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5 Ways Reading Improves Your Mental Health

From a young age, most of us have been encouraged to read by parents and teachers to expand our knowledge of the world and improve our language skills.  Whether you developed a love of reading as a child, lost touch with the literary world over time, or always found sitting down to read to be tedious and boring, developing a reading habit now can have many profoundly positive effects on your life.  For those that have never found reading enjoyable, it may be worth it to explore new options. There is a non-fiction book on nearly every imaginable topic, and everyone can find a fictional character with whom they relate. However, even with the right material, reading takes practice.  If it has been many years since you read a book cover to cover, you may have trouble focusing at first. Reading in like exercising a muscle, and over time your speed and comprehension will improve. Along with sharpening your mind, reading provides an impressive amount of mental health benefits.

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Here Are 5 Ways Reading Improves Your Mental Health

1. Finding Connection

Mental health has been shown to be strongly associated with relationship quality and human connection.  People who feel isolated, lonely, or cut off from the rest of the world are more likely to suffer from various mental health issues including depression and substance use disorders. While the suggested remedy for this disconnected state is usually to try new things and meet new people in the process, there may be a less anxiety-prone solution to be found in reading.  Reading can be a great stepping stone to the development of healthy relationships by allowing you to awaken your emotions and experience empathy. Research suggests that developing a relationship with fictional characters allows you to better understand the human experience and expand upon the ways in which you relate to people in real life.

2. Improving Mental Flexibility

When you read, you are forced to inhabit the mind of someone else and see people, concepts, and situations from a perspective outside of your own.  This is true of any reading, but fictional literature and poetry have been shown to be especially effective in challenging the mind and opening us up to new interpretations of reality.  One study found that the complex concepts often found in poetry stimulate the brain in a way that improves the reader’s ability to think outside the box. Fostering healthy mental flexibility allows you to problem-solve in new, creative ways, and can make behavioral changes and habit-breaking easier to achieve. 

3. Reducing Stress

Reading has been found to effectively lower stress levels after just thirty minutes.  It is important to choose something you enjoy that won’t trigger anxiety or overwhelming sadness to achieve this effect.  It can be relaxing to read about a hobby that interests you, but it can be equally as therapeutic to get lost in a cheesy romance novel.  Reading allows you to escape your own mind and live another life for a short time. You can travel, fall in love, go on adventures, and overcome great adversity from the comfort of your living room.  This imaginative escape can be a healthy way to distract yourself from the stress of daily life.  

4. Enhancing Cognitive Function

Reading has always been associated with intelligence, mostly because it is a great way to absorb and retain information.  But the act of reading alone has been shown in research to improve brain connectivity. Our brains form neurological connections as we learn and exercise our cognitive abilities, and these connections improve overall brain function.  Researchers theorize that reading allows us to mimic actual experience in our minds, providing us with the benefits of a character’s emotional growth and ability to overcome challenges without having to go through the experience ourselves.  The heightened connectivity found in the brain scans of readers has been shown to persist long after they put down the book. This enhanced cognitive performance likely has many positive implications for the mental health and the overall wellbeing of the reader.

5. Practicing Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a technique that has long been used by spiritual practitioners and more recently has been popularized in the medical field for the treatment of mental illness and general life improvement.  Practicing mindfulness means letting go of any worries or regrets involving the future or the past, and living entirely in the moment. Many people practice mindfulness through meditation or yoga, but reading has been found to provide a form of effortless mindfulness to the reader.  Reading allows you to lose yourself among the pages of a great story, or get wrapped up in learning new information about something that deeply interests you. When you are reading something you enjoy, you are anchored in the present moment and free of anxious thoughts. In this way, reading can be a great tool to combat anxiety and depression. Mental health struggles are common among those battling addiction, and acquiring the right tools and coping mechanisms can allow you to find peace and fulfillment in a life of sobriety.

Dear Renewal Lodge Visitors,

My name is John Bruna, co-founder of the Mindfulness in Recovery® Institute, and more importantly, a grateful member of the recovery community. I am incredibly fortunate to have found my recovery in 1984. Of course, I did not achieve continuous recovery through willpower or my own efforts, but through the guidance and caring support of countless others that selflessly taught me how to live through the 12 Steps.

My journey of recovery brought this once homeless, shame-based, traumatized, insecure young man to a life far beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I discovered self-worth, the joy of helping others, the gifts of parenting and grandparenting, and most importantly the ability to live a meaningful and purposeful life with integrity.

One of the greatest gifts of recovery is that I have the opportunity to give back and help others discover their self-worth, dignity, and the skills to fully live lives that they find truly meaningful. This is the inspiration for developing the skills of Mindfulness in Recovery® (MIR) to meet the needs of new generations struggling with alcohol and other substance use disorders. MIR is a set of evidence-based skills designed to help people fully integrate their tools of recovery in ways that are personalized, practical, and in alignment with their deepest values.

While we train counselors and therapists throughout the United States and abroad, I personally have chosen to work directly with the amazing team and clients at Renewal Lodge to develop the model MIR 12-step program for the nation. I choose Renewal Lodge because of the vision of its mission and the dedication of its team. Renewal Lodge is an extremely rare environment in which the staff embodies the very mindfulness and 12-step practices and skills they offer their clients. The results have been beyond my expectations. It is an honor to be here and I treasure my personal time with every client I meet.

With Gratitude,

John Bruna
John Bruna
Director of Mindfulness