How do you unwind after a manic day in school? You might listen to music or go for a walk – but research shows that reading a book is the most effective way to relieve stress. Picking up a good book every day might even add years to your life, finds Carly Page
There is little that compares with the stress of having a lesson completely fall apart at the seams – with even your most fail-safe behaviour management strategies somehow, er, failing – when the head of department is right in the middle of his learning walk, and you have a performance review just two weeks away.
Yes, stress is something that teachers are all too familiar with.
Luckily, there are plenty of options for counteracting classroom stress, many of which have become easier to find time for during this recent period of lockdown – be it taking a long walk, meditating or, perhaps best of all, curling up with a really good book. Teachers are forever telling students about the benefits of reading for pleasure, so it would make sense that reading would be a good way for teachers to unwind, too.
But is there any proof that reading is relaxing? Just because something is pleasurable, does that mean it can cancel out the stress of the day? What does science have to say on the matter?
According to a 2009 study from the University of Sussex, entitled Galaxy Stress Research, reading is one of the best activities to help you relax.
The research found that reading was 68 per cent better at reducing stress levels than listening to music, 100 per cent more effective than drinking a cup of tea, and 30 per cent better than going for a walk. What’s more, the study found that reading for as little as six minutes is sufficient to reduce stress levels by 60 per cent, slowing your heartbeat, easing muscle tension and altering your state of mind.
Dr David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist and founder of Mindlab International, co-authored the study.
"We gave people options to work off their stress; one was listening to music, one was going for a walk, one was sitting quietly meditating, and the last one was reading. We measured the changes in their body and their brain activity, and we found that of these various ways of relaxing, reading was the most satisfactory,” Lewis says.
This is because, when reading a good book, your mind is distracted from daily stresses and worries that create tension, causing it to enter an “Alpha” state, which refers to being focused or in a resting zone, he explains.
The proof doesn’t stop there, though. It seems that reading is so effective at reducing stress levels that it can even improve your health. Another study, conducted by the Yale University School of Public Health, found that reading a book for 30 minutes a day added two years to the average person’s life, while research from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago discovered that reading could slow the onset of dementia.
Does that mean that adding years to your life could be as simple as picking up that nail-biting, true-crime page-turner that has been gathering dust on your bedside table? Not quite. How relaxed you feel completely depends on what you’re reading. According to Lewis, you have to be reading something that engages you. Work-related material, or something that is complex or disturbing, can lead to higher levels of stress.
"You have to develop ‘flow’, which refers to time passing without you being aware of it,” Lewis explains. “It has to be absorbing and consuming. What a book is doing, at least when it’s compelling, is it’s producing a sense of alternate state in the brain.
"It’s creating a whole range of images and pictures in your brain, and that’s when you become most relaxed.”
His research has also found that reading a familiar book is more relaxing. “When you’re reading a book where you’re familiar with the author, it’s like putting on a pair of comfortable slippers,” he says.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to this, though, because it very much depends on your range of interests. “I know students that have been absorbed in books about mathematics,” Lewis says.
For most people, however, it makes sense to avoid your favourite news app if you are looking to relax. Dr Deborah Lee, a consultant clinical psychologist, points out that news can be potentially stress-inducing reading material at the best of times – and particularly when the world is in the grip of a pandemic.
"Unfortunately, reading the news can increase stress,” she says. “Newspaper headlines bombard us daily with a wide range of stressful life events. This has been shown to increase population anxiety.”
So, the literature you choose can have an effect on how relaxed you feel. Does the time of day make a difference?
Lewis doesn’t believe so. “Some people get totally absorbed in a book early in the morning when they’re commuting,” he says.
However, Dr Emer MacSweeney, consultant neuroradiologist at Re:Cognition Health, disagrees. She believes that the evening is the best time of day to indulge your inner bookworm, as the activity of reading is great at preparing both your mind and your body for sleep.
"Reading is very relaxing, helping the mind and body reduce stress, thus contributing to improved mental and physical health. As it also helps to promote sleep, it’s a great night-time ritual to unwind and prepare the mind and body for rest,” she says.
Lee, likewise, agrees that cosying up with a book in bed can be a really effective way of reducing stress.
"If you read regularly before you sleep, this helps to disengage the brain from your daily activities and promotes good quality sleep,” she says. “Regular bedtime reading has been shown to effectively reduce stress.”
However, their advice does come with a warning that paper books are better than electronic devices for reading before sleep. This is because the blue light emitted by the screens of some e-readers has been shown to interfere with the body’s production of the sleep hormone melatonin.
So, according to science, paper books are best; the material you are reading matters; and reading in bed might just be the most relaxing activity of all. But what if you are the type who draws a sense of calm from interacting with other people? Reading, of course, is a solitary activity. Will reading still be relaxing for you?
Experts suggest that for people craving a bit of socialisation along with their reading, taking part in a book club – in which people meet to discuss books they have read – can also be a useful way to unwind.
"It creates accountability, and being around other humans, communicating a shared interest, is very positive for the psyche, especially after this period of lockdown,” says Nick Davies, a psychotherapist and hypnotherapist who specialises in stress.
Lee, too, believes that book clubs offer many positive health benefits and says she has seen evidence that these can work even during this period of lockdown. “Book clubs have proved increasingly popular, even in lockdown, and many have continued online with Zoom and Microsoft Teams,” she says. “For example, an audiobook club for a small group of cancer patients showed positive experiences from attentive listening and involvement with the group.”
On the other hand, Lewis warns that attending a book club – be it physically or virtually – may cause your stress levels to spike, particularly if you’re gathering with opinionated and argumentative people.
"If you’re taking part in a book club and you’re making criticism or critical comments, it’s likely to generate more high-level frequencies in the brain. People generally become more alert,” he says.
Regardless of whether you discuss what you have read with others or not, the overall evidence that reading does help you to relax is mounting up. In fact, experts believe that the proof is so compelling, we should be encouraging children to read for pleasure from an early age.
"We should encourage reading. It’s a great way of escaping from the world, and also acquiring knowledge,” says Lewis. “Children get lost in stories just as much as adults.”
Lewis adds that, as well as enabling children to escape from their day-to-day realities, picking up a book brings the added bonus of helping to improve their focus and concentration. “Our ability to concentrate on anything for any length of time is diminishing because everything is happening so quickly, but when a book absorbs you, it is increasing your ability to focus and concentrate because you’re eager to get to the end of the story,” he says.
Davies agrees with this. “Reading helps you to explore so many things in the mind; as a hypnotherapist, I take people to many wonderful places. They often feel like they’ve really been there, and books do the same. Plus, a book can give you the condensed learning of so many wonderful, intelligent well-travelled people.”
Right now, it’s more important than ever to find some time to relax, and the evidence shows that diving into a page-turning novel – even if it’s just for a few minutes each day – could just be the best way to do it.
When it comes to reading for pleasure, then, it seems that teachers may have been right all along.
Carly Page is a freelance journalist
This article originally appeared in the 7 August 2020 issue under the headline “Tes focus on…Reading for relaxation”
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