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How Reading Can Curtail Anxiety
Tracy Shawn --Novelist, Speaker Tracy Shawn --Novelist, Speaker
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Central Coast, CA
Friday, January 22, 2021



Tracy Shawn

Woman Reading Book

Reading, can indeed, reduce anxiety. But why? Stories provide an escape from our personal stressors and worries as well as a much-needed respite from world and local news. And reading not only offers an affordable and assessable break (it’s also a lot healthier than stress eating and binge drinking), it can also increase compassion.

On a deeper level, too, reading a novel can provide a psychological shot of courage. Renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell explains that when readers follow the journey of a main character, they’re able to empathize with the protagonists’ struggles and rejoice in their triumphs. Journalist Bill Moyers also points out that everyday people (“who may not be heroes in the grand sense of redeeming society”) still relate to a main character’s transformation, giving even the most fearful and anxiety ridden of us hope.

The concept that reading can reduce anxiety and increase mental health is nothing new. Etched over the door of the ancient library in Thebes was the phrase: “Healing place for the soul.” And in 1916, Presbyterian minister Samuel M. Crothers coined the phrase bibliotherapy (a combination of the Greek words for therapy and books). Among the many examples of bibliotherapy practices, both Britain and the U.S. set up libraries in hospitals during the First World War, where librarians used reading to aid in the recovery of soldiers dealing with physical as well as mental trauma.

Readers, too, intuitively feel the mental health benefits of stories. People are often tweeting, posting, and blogging about how reading helps them cope with anxiety, worry, and stress—as well as providing a healthy escape from reality. I personally, too, have learned that reading eases my anxiety—especially when I wake up in the middle of the night with those awful what-if’s!

Now science is proving mythologists, librarians, and readers right. A study at Emory University has shown that novel reading enhances connectivity in the brain as well as improving brain function. Lead author of the study and neuroscientist Professor Berns is quoted on the university’s eScienceCommons blog on December 17, 2013 as saying, “The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist.” Berns also noted that the neural changes weren’t just immediate reactions, but persisted mornings after the reading periods as well as for five days after the participants completed a novel.


Looking at both scientific and anecdotal evidence, stories in which a reader cares about the protagonist’s struggles and triumphs may help more than books with characters that readers don’t connect with (which, of course, is subjective). A psychologytoday.com  piece titled “Bibliotherapy: Using Books to Help and Heal” (published on 10/01/19), also states that even though fiction is the traditional genre used in bibliotherapy, self-help books, biographies, memoirs, short stories, and even comic books can help people cope with difficult circumstances.


As noted at the beginning of this piece, reading also provides a positive—and much-needed break—from the news. And, although it’s important to keep ourselves informed, it’s easy to obsess and re-listen to the same news we already digested. This obsession cycle can make us lose perspective, which can further cloud judgement while increasing anxiety and depression.

Lastly, reading can also help one feel less alone and more connected. As author James Baldwin (1924-1987) wrote: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

Tracy Shawn, M.A.

Author and speaker Tracy Shawn lives on the Central Coast of California. Her debut novel, The Grace of Crows (Cherokee McGhee, 2013), won awards for Indie fiction, including the 2013 Jack Eadon Award for Best Book in Contemporary Drama and Second Place for General Fiction from Reader Views. She’s written numerous articles for print and online publications and has had three short stories published in literary journals. Ms. Shawn is currently revising her second novel. You can visit her website at: www.tracyshawn.com and follow her on Twitter at @TracyShawn

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