How reading fiction helps anxiety, according to science
“I went away in my head, into a book. That was where I went whenever real life was too hard or too inflexible.”Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Ask any fond reader and they’ll probably say the same thing: curling up with a good book can be one of the best ways to ease anxiety.
In their 2021 Public Perceptions Survey, BACP found that 43% of people in the UK found reading helped ease their stress levels during the third national lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Why is this? There are a few reasons why reading fiction helps anxiety that I’ll outline in this post (and anecdotally as an anxious person, I can endorse all of them). They’re all connected to bibliotherapy, or the process of reading, reflecting upon, and discussing literature, including personal narratives and stories.
I didn’t learn about bibliotherapy until a few years after starting Tolstoy Therapy. Reading fiction to feel better was just something so intuitive that I didn’t feel it needed a name. Books had been the most important tool in my mental health toolkit for years; my whole life, even.
Books taught me how to be human and navigate whatever life was throwing at me: crippling shyness, trauma, autism, heartbreak. Everything. But one of the feelings that fiction has helped me most with is anxiety. I was diagnosed with general and social anxiety disorders as a teenager, and alongside therapy and a short period of medication, bibliotherapy was one of the most valuable strategies to ease my anxiety.
For this post, I’ve had a look at the best research into bibliotherapy, especially in light of reading fiction for anxiety. Why do books make us feel better when we’re anxious, and how can we maximise their healing impact?
The act of reading is relaxing
“Reading was my escape and my comfort, my consolation, my stimulant of choice: reading for the pure pleasure of it, for the beautiful stillness that surrounds you when you hear an author’s words reverberating in your head.”Paul Auster, The Brooklyn Follies
Firstly, the actual act of reading itself can help with anxiety. When you’re feeling anxious, it can be difficult to focus on one thing and just relax, but reading a compelling book can distract you from the world and your worries. Reading forces us to sit still, slow down, and pay attention.
In research carried out in 2009 to measure the effects of yoga, humour, and reading on the stress levels of students in health science programs in America, it was reported that just 30 minutes of reading lowered blood pressure, heart rate, and feelings of psychological distress just as effectively as yoga and humour did.
If you feel that you’re too busy to read for 30 minutes every day, don’t worry: research at the University of Sussex found that reading for just 6 minutes has the power to reduce stress levels by a huge 68%.
Reading can be especially soothing when we re-read our favourite books. Sometimes the process of choosing a new book to read can mean a new source of stress, but absorbing ourselves in a story we know well offers a quick route to comfort and mental rest.
You can escape reality for a while
“When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life, you plunge deeper into it. There may be a superficial escape – into different countries, mores, speech patterns – but what you are essentially doing is furthering your understanding of life’s subtleties, paradoxes, joys, pains and truths. Reading and life are not separate but symbiotic.”Julian Barnes, A Life with Books
At the University of South Australia, PhD candidate Elizabeth Wells is carrying out some fascinating research into the power of reading fiction during difficult times. In particular, Wells is exploring the benefits of bibliotherapy for cancer patients, delivered as a read-aloud program.
Wells, who is also a qualified librarian, shared that: “There is something to be said for losing yourself in a book and escaping reality for a while, particularly for people who are facing some very tough battles, including painful health conditions”.
You can better understand your feelings – and develop tools to deal with them
“I spent my life folded between the pages of books. In the absence of human relationships I formed bonds with paper characters. I lived love and loss through stories threaded in history; I experienced adolescence by association. My world is one interwoven web of words, stringing limb to limb, bone to sinew, thoughts and images all together. I am a being comprised of letters, a character created by sentences, a figment of imagination formed through fiction.”Tahereh Mafi, Shatter Me
A small 2022 study with Turkish high school students suggested that reading fiction might reduce symptoms of anxiety by promoting awareness of our feelings and improving problem-solving skills.
By identifying with fictional characters going through the same challenges as ourselves, we can observe their way of dealing with them and develop our own.
One 2021 paper from Front Public Health shares how it is well-known that literature, as a reflection of human existence, leads us to reflect on ourselves and our environment. The researchers add that:
“[Literature] possesses the richness of confronting individuals with their emotions, values, feelings, and conflicts. It is also a way of helping individuals express, live, and solve these. It is an intrinsic character of literature to serve as therapy, catharsis, and cure for any conflict that disrupts our existence, and that is why human beings have always resorted to it (and, of course, also to the arts) in some way as the best medicine for life.”
Books remind us that we’re not alone
“By comparing what you’ve done to what others have done, and your thoughts and theories and feelings to those of others, you learn about yourself and the world around you. Perhaps that is why reading is one of the few things you do alone that can make you feel less alone; it’s a solitary activity that connects you to others.”Will Schwalbe, The End of Your Life Book Club
One of the hardest parts of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression can be feeling like you’re alone in facing them. However, books are windows into human experience, and everything we face can be found in a book somewhere. Fiction offers proof that you’re not the only one suffering, and offers a helping hand to get through it.
Front Public Health shared in 2021 that bibliotherapy involves three phases: identification, catharsis, and insight. The researchers explain: “First, the reader creates a bond with the character with whom they identify most; then, this character encounters a conflict and resolves it; and finally, the reader, having experienced the conflict of the character through the text, reflects on personal circumstances and internalizes some behaviors represented in the book that will serve as tools to resolve their own conflicts.”
Similarly, one 2022 study from Japan looked at how reading fiction might help people experiencing hikikomori, or a type of social withdrawal. According to its findings, participants who read fictional narratives reported feeling less emotional stress and more empathy.
Therapy is often an important part of treatment for anxiety, and many other tactics are just companion strategies. That said, reading fiction should absolutely be celebrated as one of the most accessible tools to ease anxiety. Even in remote areas, reading and bibliotherapy can be accessed via libraries, access to free audiobooks and ebooks via library apps like Libby, ebooks, low-cost books, and our own bookshelves.
You don’t have to hire a therapist (or bibliotherapist) to reap the mental health benefits of reading a good book. Reading for leisure and seeking out good books as a hobby can be one of the best tools for self-care, mental wellness, and living well.
To top up your reading list, here are 15 of the best books to read when you have anxiety. You might also like my recommendations of the most relaxing books to calm your mind and soothe your soul.
Enjoy more from me
- Retreat into my new book, Your Life in Bloom: Finding Your Path and Your Courage, Grounded in the Wisdom of Nature.
- I'm also the author of Mountain Song: A Journey to Finding Quiet in the Swiss Alps, a book about my time living alone by the mountains.
- If you love books, are feeling a little lost right now, and would love some gentle comfort and guidance, join The Sanctuary, my seven-day course to rebalance your life.