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The psychological benefits of reading

I was incredibly fortunate to have been introduced to books from a very young age. Not only did books allow me the space to dream, escape and be creative, they became a companion and a source of great consolation for me at different times in my life.

With an ever-increasing tendency for people to be glued to their phones or other devices, it’s easy to be pulled away from the reading of literature for simple pleasure. However, escaping into a good book is not only enjoyable, it’s good for your wellbeing and mental health. To be more specific, here are some of the psychological benefits of reading:

Increases empathy – When reading, we’re immersed in the inner lives of the characters being portrayed, allowing us the opportunity to experience the world through the eyes of the narrator. This exposes us to different beliefs, thoughts and feelings which may be rather new to us. Over time, this continued exposure enables us to better understand and empathise with people we encounter throughout our lives.

Helps us navigate complex or painful experiences – Reading exposes us to a range of scenarios, experiences and information which we may not encounter regularly, or at all, in our daily lives. This triggers different thoughts and feelings, which we process as we read, or on reflection afterwards. Over time, such content is assimilated, helping us make sense of the world around us and adapt to new experiences in real-life. Reading is also a brilliant way to get people talking about sensitive subjects you, or someone else, may be struggling with.

Reduces stress and anxiety – Reading can put our minds in a meditative state, helping us feel more relaxed and serene. This is due to the experience of feeling immersed or fully engaged in what you’re reading, providing a sense of pleasure and taking us away from immediate concerns or tasks. Reading, therefore, can be an important part of our sleep routine, helping us fall asleep more easily.

Helps us solve problems – Researchers believe that mentally transporting ourselves away from our daily physical environment provides an escape, thus opening us up for meaningful reflection and perspective. This is particularly useful when going through periods of intense stress or difficulty, where constant thinking doesn’t seem to be providing a solution to the problems you’re facing. In fact, neuroimaging studies found that participants who read more fiction had greater activation in parts of the brain associated with perspective-taking when reading content related to social issues.

Improves mental functioning – Research has shown that reading as part of a small group helped alleviate depression, reduce cognitive and emotional symptoms in dementia patients, and enhance psychological and cognitive functions in patients experiencing psychosis. These results suggest that reading has important benefits for the general population in terms of brain functioning.

Reduces feelings of isolation – Reading about people and their experiences, albeit fictional, can result in identification with the characters and what they may be going through. When feeling alone or unable to speak about challenges you are facing, reading may provide much comfort and consolation.

Keeping in mind that reading in childhood is associated with increased reading as an adult, it’s important we introduce children to reading from as young an age as possible. Making the experience of story-telling an enjoyable one helps children to develop positive associations with reading. This is not only an opportunity to enjoy fiction, but it can improve the bond between caretaker and child, as well as the numerous educational, developmental and emotional benefits reading to children provides.

I know most parents and caregivers are very busy and may find it difficult to prioritise reading regularly to their children. Nevertheless, I’d like to provide you with some tips on how you can maximise the benefits of reading to your children:

Develop a routine – Set a time and space dedicated to reading to your children. This may be every evening at bed-time. If daily reading seems too ambitious, aim for weekend reading, whether it be after lunch, curled up on the sofa, or at bed-time. Once a routine sets in, the kids will start to look forward to this time.

Remove distractions – Children will become distracted and frustrated if the reading is interrupted with incoming messages or calls. Turn off the TV, place your phone on silent and remove any other distractions.

Make it fun – When I read to my nieces, I infuse the story with funny sound effects and voices for the different characters, which they find rather amusing. I quite enjoy it myself.

Encourage discussion – Books provide the opportunity to talk about real-life situations in ways which are age-appropriate. This helps children cope better with challenging situations, such as changing school, issues with friends, and so on. Don’t be scared to discuss issues with your child, whether it be mid-text or afterwards.

Involve the children as much as possible – Allow children to choose books which appeal to them. This will help them feel involved and enthusiastic about reading time.

Provide a positive example – There’s no better way to encourage reading than engaging in it yourself. Let your children know that you read and be careful to express how important this time together is for you, despite your many commitments. Parents who have a positive attitude towards reading will most likely pass this on to their children.

Danjela Falzon - Malta therapy clinic

About Danjela Falzon

Danjela has been practising as a Psychotherapist since 2011, having read for a BSc in Psychology at Birkbeck, University of London, followed by a Masters in Gestalt Psychotherapy at GPTIM. She works therapeutically with individuals, adopting an approach which is warm and empathic, yet direct and challenging when necessary. She also works with groups, teaching mindfulness and providing support and guidance to reduce stress and anxiety.

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