Why Reading May Help Your Stress Slip Away

Discover the power of books to calm you and to help improve your health.
Published March 9, 2018

Reading is good for you. If you routinely stay up late turning pages, nearly miss your train stop because you’re this close to finding out whodunit, and your name has practically worn off your library card, you probably know this intuitively. What may surprise you is that reading doesn’t just make you smarter—it may 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 light out as it helps our brains prepare to shut down for sleep.”

Consider this: Research published in the Journal of Teaching and Learning followed graduate students as they were given 30 minutes of reading, yoga, or humor as ways to ratchet down stress. Reduction was determined via 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 a novel has as much stress-lowering benefit as yoga? That’s an interesting story! Read on to find out the reading’s power.

How Reading May Calm You

It 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.

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 actually may promote a sense of meditative calm.

It may ease anxiety.

Becoming absorbed in a diverting story 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 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.

It reduces blood pressure and heart rate.

When you’re stressed, your body responds physiologically: blood pressure and heart rate rise. The very act of 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.

Get the Most Out of Reading

Be sure to choose books that speak to you. Sure reading about mindfulness, stress reduction, or other self-improvement topics may alleviate stress, but that may not work for everyone, says Dr. Levine. A book of spiritual or inspirational vignettes could become your go-to, as can the latest in a series of beach reads or romance novels. Others may find delving into history or biography diverting. Counterintuitively, 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.

RELATED: Book(ed) Up

Does it Matter if You Read on a Screen?

Reading on a screen can be a different experience. “Screens emit a pulsing, blue light that is stimulating to your brain,” explains Tausig. So while you still get the escapist benefits of reading, you  may not receive the same calming effect that comes from your eyes moving across a page, and you may have more trouble sleeping afterward if you read on a screen at night, she says. (If you do suffer from insomnia, or are interested in practicing good sleep hygiene generally, it’s best to power down all screens at least 30 to 45 minutes before shut-eye.)

RELATED: Can Screens Make You Sad?