Can reading help reduce stress?

Discover how a good page-turner can dial down stress, and get inspiration for your next read.
Published 24 March, 2020

Escaping into a compelling story, building on existing knowledge, expanding our horizons...reading has countless benefits. But did you know it may also make you calmer?

“Reading has long been known to help us relax,” says Jephtha Tausig, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York City. “In fact, quiet reading is often recommended as an activity to do right before bedtime as it helps our brains prepare to shut down for sleep.”

Research published in the Journal of Teaching and Learning followed graduate students as they were given 30 minutes of reading, yoga, or humour as ways of coping with stress. Stress reduction was determined by a standard survey as well as measures of heart rate and blood pressure. At the end of the study, researchers concluded that all three were equally effective.

Finding out that reading can reduce our stress levels as much as yoga? That’s a real eye-opener. So how does it work? Read on to discover the untapped power of sitting down with a good book.

1. Reading compels you to be still

The very act of sitting or lying down and reading a book means your body is at rest. Physical stillness (you can’t read while you’re dashing around the house, right?) invokes calm, says Tausig, by allowing your muscles to let go of tension.

2. It can be a form of meditation 

Reading requires you to focus your mind on what’s right in front of you, says Steven Levine, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist and founder and CEO of Actify Neurotherapies. “By engaging the parts of the brain required to read words, comprehend the subject matter, and relate it to personal experience, reading may ‘crowd out’ stress.” In short, losing yourself in a story may promote a sense of meditative calm.

3. It may ease anxiety

Becoming absorbed in a book does two things simultaneously: it takes your mind off an anxiety feedback loop when you’re worried about things in your own life that you can’t control (work pressures, financial issues, problems with children or family) - and, if you're reading fiction, it gives you a whole new set of people and places to think about. You may find that reading a novel about someone who overcame a problem that makes you anxious helps you feel calmer and more in control. At the very least, for the time you’re actually reading your book, “your mind is off whatever’s making you anxious,” says Tausig.

4. It reduces blood pressure and heart rate

When you’re stressed, your body responds physiologically: specifically, blood pressure and heart rate rise. Reading often reduces those reactions. “You automatically breathe slower when you’re reading,” says Tausig, which slows your heart rate and relaxes your blood vessels, allowing blood to flow more easily.

Choose the right books to reduce stress

Be sure to choose books that speak to you. Reading about mindfulness, stress reduction, or other self-improvement topics may alleviate stress, but that may not work for everyone, says Dr. Levine. A spiritual or inspirational book could become your go-to, as could the latest in a series of beach reads or romance novels. Others may find delving into history or biography diverting. Counter-intuitively, you may find an edge-of-your-seat thriller or murder mystery weirdly calming.

“Personal preference should dictate what reading material you turn to, though it stands to reason that you may wish to avoid anything really gruesome or scary,” says Tausig. If you’re not sure, experiment with different types of reading material. Long or short, you should give yourself enough time to get involved (or re-involved, if you’re in the middle of a book) for the stress-busting benefits to kick in.

Need some inspiration? Give one of these WW staff recommendations a go!

1. Untamed, Glennon Doyle

"It's all about living for yourself, not to please others. It's so relatable and helpful for so many, especially at this time." - Lisa Anslow

2. Downhill All The Way, Edward Enfield

"A wonderful cycling journey across France, written by Harry Enfield's dad. Such funny and entertaining stories, and it's written beautifully." - Marsha Giltnane

3. Mornings In Jenin, Susan Abulhawa

"A novel that tells the story of the Israel and Palestine conflict. It's brilliant and heart wrenching - a real tear jerker!" - Janette Mackay

4. Failosophy, Elizabeth Day

"It really resonated and showed me it's okay that everything doesn't always go smoothly and that failing can be a great lesson." - Josie Mortimer

5. Girl, Woman, Other, Bernardine Evaristo

"An inspirational story of British women over the last 100 years, and deserved winner of the Booker Prize." - Jane Barnard

6. Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson

"A hilarious account of Bryson's haphazard adventures around the UK. Laugh out loud and packed with inspiration for your next staycation" - Jenny MacLean