How Reading Fiction Can Boost Your Mental Health

Published on 1/27/2021

The best habit I ever built for myself was to make reading a substantial part of my daily routine. To ensure that every day, I had fifteen minutes (at least) spent with my nose deep in a book. This habit has given me back my love for reading, one that carried me through a difficult childhood and adolescence, one that gave me relief when my mental illness threatened to drown me.

Books have always been my safe place, even when it felt like the rest of the world was pitted against me. I lived with an undiagnosed personality disorder for years, struggling to keep going when it felt like my mind was no longer my own. Once, when I came too close to ending the struggle, I had the stupidest thought. I realised that if my life ended today, I would never know how the book I was reading would end.

Looking back this feels like a ridiculous thought, but I wasn’t just talking about the tattered paperback on my bedside table. I would never know how my story would end if I cut it short and ripped out the remaining chapters.

Reading was my sole companion in a lonely childhood, and to this day, reading is a moment of joy that I dedicate to myself. Reading fiction has so many benefits for your mental health, including escapism, reflection and the chance to address stigmatised issues. Here are all the ways in which reading can help your mental health.

1. Escapism

Beneath the perfect exterior of my family, there were cracks that ran deep. From a young age, I became independent and an extreme perfectionist, this would later develop into a myriad of mental health issues. Loneliness ran deep in my veins for as long as I can remember, and so I found my escape in books. You could borrow three books at a time from the library, and I always did exactly that, lugging them home in my little schoolbag. I’ve never considered how much I owe to those school libraries and the wide variety they offered. The kind librarians who would come to know you by name and even order specific books with you in mind.

Books have helped people to escape for centuries now; they can take you far from the existence you lead. Your troubles cease to exist once you enter a novel, you get to enjoy renewed focus as you busy yourself with the life of another. They can be set in a different city, country or even world. A different time, whether in the past or future, or merely a different lifestyle to your own.

Fiction books allow you to take a break and soothe your soul; they give you an escape from your mental health struggles.

2. Order to the disorder

I was once writing a novel where the central character was slowly unravelling, her mind a mess of thoughts and memories, and I described her mind to be filled with a tangle of multicoloured yarn. I realised that she was me, and that yarn was precisely how my mind felt, with dozens of emotions, conflicting thoughts and traumatic memories weighing me down.

Books, even those on difficult topics, provide a sense of order to the world. A story that can be wrapped up within 100,000 words. They have a start, middle and end, even if they play with temporal settings within the novel. Books excuse the order that we may be missing in our own lives.

When the world around you feels complicated and overwhelming, you can find solace in the simple beauty of a story. You can watch characters find order or solve their own problems, giving you hope that the same may be possible in your life.

Finding meaning within texts is a satisfying relief, to work out the detective story before they do, to guess what could come. You place your focus on one story, and find yourself calming from the act.

My mind often does not make sense to me, but a story always will.

3. Reflection

Consider your favourite novel, the one that you always return to or the one that yielded the most emotions for you. Now think of the protagonist, or another central character, and consider whether they reminded you of yourself.

Last year, I read “Queenie” by Candice Carty-Williams and adored it, I felt physically hooked by the pages. I related so much to the character of Queenie, in how she sought comfort through others, placed her pleasure as secondary and slowly lost herself. Realising this highlighted the things I wanted, and needed, to change about myself. To watch her destroy herself and feel so powerless to help her, allowed me to see how others viewed me.

Our favourite characters can act like a mirror to our souls. We can see ourselves through an outside perspective, as well as gain the inside perspective to know where our story is going. It can provide you with the distance to reflect. Or it can simply highlight your strengths, and allow you to appreciate those more.

Rereading our favourite stories at different times in our life can also indicate our changes and growth. I first read “The Other Side of the Story” when I wasn’t even fifteen, and I think I loved it mainly due to the theme of book agents, as I wanted to be a published author one day. I adored the ambitious and robust character of JoJo. I have reread it a few times since, most recently last December, and I finally understood why I disliked Lily’s character so much. I was terrified to be her. I saw her as weak when, in reality, she was just scared and struggling. I realised that JoJo was everything I wanted to be, but also that I would never be her; I was the introvert to her extrovert.

There is a comfort in understanding yourself more, mainly since mental illness can make it challenging to do so. Reading fiction can allow us to meet so many characters that could share characteristics with us, as well as to see the possible outcomes to the story we’re living.

4. A Happy Ending is on the way

When struggling with mental health and mental illness, it is easy to feel like there is no end in sight. Your mind tells you that things will never get better, that you’re broken, that this is all you deserve. It’s hard to remind yourself that they’re wrong, and reading fiction can sometimes be a relief in this. Because sometimes we really just need a happy ending.

When my depression is at its heights, such as currently with new lockdown restrictions, I will often seek comfort in a novel. An easy novel; a cheesy, candyfloss, happy ending novel. I want to read something which I know will end well. The protagonist will achieve their goals, find the love of their life, and simply make it through. It makes me believe that maybe I will too.

People can be quick to diminish such novels; it’s true that they don’t contain the fanciest vocabulary or most gripping tale, but they give you comfort when you need it, they give you joy when it is sorely lacking. We should appreciate them for that, as they fulfil a human need with their words of possibility.

5. Address issues

Fiction novels often tackle darker subjects, ones that still feel difficult to discuss with others. Assault, addiction, depression, eating disorders, and more have all been captured by the literary pen. Reading about such topics can allow us to feel understood in our struggle, to realise that we are far from alone. Reading “Normal People” by Sally Rooney felt like exhaling, to the point that I cried simply because I felt less alone. She managed to portray depression in simple terms, getting to the core of the pain and struggle, and I had never read anything that captured my years of mental illness so vividly.

It can allow us to feel more understood, but also give others the chance to experience how it feels to be us. I gave my copy of “Normal People” to a friend, and afterwards, she messaged me a question. Is this really what depression feels like? I told her that Rooney had captured it quite accurately, and mentioned some of the similarities I shared with her characters. My friend expressed that she had never been able to imagine depression or the urge to self-harm until reading this novel and seeing it from a first-hand perspective.

6. Achievement

When suffering from a mental illness, you can find it difficult to accomplish things. You have reduced attention and focus, which leads to memory troubles. Some days even getting up can feel like a mountain looming over you.

I love that books can provide you with an easy win—the satisfaction of reaching “The End”, of adding another book to your list. You get to enjoy the sense of accomplishment that can be missing too often.

If you’re struggling to build habits and a routine that nourishes your mental health, reading can be a great place to start. One of my daily micro habits is to read for ten minutes before bed. It allows me to read more and cherish the pride of that, to avoid screens and distractions, and to sleep more soundly at night - all of which boost my mental health.

When struggling to get up in the morning, you can start by diving into a chapter of a fiction novel. Something that feels easier and less looming than other tasks, and will allow you to shape the day that follows. If you struggle with going to bed at a reasonable time, force yourself to read in the evening, and see sleep easily follow.

Reading will never cure your mental illness or completely transform your mental health, and I won’t claim such. But reading can be a great stepping stone to finding balance and joy in your days. It can provide you with a moment to yourself, without fearing time alone. It can nourish your soul more than rewatching a show or losing yourself in the comparisons of social media. I like to consider reading as a gift that I offer myself day after day, and one that I feel grateful for. Find the joy in reading, the one that fuelled you as a child or adolescent, and welcome it back into your life. These days, we sorely need that joy.

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Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.

Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.

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