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Yes, Reading Actually Improves Mental Health

Reading has been scientifically proven to be beneficial to mental health. It can affect the brain in massive ways that not only prove to keep it healthy, but can elevate our cognitive function.

It is the moment that you drop onto the sofa after a hectic workday and immerse yourself in Khalid Hosseini's bestseller for 20 minutes and breathe a sigh of relief. It's burying yourself under your blanket, prying open Born a Crime, desperately wanting to know how Trevor Noah’s Prom date went before you go to bed. It's the two minutes spent with Heathcliff in the Yorkshire Moors of Wuthering Heights, as you wait for the water to boil between Zoom meetings.

Reading is one of the greatest joys in life, it is also a way to deal with difficult moments, from grief to recent relationship issues and integrating into life during a lockdown.

Jumping into a fascinating book with dynamic characters, an engaging background, and beautiful prose that draws us into the plot provides tremendous relief, especially when seasonal depression begins to appear. We all remember what the Nairobi winter did to us; thank goodness that’s over.

The world of bibliophiles (yes, that’s the scientific term for bookworms, don’t be nasty), has something for everyone. If fiction is not your cup of tea, there are autobiographies, self help and motivational books, poetry.

Reading for as little as 6 minutes of a day can improve sleep quality, reduce stress, and enhance our mental capacity, while also reducing the heart rate and blood pressure. Reading is basically taking our brains to the gym. The brain is a muscle, and just like any other muscle in the body, it needs exercise to stay healthy. Just as the gym is a form of exercise to strengthen the body, reading is a form of exercise to strengthen the brain. Having to pay attention and follow the words drastically improves the brain’s memory capacity. It can also boost vocabulary, thereby leading to better conversation skills, which greatly enhances communication. Excellent communication skills are an essential requirement in the job market and in everyday life.

Through reading, we are given the ability to empathize and participate in various stories beyond our own life experiences, providing us with compassion. This generally leads to stronger relationships and shared understanding.

One of the most important aspects of staying healthy, both physically and mentally, is a solid night’s sleep. Through sleep, our bodies reset and rejuvenate themselves to deal with the following day. But that’s easier said than done. Your brain can refuse to shut off, and before you know it, your alarm is ringing, and you haven’t slept a wink. Incorporating reading into your routine before bedtime can get you a good night’s rest. Putting down your phone and picking up a book can relax you before you get some shut eye. And we mean an actual book. With actual pages, and not a tablet or kindle, whose brightness can hinder you from sleeping.

Many people avoid reading or don’t see it as a form of personal care. They think back to the dull books they were assigned to read in school and remember being bored out of their minds as they begrudgingly flipped the pages. After working all day, taking care of the family, and dealing with daily stress, they may not have a lot of energy to sit and read.

The good news is, there is actual scientific proof that reading is very beneficial to our mental health. A study published by the University of Liverpool  discovered that "challenging language" can send "rocket boosters" to our minds and help elevate our brain functionality.

In the journal Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, a study was conducted involving 96 patients with mild depression. Compared with the control group that did not receive literature therapy, the researchers found that those who did receive the literature therapy improved their depressive symptoms. The New School of Social Studies in New York found that reading fiction books can develop what is called “Theory of Mind”, which is our ability to empathize with others and understand that other people's beliefs and desires are different to ours.

There is even evidence that as an avid reader you can enjoy a longer life. A 2016 study from the Yale School of Public Health found that, compared to people who aren’t regular readers, keen readers had a 20% lower risk of death over 12 years.

Improved cognitive function, reduction in stress, better sleep, and a longer lifespan? It is time to embrace the nerd within.

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