Sydney Timmins is a writer and founder of the Mental Health Book Club Podcast. She is a mental ill health survivor after being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, anxiety, and depression, as well as fighting relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis. For National Book Lovers Day, here are her top eight mental health benefits of reading.

As the founder of the Mental Health Book Club Podcast it would be no surprise to anyone that I love books. Thin books, thick books, colourful books picture books, e-books… I don’t discriminate. 

Today is National Book Lovers Day, an annual event celebrating reading and books. To celebrate, here are my top eight mental health benefits of reading:

1. Reading is pleasurable

When you start to read a really good book it is often hard to put it down, the story captivates you and time disappears as you become absorbed. When you reach the end, you feel sad because it is over, or you are so eager to get the next book in the series you are emailing the author daily! It is a magical feeling and choosing to read a book can provide a number of other benefits.

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2. Reading can reduce stress

Losing yourself in a good book has been shown to reduce your levels of stress. Research by Dr David Lewis showed that reading as little as six minutes a day can reduce stress levels by 60% by reducing your heart rate, easing muscle tension and altering your state of mind. That same study showed that reading was better at reducing stress than music, drinking a cup of tea, going for a walk and playing video games.

When I mentioned this to my tea obsessed co-host Becky Lawrence about reading being better at reducing stress than tea her reply made me laugh – she asked if she could have books and tea at the same time? Because maybe in combination they would beat all of her stress. Well I guess that is something for her to experiment with!

3. Reading can provide an escape from the 'real world'

Closely linked to reducing stress levels when you read is the ability to escape from the real world. I did this a lot as a child as a coping mechanism to dealing with the emotional hurt I experienced from my family. I often become immersed in that world and helped me to forget my worries. Research has shown that escapism is more complex than just reading for light-hearted entertainment, but it did show that people found the process transformative changing the way people interact with the world and others.

4. Reading helps you develop empathy for others

People who read fiction have been shown to improve your level of empathy, the ability for you to understand someone else’s belief’s, feelings and thoughts. Known as the theory of mind.

Research has shown that people exposed to fiction predicted the results of an empathy task and even positively correlated with social support (but remember correlation does not mean causation!). Further research into the impact of fiction on empathy showed that it was temporarily enhanced after reading fiction.

5. Reading works your brain and prevents memory loss

Participating in cognitive activities, such as reading over your life time (both early and later in life) was shown to slow down memory loss when compared to those who didn’t participate in mentally stimulating activities. The same study also found that the rate of mental decline was reduced by 32% when people participated in reading, writing and other activities later on in life. While those with infrequent stimulating activity found that their decline was 48% faster than those with average activity.

6. Reading groups help to treat mental health issues

My default for when I’m feeling low is to read but there is actually scientific research that shows that reading and then talking about what you have read could be beneficial to mental health and well-being. There is something called bibliotherapy and it has a profound effect on people suffering with depression. Liverpool Health Inequalities Research Institute examined a two weekly reading group program for people diagnosed with depression over a 12-month period and reported a significant improvement to mental health. Participants reported improved concentration, better emotional understanding, increased self-awareness, and the ability to discuss meaningful issues related to self and being.

7. Reading helps teenagers develop insights into being an adult

Becoming an adult can be tricky – a lot of things change during this time and exploring self-identity is crucial. Research has shown that reading for pleasure in teenagers has three key benefits, reading was shown to enhance academic performance, social engagement and personal development. Fiction helped teens by providing significant insights into mature relationships, personal values and cultural identity all of which are important in the transition from being a child to becoming an adult.

8. Reading can make you smarter

I often feel smarter after reading books, I learn new things, experience different cultures, understand myself better and research has shown that reading does in fact make us smarter. Cognitive differences have been seen between those who read a lot and those who read a little. People who are exposed to more written information are associated with higher vocabulary, general knowledge, and verbal skills.

If you are looking to reduce your stress, educate yourself, become more empathetic and even smarter than you currently are then the Mental Health Book Club Podcast currently has reviews and recommendations on over 20 fiction and non-fiction books portraying mental health issues, expertly backed up by The Secret Psychiatrist and her professional knowledge.

We believe that mental health is important to everyone in society.

We believe that it is okay not to be okay.

We believe that books and media have a profound impact about how we see the world.

So, we created the MHBC podcast looking at books, media and speaking to people who think mental health is important identifying books that represent people in a positive and realistic way supporting the mental health community.

You can follow Sydney Timmins on Twitter, and listen to the Mental Health Book Club podcast on their website.

Click here for more details on our mental health workplace training and improving your self-care