Mental health and wellbeing is very close to our hearts, and while we truly aim to have an always-on approach to covering all aspects of mental health, we have chosen to shine an extra bright light on #WorldMentalHealth today, and for the rest of October.
We bring you The Big Burn Out — a content series made up of honest personal essays, expert advice and practical recommendations.
My brain and emotions run on overdrive early in the morning before the sun has fully risen, all throughout the day, and (my personal favourite) in the middle of the night. I'm a Type A perfectionist. I'm also highly anxious. But most importantly, I am a hardcore book-lover. Oddly enough, all of these things are connected to my anxiety. On the extreme side, my anxiety can result in panic attacks. On a more regular basis, I spend large portions of the day keeping my anxiety at a low simmer rather than letting it boil over; and this simmer is something I have to actively work to maintain hour by hour, minute by minute.
Books are my happy place; reading is a solace when everything else feels scary.
It's exhausting, but for myself and many others, it's the way it is. I've tried various methods of dealing with my anxiety, from exercise and diet changes to lifestyle adjustments, meditation, medication, breathing techniques . . . you name it, I've done it. Many of these tactics have had varying amounts of success, but at the end of a long day, I often still feel drained and anxious. I noticed that the one method that has worked time and again in relaxing my mind and body also happens to be something I actively enjoy and would do regardless of what exciting new heights my anxiety has reached at the time: reading.
Unaware of the term "bibliotherapy," I've been practising a method of easing anxiety that consistently works for me without even realising it. The concept of bibliotherapy is pretty much what it sounds like. More recently it's been discussed in regards to Alain De Botton's company called School of Life, which has a bibliotherapy program. The site describes the service as one to "guide you to life-changing, eye-opening but often elusive works of literature, both past and present, the books that truly have the power to enchant, enrich and inspire." According to The Huffington Post, the company employs people to make reading recommendations "based on a consultation in which patients discuss their lives, their concerns and their reading histories." Can books make us happier? According to bibliotherapy and probably every book-lover on the planet, the answer is a resounding "yes".
This can also mean that reading can help ease anxiety. In my case, reading does this in a major way. Using a loose interpretation of the term "bibliotherapy" to describe treating books as my own form of self-medication (the good kind!), I've discovered that one of the few ways I can find peace and truly relax is with a novel in hand. Here's how books can help people coping with anxiety disorders.
Getting lost in another world takes your mind off your anxiety.
My mental state can have a very real effect on my physical state, so the more my mind spins out of control with worry and fear, the more likely my body will follow. Reading keeps these negative thoughts at bay and allows me to focus my energy on something positive instead. Books take me to another time and another place, and for fantasy-lovers like me, reading takes me to entire other worlds. I'm able to lose myself in those universes, and for a time, I'm able to divorce my physical state of being in the real world from my mental state. This separation is an absolute relief to those who constantly feel trapped by their own negative thoughts and feelings.
Books can ground you.
Part of feeling anxious is feeling like everything is out of your control. Despite the fact that reading fiction means immersing yourself in a world that isn't necessarily real, books can be oddly grounding for me. They are a solid, tangible thing in my hands that promise only good things. They are not threatening. They offer a sense of comfort when everything else feels like it's spiralling.
They help you feel connected to others.
Anxiety has the nasty effect of making those who suffer from it feel terribly isolated. Books, on the other hand, connect us all together, with their characters and the lives we live through them, through the cultures and worlds we experience as we read, and with the people who love the literature as much as we do. You don't feel so alone knowing that because of a book, you are a part of something way bigger than yourself, and others are a part of it with you.
Reading is a form of meditation.
I hate yoga. I spend the entire session inside my own head, working myself up, until all pretences at finding my calm, happy place fly out the window. Same goes for traditional forms of meditation for me; in general, they are counter-productive and leave me feeling more anxious and, on top of everything, like I've failed at something. Reading, on the other hand, quiets my swirling, nagging, oppressive thoughts. Books are my happy place; reading is a solace when everything else feels scary. Settling down and diving into a good novel is the metaphorical process of wrapping oneself in a protective cocoon and shutting out all of the dangers from the outside world. It's peaceful and calm. Most importantly, it's safe — and anyone who deals with anxiety knows what a special and elusive thing that sense of safety can be.