Does Reading Decrease Stress?

By Neha N., Grade 9

Seeing that finals season and AP exams are right around the corner, a lot of high school students have been feeling a lot more stressed out than is probably healthy. In these kinds of stressful situations, where there seems to be way too much work to be done with not enough time to do it, we may feel a pressure to be constantly studying or working on our projects. We often make an unconscious assumption that overworking ourselves to the limit is the most responsible thing to do, since constantly studying seems like the most direct way to see the results we seek. But the reality is that by constantly working, we’re doing ourselves a disservice. Instead of pushing ourselves too far, we should try to invest a little time into small daily choices- for example reading each day, since it has been proven to provide benefits to mental health. Even though we may not think reading is useful to us at all, it provides more benefits than we think, just in an indirect way. 

 First of all, reading is fun and calming. Although we may not want to pick up a book at first, once we barely begin to get lost in a story, our stress levels can start to reduce. Just reading for as little as six minutes every day can be shown to reduce one’s stress levels by as much as 60%, as shown through research by Dr. David Lewis. Just by investing a couple minutes into reading every day, we can clear our heads and therefore improve our efficiency at working in a healthy way, without stressing ourselves out. And although one may be more inclined to relax through other activities, like taking a walk or playing video games, the study by Dr. Lewis also compared reading to these activities and saw that reading produced a greater effect, through just a couple minutes each day. 

But reading has other benefits that stretch way beyond just calming us down. There is evidence to show that reading actually has effects on memory retention and the rate of mental decline through our whole lives. If one gets into a habit of reading at an early age, a Neurology Journals study shows that that individual’s risk of mental decline decreased by 32% when they engage in such cognitive activities (or even activities such as writing!). The same study showed that the people who participated in these stimulating activities less frequently than average were 48% more likely to experience mental decline later in their life than those who participated in an average amount of stimulating activity throughout their life. 

We don’t even have to read “educational” texts or nonfiction to unlock mental benefits, if we don’t want to. Reading fiction and reading for pleasure are also extremely important for mental health. A study published in the Journal of Research in Personality showed that those who make a habit of reading fiction often are associated with having enhanced social ability over those who engaged more frequently in nonfiction. There are a couple reasons why this may be. The main reason written in the study is that although both fiction and nonfiction texts can both challenge our understanding mentally, fiction is rooted in imagination, and not rooted in the truth and therefore when we engage with the imaginative plots, our brains have to work harder to connect the storyline to our own experiences and ideas in real life. However, nonfiction doesn’t present that same challenge because it’s rooted in the truth and doesn’t involve the same amount of imagination. Therefore, it is a lot easier to connect nonfiction back to our own lives and experiences. In that sense, reading fiction pieces is much more similar to reading the people around us- people that we don’t know and therefore have to work hard to build empathy and connections with. This explanation also aligns with the other finding of the Journal of Research in Personality study, which is that people who read fiction generally perform higher on empathy tests than those who choose not to read often. 

Reading every day should be viewed as something that’s beneficial to our health, not something that’s done frivolously for fun or from being forced to open “educational” texts. After seeing the numerous health benefits that it provides to us, such as improved stress levels, better comprehension and boosted memory, as well as helping us with empathy and imagination, it seems like a no brainer that we should all be trying our very best to set aside just a couple spare minutes of time each day to open up a book and get lost in a story. We don’t even have to be reading the long, nonfiction texts that are commonly associated with high intelligence (although those are definitely healthy for the brain to process too!). Any literature, from newspapers to dystopias is useful to our brains. Even reading shallow books for pleasure frequently can help us manage ourselves in the midst of our stressful lives, and are a great alternative to video games or other modes of relieving our stress. Through developing habits of reading frequently, we have numerous opportunities to practice our comprehension, retention, imagination, connection, focus, and empathy. So the next time you feel overwhelmed by the chaos of life, I’d encourage you to clear your head and invest in your further health by simply picking up a book.