compare our lives to the shallow image of someone else’s, reading enables us to literally see the world from a different point of view – generating feelings of empathy, and often making us feel more understood.

According to Bustle, reading is known to lower your heart rate and relax you physically, proving that books are good for both body and mind.

This is purportedly the case whether you’re reading a tense thriller or a sweet romance, so you can relax with a book regardless of genre. A study by Sussex University even found that reading for as little as 6 minutes was shown to reduce stress levels by 60 percent.

Besides giving us a pocket of screen-free time during the day, a moment where our minds are withdrawn from perpetual doom-scrolling, reading can also prevent the negative impacts of ageing.

As a cognitively stimulating activity, reading can slower the rate of cognitive decline as we age, and prevent the early onset of diseases like Alzheimer’s.

When the brain is fully focused on a single task, especially one as absorbing as reading, stress is reduced and relaxation enhanced, forcing our brains to relinquish anxious thoughts.

Connecting with the figures in our novels can reduce feelings of loneliness, but – more significantly – reading can also cultivate new communities in the real world.

In a somewhat full-circle way, books have found their place on social media. ‘Bookstagram’ is the phenomenon of readers sharing their passion for books online, sharing recommendations and shortlisting favourites.

Bookstagram is, in many ways, the antithesis to typical online space. It’s defined by an incredibly inclusive, social, and diverse community that uses social media to amplify a positive message.

Not only have these avid-readers made books more accessible to others, but have upended the toxicity and negativity that frame these platforms by encouraging a new generation to take up reading at a time when our phones have started to dominate.

Whether it’s forging new friendships, learning to engage with social media in a more positive light, or stepping away from the digital space altogether, reading is an ideal way to reset your mind and level yourself.

So next time you feel like opening Instagram or TikTok and scrolling the days away, consider grabbing a book and heading to the park – you can’t deny it sounds like a wholesome way to spend your summer.

 

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